Last Thursday, I found myself glued to ESPN NBA Today’s special coverage of the NBA trade deadline. I would’ve had it on by default, since I was interested in seeing what was happening in the league and I knew that ESPN would be devoting airtime to it, but I was genuinely entertained by the studio show hosted by Malika Andrews and featuring Richard Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Chiney Ogwumike and Zach Lowe. I found it both fun and informative, just as I have whenever I’ve wandered onto NBA Today’s airings in the past. And as I was watching their panel deftly discuss all of the trades that had just taken place, I couldn’t help but ask myself a question I’ve been asking whenever I’ve watched them lately: why the hell isn’t this ESPN’s regular NBA halftime show?
It’s a question that needs to be considered because ESPN’s NBA halftime panel has to be one of the lamest, most universally reviled segments on all of television, much as it’s been for the bulk of the two decades that ESPN has had the rights to air NBA games. No one and I mean no one likes their panel of Mike Greenberg, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon and Jalen Rose, including people who normally like those personalities individually. ESPN’s halftime show is basically an industry laughing stock, as their panel has changed almost every single year for twenty years while their counterpart NBA panel at TNT is both beloved and has remained mostly unchanged during that time. And for all that change and for all that turnover, ESPN’s culmination after twenty years of panel-tinkering is still something that NBA fans vocally despise.
Which, again, makes it so strange that ESPN has stuck with their current halftime consortium when they have a perfectly viable, infinitely better alternative sitting right there in front of them in the form of NBA Today. The answer to their prayers has been airing everyday at 3PM on their own channel and yet they seem reluctant to embrace something that would undoubtedly be seen as a massive improvement – assuming they were actually given the room to be a real halftime show, that is, as ESPN has sometimes defaulted to barely giving their NBA panelists any time at all to actually discuss the game.
The funny thing too is that what works about NBA Today is line for line what doesn’t work about ESPN’s NBA halftime show. The biggest, most obvious difference is that the NBA Today show is oozing with chemistry. The panelists are constantly cracking jokes, bouncing thoughts, and playing off each other. When you watch it, you can tell that these people like each other and are comfortable around each other, and as a result, their mutual pairing comes off as both authentic and spontaneous.
Now compare that to ESPN’s halftime crew, which has all the fun and frivolity of watching four complete strangers file their taxes in an empty room. Whereas Malika Andrews brings an infectious enthusiasm to her hosting duties in which you can tell that she’s genuinely excited to be discussing basketball, Mike Greenberg is so overly-rehearsed and so temperamentally impassive that it’s hard to tell if he even likes basketball. There are never any real moments on ESPN’s halftime show, or small interactions where it feels like you’re watching real people who have their guard down and are actually enjoying what they’re doing. Rather, what you get is the three analysts – Smith, Wilbon and Rose – barking canned monologues at each other for a few minutes, with none of them ever responding or parrying off of each other in a way that feels natural. It’s funny too, because by all accounts, Greenberg, Smith, Wilbon and Rose have all been friends with each other for ages, and yet somehow, on television, they have so little chemistry with each other that you’d never even know it. Rather, their pairings radiate with the fake energy you normally find on local morning news programs. Anytime any of them laugh or smile or raise their voice, it feels rehearsed, and the whole time you’re watching them, you can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that none of them really want to be there.
Then there’s the value of what the two crews are producing. NBA Today is a more analytical set, which isn’t to say that Kendrick Perkins or Richard Jefferson aren’t capable of saying something wild from their gut once in a while, but that even if they do, they’re usually offset by someone else on the panel. The beauty of their panel being so large and diverse is that they’re always presenting multiple perspectives on what’s happening, and in particular, the presence of Zach Lowe is a boon as he’s great at providing nuts-and-bolts basketball analysis from a layman’s angle, which you rarely get to see on shows like this. More than anything, even though it’s not as stat-heavy or nerdy as it theoretically could be, NBA Today always feels engaged in its discussions; there’s never a point where it feels like their attention should be elsewhere, or where they’re watching a completely different sport than the rest of us.
Now compare that to ESPN’s NBA studio show, which has been routinely criticized for not even bothering to discuss the game that they’re ostensibly there to talk about. Segments that could be spent dissecting what’s happening in their matchup are routinely wasted on news stories from around the league that any halfway casual NBA fan has probably gotten sick of by now. When you watch ESPN’s halftime show, you never feel like you’re getting anything tangible out of it, because of their four personalities, three of them aren’t even ex-basketball players and the opinions they share – thanks to their lack of chemistry – don’t feel that connected at all. It comes across as a show that could be fulfilled by throwing any four random people at the screen and asking them to read from a prepared script. There’s truly nothing special or unique or interesting about what it serves you, and because all of its members are also the hosts of other daily ESPN shows and are dreadfully overexposed, it’s a little too easy to imagine them not even watching the games that they’re talking about.
What’s ironic, though, is that for all the changes that ESPN’s made to their halftime crew, it’s never strayed that far from being what it currently is. Stephen A. Smith, for example, has been an on-again-off-again member of it going all the way back to the 2003-04 season; Michael Wilbon first joined it for the 2006-07 season; and Jalen Rose began commentating on it during the 2012-13 season. In other words, ESPN has mostly spent the last twenty years cycling back and forth between the same damn people who viewers have never liked seeing together in the first place. It’s as though ESPN’s brass knows how much viewers loathe them all as NBA panelists and knows that the status quo is a disaster, but are so stuck on the groupthink concept that the biggest personalities on the channel must be a part of their NBA coverage that they keep falling back on the ones they know, even if it doesn’t alleviate the fact that their coverage royally sucks. ESPN’s halftime crew comes off as analogous to ESPN’s NBA coverage as a whole, which is that of a company that doesn’t respect the product they’re broadcasting and always acts like it has to compensate for it with Guys You’ve Heard Of in order to make people watch it. Greenberg, Smith, Wilbon and Rose might not be good together, but there’s no indication that the people in charge of ESPN care enough about the people watching their product to actually do something about it.
By promoting the NBA Today crew, ESPN would have a chance to finally, completely break free from the morass that’s been plaguing their coverage in different installments from the offset. If it was up to me, I would elevate their five regulars, keep it an ensemble cast with JJ Redick also in the mix, and forbid any of their present halftime panelists from ever having anything to do with it – and that goes double for Magic Johnson, who isn’t currently on their panel but never seems to be more than a year or two shy of rejoining it, since he is after all a big name and that’s the primary requirement necessary to be on their panel, apparently. And even though this new-look crew probably wouldn’t be as successful or adored as TNT’s halftime stable, it could serve as a more serious, more informative but still fun alternative to it, which basketball fans have only been clamoring for since 2002.
It’s time for ESPN’s management to understand that their NBA halftime show doesn’t need to be as good or flashy as Turner’s to be a success; it just needs to be better than anything the network has produced before. And if you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching Mike Greenberg lob questions to Stephen A. Smith, you know that’s not a high bar at all for NBA Today to clear.
Editorial note: This is a freelance article from a contributor. If you’re interested in writing for us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your pitch. The author can be reached @velodus. Some of his previous work can be found here.