Shaquille O'Neal putting Charles Barkley in a chokehold on Inside The NBA. Shaquille O’Neal putting Charles Barkley in a chokehold on Inside The NBA. (NBA on TNT on Twitter.)

Since I was a kid, there is no sports show I have looked forward to watching more than Inside the NBA. It’s been a bedrock of my basketball fandom, a thing I’ve committed to consuming as much of as I can as often as I can, just as I’ve made it a goal to always try to catch TNT’s pregame and halftime segments with the same crew. I love it for the broad reason that it is indisputably the best sports studio show I’ve ever seen, but there’s a finer reason why I love it that I believe needs to be appreciated given the real possibility that it might be going away soon, and that is this: the analysis on it doesn’t really matter.

Inside the NBA is special because it radiates with chemistry and authenticity, or to be precise, it’s special because the people on it are allowed to radiate with chemistry and authenticity. Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neal are all telegenic and entertaining and invaluable to it, but there have been plenty of studio shows with personalities that ooze with charisma.

What makes Inside the NBA unique is that none of the interactions on it ever feel fake or ever feel like they’re coming at the expense of one another. All the pieces fit on it; everyone is comfortable with each other and pairs well with each other and knows what their role is. They can banter with each other and joke with each other and prod each other and it never feels scripted or forced. When someone’s yelling at someone, you understand that it’s just them playfully trying to rile each other up. When someone’s laughing, you understand that they’re really, genuinely laughing and that it isn’t that fake, stock news show style laughing that nobody likes.

TNT’s NBA studio show works because it feels real and because the people on it come off as three-dimensional human beings. You feel like you really know these guys after a while. But again, that’s because the show has put its cast in the best possible position to come off that way.

Something that’s always impressed me about Inside the NBA, even when I was a kid, was how differently it was produced from every other studio show in America. Inside the NBA is allowed to breathe and take its time; when the guys talk, they’re allowed to talk at a regular, conversational pace – as opposed to a lot of studio shows, where it feels like the people on it are rushing to blurt out what they want to say in the scant nanoseconds of availability that they’re allowed to speak, naturalness be damned.

There’s a confidence to the show, a recognition that they don’t have to dress up how good their product is. It’s not trying to bombard its audience with constant chyrons or cutaways or weird panning shots, Morning Joe style; it’s not putting its personalities in weird split screens or overlaying their faces on top of highlights or trying to cram upbeat music underneath them whenever possible, Get Up style; there’s almost never a news ticker on screen, outside of occasionally the A block when there are multiple playoff games to recap; the show even goes so far as to never have the TNT channel bug up in the corner of the screen.

It’s because of how much, unequal freedom the people on the TNT set have been allowed that the show has been able to flourish: not as an analytical show, mind you, but as a television show that just happens to be about sports. Many people on Twitter/X recently posted their favorite moments of the show in the wake of the news that TNT might soon be losing their NBA rights and something that struck me about those clips was that none of them were analyses of a basketball game.

Instead, all of them were genuine, impromptu, comedic moments that had originated organically from the people on the set in between the analysis. And it’s not just that they were funny moments, it’s that they were moments that only could’ve happened within the sandbox that Inside the NBA has created, in which the people on it are able to truly be themselves.

Take for instance the clip above, in which Kenny Smith was walking back to his chair when he said “Hakeem Olajuwon used to say this to me all the time…” “Kenny, bring me some water?” Chuck immediately interjected, causing Shaq and Ernie to laugh. “No, he used to say ‘Charles is really heavy,’” Kenny fired back, causing the others to smile and Kenny himself to chuckle. It’s a very short clip, only nine seconds long. But that clip personifies why this show is one-of-a-kind because there’s no other show where an interaction like that would even be possible.

To be sure, it couldn’t happen without the personalities on it being so quick and having such a rapport with each other, which is in itself unbelievably rare. But on no other sports show would there ever be a scenario in which someone like Kenny Smith would be in a position to casually talk like that while leisurely walking back to his desk – not when virtually every other sports show is micromanaged and overproduced to the nth degree. Moments like that don’t happen on other sports shows because they’re not even given the window for it to happen, even if someone on it was as funny as Chuck, which is nearly impossible.

This brings me back to why the analysis on the show doesn’t really matter. It’s not to say it completely doesn’t matter, because it obviously does; we care what Chuck and Kenny, and Shaq have to say and want to hear from them.

But it also doesn’t matter if their analysis is all that great. We watch Chuck and Kenny and Shaq because we’ve grown to like them as personalities, and that’s largely because of the aforementioned freedom they’ve been given on the show, which has allowed us to see them as genuine, three-dimensional people.

As such, if Chuck is ever wrong about something, that’s okay because, hey, we still see him as a guy we like who just happens to have been wrong about something – which is a level of respect that is almost NEVER afforded to sports commentators, whose job is ostensibly to be right all the time.

But again, that’s why Inside the NBA is unique: we’re not watching it for accuracy, we’re watching it for authenticity. The people who produce the show get that too because whenever possible, they’re eager to showcase tweets from the audience that poke fun and mock the guys on set for something they’ve said, even if it highlights how wrong they were or how silly something they said was. In a world in which the relationship between sports fans and people in the media can be hostile to the point of vicious, people love Inside the NBA because the people on it don’t come off as elevated above them.

In every possible way, the cast of Inside of the NBA has been set up to succeed. To appreciate how much of an achievement that is, look no further than the ongoing disaster that is its counterpart NBA studio show on ESPN and ABC.

If you want to make a good NBA studio show, Stephen A. Smith – who’s the focal point of NBA Countdown – is legitimately the last person on Earth you’d want to build around because the key to a good panel is chemistry and realness and playful banter and you can never get any of that with him because anything he’s a part of HAS to be about him, which bleeds into the rest of the program. I look at Inside the NBA as a team; it isn’t just The Charles Barkley Show. But with SAS, it can never be about anything but him.

Nothing about it feels unscripted or real or authentic. It has all the chemistry of a shotgun wedding and you can’t even be certain that the guys on it like each other, let alone have the fondness for each other that the Inside guys do. Unlike Inside the NBA, if you search for clips about NBA Countdown, the only ones you’ll find are monologues that are usually defined by how outrageous they are; and segments are often so bareboned and so condensed that they come off like they exist to be a vehicle for ads more than because they’re meant to be enjoyed by people.

If you asked a thousand NBA fans whether they prefer TNT’s NBA studio show or ESPN’s, it’d be an upset if even twelve people chose ESPN’s. But NBA Countdown isn’t merely unwatchable because its panelists aren’t as great or don’t gel with each other as well as Chuck, Shaq, and Kenny. It’s unwatchable because it’s produced to be unwatchable.

There are glaring, undeniable mismatches among its analysts, but even if that wasn’t the case, that show would still pale in comparison to Inside the NBA because the people on it aren’t given the same trust and capacity to come off as relatable and likable people; a small, unplanned moment like Chuck making fun of Kenny as he walked back to his desk could never happen in a million years on NBA Countdown.

In fact, if you did a complete swap and made it so that Chuck, Shaq, Kenny, and Ernie were now the people on NBA Countdown instead of the other way around, ESPN’s show might improve just by virtue of the chemistry, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the program would still be lousy. Why? Because locked within the guidelines of ESPN’s system, you’d now be getting compacted, humorless, rushed, overly-produced, take-heavy segments from them and it’d be dreadful.

The reason it’s important to reference ESPN’s studio show in comparison to TNT’s is to highlight what a treasure Inside the NBA is, because the average studio show is way closer to NBA Countdown than it is to Inside the NBA.

The fact that TNT has managed to convince the biggest analysts in basketball to stay up to 2 AM on cable television on certain nights to discuss NBA games and that some of those analysts are stars who could very, very easily be doing something else with their time, and that this show is as great as it is, is an incredible accomplishment. There’s nothing else like it on TV.

If Inside the NBA goes down, it’s conceivable that its panelists could continue elsewhere on another network, on Amazon or NBC. But even if that happens, there’s an enormous likelihood that it would lose much of its magic in the transition – that its reins would be handed to producers and executives with the same sensibilities as the ones at ESPN, who’ve been incapable of crafting a non-crappy halftime show for two decades. Inside the NBA is something that should be protected at all costs from a changing ecosystem, and the fact that that’s unlikely to happen is a shame, because whatever comes after it will almost certainly be an inferior version of it.

If these really are the last days of Inside the NBA, then we need to soak it in while we can. Not just for the people in front of the camera, but for the unsung people behind it who have made something that we may never see again in our lifetimes: a postgame show so great that it doesn’t even matter if the analysis, occasionally, is completely, utterly wrong.

The author of this piece can be reached @Velodus on X.