ESPN was originally scheduled to broadcast Friday evening’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Then, LeBron James was sidelined indefinitely after entering the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Along with that is the fact that the Clippers don’t have Kawhi Leonard as he recovers from a torn ACL and the marquee game is missing its two most marquee names.
Now, couple that with the fact that Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns are also playing Friday night. The two hottest teams in the NBA are coming off an electric match-up on Tuesday as the Suns extended their 17-game winning streak with a 104-96 win that was watched by an average of 2.4 million viewers, the biggest audience for any non-Opening Night regular season TNT game since 2019 according to Turner Sports. You have to imagine that a rematch so soon after is going to draw eyeballs as well.
So ESPN did what you’d probably expect them to do. They decided to flex out the Lakers-Clippers game so that they could broadcast the Warriors-Suns rematch instead. While that might not be terribly shocking, it’s worth noting all the same as the NBA and Western Conference landscape shifts.
You usually don't see the Lakers getting swapped out of national TV games. But here it is. On Friday, ESPN will now broadcast the Warriors-Suns game instead of the Lakers-Clippers game
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) December 2, 2021
ESPN looking at an intracity matchup of LA teams and saying, “Nah, we’re good,” is such a referendum on this Lakers team. Even with LeBron out, even for Warriors/Suns, it’s still a pretty stunning message of the Lakers lack of appeal right now.
— Bill Oram (@billoram) December 2, 2021
There was, however, a bit of a twist on Thursday when James was reinstated immediately after it was determined that the previous test was a false positive. The development seems to confirm the meaning behind LeBron’s “fishy” tweet on Wednesday.
League statement on LeBron James pic.twitter.com/xUzMYa9EpW
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 2, 2021
LeBron James has been tested rigorously since returning to L.A. from Sacramento – he’s had eight Covid tests since Saturday, all of which have come back negative, sources told ESPN. His test in Sacramento was a false positive and James will return to the court Friday against LAC
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) December 2, 2021
Of course, that means that LeBron will be back in uniform on Friday when the Lakers take on the Clippers. ESPN has already made the decision to flex the Warriors-Suns game instead, but it does make you wonder if the knowledge that James would be in the lineup would have shifted their thinking.
Does knowing LeBron is playing outweigh the full impact of Warrior vs. Suns in the minds of ESPN viewers? Maybe not in this case, but, hard to know for sure.
For anyone thinking there’s some kind of conspiracy theory at work, it’s worth noting that LeBron and the Lakers will not be absent from national television all that much. In fact, more than half of the Lakers games this season will be available to the entire nation, so it’s not really something worth worrying about.
FYI: The Lakers are still scheduled to be on national television 42 times this season. The Lakers at Minnesota game will now be televised by ESPN with the game time changing to 7 p.m. PT.
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 3, 2021
Ultimately, it’s a good thing for the Suns and Warriors to get the rub as they’ve earned the spotlight for their epic play the last month. And the more storylines that carry into the Western Conference Playoffs, all the better for the NBA and fans.