How far has ESPN’s star fallen? It depends who you ask, though it’s hard—especially during these playoffs—to ignore the growing gulf between ESPN’s NBA Countdown and its TNT counterpart Inside the NBA, the latter representing the industry’s gold standard for studio shows.
In today’s media climate, nuanced, data-based analysis has become increasingly hard to come by, drowned out by the barely decipherable hysterics of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, among other purveyors of argument culture. With clickbait and viral soundbites serving as the new currency, the sports discourse, in many respects, has never been less sophisticated, devolving into the kind of cartoonish bluster usually reserved for shock jocks in the mold of 90s Era Howard Stern. It’s damning but also a reflection of our own societal tastes, catering to a generation of fans raised on social media.
“Does the audience actually want the hardcore breakdown that some people say the audience deserves and that these shows would do really well, or are we probably getting what we actually want? I think it’s the latter, I really do,” Ryen Russillo opined Sunday on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “Could it be that there’s this magical version of basketball coverage that’s not as bombastic, where the takes aren’t as dramatic? Where guys are laying back, really not coming up with any conclusions. Shrugging their shoulders on a make or miss night where one team just makes way more threes and that’s all the analysis you actually need. That might not be entertaining enough.”
The difference isn’t necessarily that TNT’s analysis is better but rather that it’s a heck of a lot more fun, benefiting from the zany chemistry of its ensemble cast of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith with the unflappable Ernie Johnson acting as the default “adult in the room.” It works, in part, because they’ve been teamed together so long (12 years and counting), a level of continuity and crispness that ESPN can’t compete with.
ESPN’s revolving door of talking heads has felt disjointed at times, a dizzying carousel of names and personalities seemingly thrown together at random. After cycling through Sage Steele, Maria Taylor, Rachel Nichols, Michelle Beadle, Paul Pierce and Jay Williams in rapid succession (most of whom have since left the network), it seems ESPN has batted around and is back at the top of the order. That’s led them back to Stephen A. (his voice still hoarse from the other multitude of shows and podcasts he appeared on earlier that day) and overworked company man Mike Greenberg, the latter, in an effort to maintain his dwindling relevance, spouting this mind-numbing nonsense about his beloved Knicks being impacted by Miami’s famously oppressive heat.
ESPN’s Mike Greenberg thinks the weather in Miami is sapping energy out of the Knicks pic.twitter.com/viApZoU4pM
— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) May 9, 2023
That’s some take, but somehow not even the most ludicrous opinion Greenberg has shared this week, laughably suggesting the Lakers—at that time holding a 3-1 series advantage over Steph Curry’s Warriors—should rest their starters in Game 5.
Might be time for Greeny to clear his mind and take that darkness retreat he promised pic.twitter.com/feNYeravCn
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) May 9, 2023
It’s quite the pivot from Greenberg, risking his credibility with a contrarian take so utterly deranged and nonsensical that it could have been ripped from an Onion headline. When an industry veteran like Greenberg, a Northwestern-educated, straight-laced journalist with a professional reputation to uphold, goes for the gusto by positing something so outlandish that it borders on parody, you have to wonder how low ESPN can possibly stoop, attracting ratings any way it can in a desperate, Hail Mary attempt to keep the lights on in Bristol.
While ESPN, plagued by constant turnover and a reactionary approach better suited for the hair-trigger stylings of drive-time radio, continues to search for an identity, TNT has carved a unique lane as a sports sitcom of sorts, a silly, entertaining mess fueled by sibling rivalry (never more evident than in Shaq’s love/hate relationship with Barkley), teasing and, above all, a sense of family. Basketball fills in the cracks, fleshing out what is really just a great hang, the kind of casual, free-flowing conversation you might have with a buddy throwing back Bud Lights at your neighborhood dive bar.
The beauty of Inside is that TNT lets its stars cook over longer segments, allowing Chuck and Shaq to really spread their wings (sometimes literally). That same freedom isn’t afforded to the Greenberg-led Countdown crew, working in tight windows between lengthy commercial breaks, essentially using halftime as a vehicle for ESPN’s sponsors (an intrepid Reddit user discovered last year that Countdown’s halftime show is 64 percent ads). That format doesn’t exactly lend itself to detailed breakdowns, eschewing X’s and O’s for snap judgments that tend to fit an overarching narrative.
“It feels like the dissection of all these games now is just the two big stars on each team and how they did. And either they didn’t do well and they have to do better or they did great and they should play like that all the time. That’s like 90 percent of the dialogue now,” said Simmons, reflecting on his own time in ESPN’s Countdown chair from 2012-13. “Five minutes, go around in the circle. Everybody’s got to make their strong point. I’ve done those shows. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like it for two years.”
“The analysis in the halftime show is either player A stepped up and was a superstar or failed. And the analysis after that is, ‘Let’s rip Player 2 and Player 3,’” fellow ESPN alum Dan Le Batard articulated on his podcast earlier this week, scoffing at Stephen A’s latest overreaction, claiming to be “done” with frustrating Knicks star Julius Randle once and for all. “That’s not what Tim Legler is doing, or JJ Redick, where they’re analyzing the ins and outs of what’s happening on the court.”
As the face of ESPN’s on-air programming, Stephen A is undoubtedly a commanding presence, though his dense schedule, helming First Take in addition to his Countdown duties and hosting a second-screen experience for games on ESPN2 (building off the success of the “ManningCast” alternate broadcast on Monday Night Football), puts him at risk of overexposure. All the producers in the world can’t hide the fact that ESPN has spread its golden goose too thin, making for blind spots in his analysis (recall Smith’s embarrassing Hunter Henry gaffe several years ago).
What Inside the NBA has also demonstrated is an ability to rise to the moment, putting aside its oddball hijinks to talk about serious issues, whether it be social justice causes like Black Lives Matter or the unconscionable loss felt by the basketball community following Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing.
“I haven’t felt a pain that sharp in a while.. it definitely changes me.”’@SHAQ on the loss of his brother, Kobe. pic.twitter.com/dM5i0DDgGK
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 29, 2020
Those moments have been few and far between on Countdown, though, to his credit, Jalen Rose did offer cogent analysis in the wake of Ja Morant’s gun scandal earlier this year, relating the controversy to his own experiences as a young athlete adjusting to his newfound fame and celebrity. Rising star Malika Andrews of NBA Today earned similar applause for a recent segment, delivering a riveting, emotionally resonant monologue after the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade last summer.
On Roe v. Wade: pic.twitter.com/L9q9ufiWJJ
— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) June 24, 2022
It may be unfair to compare the two, though it sure seems like ESPN is leaving meat on the bone by ignoring a glaring weakness in its NBA coverage, relegating Countdown to placeholder status, a glorified time-killer existing between ad spots for Kia and Google Pixel.