When ESPN surprisingly laid off top NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy last month, many wondered why fellow top-team analyst Mark Jackson was spared. But there was some initial talk that Jackson might not be kept on the top NBA on ABC/ESPN team, with media members floating multiple potential replacements for Van Gundy including Doris Burke, Doc Rivers, and JJ Redick. And now, as per Andrew Marchand of The New York Post, ESPN is “closing in” on hiring Rivers and promoting Burke, and giving Jackson a choice of either accepting a second-team assignment or leaving the network.
NEWS: ESPN is closing in on promoting Doris Burke to the NBA Finals, demoting Mark Jackson and hiring Doc Rivers in the wake of the Jeff Van Gundy firing, The Post has learned.https://t.co/8AhPLrR6U4
— Andrew Marchand (@AndrewMarchand) July 31, 2023
Here’s more from Marchand’s piece there:
ESPN is closing in on promoting Doris Burke to the NBA Finals, hiring Doc Rivers to join her and jettisoning Mark Jackson to the “B” team or off the network, The Post has learned.
…This has left Jackson in peril.
Sources said Jackson could stay on and join play-by-player Mark Jones on the network’s second team. If he balks at that option, he could be headed out of ESPN.
There have long been many calling for ESPN to put Burke on the top team, including top-team play-by-play voice Mike Breen way back in 2018 (only a year after Burke became the first female analyst in a regular national NBA role). And that was perhaps part of the thinking around Van Gundy’s layoff. But it’s interesting to see the discussions of also demoting (or completely exiling) Jackson to bring in Rivers. That makes sense, as Jackson’s and Burke’s styles of analysis feel quite different (Burke tends to be more analytical, while Jackson has often had more takes and jokes, and was known for his tangents alongside Van Gundy), while Rivers (who has worked in broadcasting before, including as a NBA Finals analyst alongside Al Michaels on ABC in 2004 and as a guest analyst for ESPN in recent years) might be a better fit there.
The other interesting element of this is how the NBA might react. Marchand notes that both Rivers and Burke are well-perceived in the league offices, with Michaels even saying at one point former NBA commissioner David Stern told Rivers to take the ESPN/ABC TV role in 2003- 2004. And Van Gundy drew some league pushback at times, especially over criticism of officials. Marchand writes that Van Gundy’s comments on that front were something that “the NBA has expressed disappointment at over the years and even this season, according to sources,” and while he emphasizes that “there is no evidence of an edict from the NBA to make a change,” he notes that this planned change (which doesn’t have final contracts yet) will likely be seen positively from a league standpoint: “While ESPN made these moves on their own, a byproduct of them is that it will likely make the NBA commissioner Adam Silver and league executives happy.”
And that could be important on a few fronts. Perhaps the biggest one is that the NBA’s national TV rights are up after the 2024-25 season, and ESPN has expressed significant interest in keeping those. It is of course highly unlikely that a particular set of announcers would be the decisive factor in a league’s rights decisions, but leagues (especially the NFL) have at times been highly particular about the top teams calling their games nationally. And if a Breen/Burke/Rivers team is seen more favorably by Silver and the NBA than Breen/Van Gundy/Jackson was, that may not have been the whole reasoning behind these moves, but it may be part of it. ESPN and ABC certainly want to present their best foot forward in rights talks, and it sounds like these plans for the top booth may be part of that.