My Utah Jazz beat partner Eric Walden has already written a good wrap-up of everything that happened Thursday between the Jazz (and especially Donovan Mitchell) and the crew of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith on Inside The NBA.
Here’s my perspective on it: Inside The NBA is the most decorated studio show of any sport ever for a reason — those guys have been entertaining in a way that most sports talk isn’t. There’s a whole lot of sports talk out there that is basically former players coming up with new ways to say one-word ideas over and over again. Basically, they fill time.
I was watching a game the other day in which a color commentator said a player needed to be more aggressive. Then he said that the player needed to be more forceful. Then he said the player needed to attack the teeth of the defense. Then he said that the player needed to enforce his will on the game. Then he said that the player needed to play smash-mouth basketball. And he did all of this in one 10-second spiel, describing one play. It was a remarkable display of boring filler, but this kind of thing happens all the time in sports commentary.
Inside The NBA is not that. Their filler is full of non-sequiturs, larger points about basketball, the commentators making fun of each other, or political points. And that’s why they’ve been successful: because they’re different. Watching them is unlike watching any other studio show. In the past, it’s been entertaining.
What’s happened with Inside The NBA, though, is that this success with non-basketball elements has emboldened them to lose touch with the league entirely, instead just doubling down on the bits that made them famous. Shaq’s bit is just to attack players who haven’t won a ring, because it reminds the audience that he has. Charles has a big heart, but makes such bad predictions that it’s a bit of the show to write them down and make fun of them later. Kenny is clearly the best analyst of the three, and he’s still misreading plays on the big board all the time.
While Inside the NBA wasn’t paying attention, the game changed underneath them. There are certainly TV analysts who have kept pace with the league’s changes, so it is possible. But because Shaq, Chuck, and Kenny got all of this credit for being the best sports show on TV for not really being about sports, they haven’t bothered with the work of actually watching games.
That’s why they all still think it’s funny to mispronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name, or say Nikola Jokic is from Russia — both legitimately disrespectful things from the league’s premier broadcast about two of the league’s premier players. Tonight’s awkward segment with Donovan Mitchell was just another example of the same kind of thing that happened when Shaq said he hasn’t watched 5-year veteran Christian Wood, who averages 23 points per game, play. Why respect the current game when the accolades say you don’t need to?
The problem is that we’re now going on a decade of this. I had high hopes that this approach would change when the Golden State Warriors became the league’s dynasty. After all, the Inside The NBA crew famously said a jump-shooting team couldn’t win the trophy; the Warriors did it three times. That should have been a slice of humble pie, and instead it disappointingly made zero impact on how they view the game.
In the end, Inside The NBA’s tone is just such a huge disservice to the league. The quality of play is at an all-time high, with players more skilled and smarter than ever before. And instead of championing this, the show is full of commentators that are just itching to tell you how bad it all is, how it doesn’t compare to their own accomplishments.
Here’s the meat of the issue: Shaq went after a guy, in this case Mitchell, who put up 36, 7, and 4 in the 7th game of a 7-game winning streak. Would you ever, ever, see an NFL broadcast do that? No, because they’re in the business of keeping people impressed with their product. The NBA seems to want to do the opposite.
We need to champion commentators who do their homework, who love the game. Doris Burke is terrific, as is Richard Jefferson. Hubie Brown still clearly loves everything about his job. There are tons of commentators out there that could really add respect and insight to the Inside The NBA crew.
But for now? Inside The NBA is just the “funny guy” at school repeating the same joke for the 500th time. The joke is now stale, and by now, we can tell — he’s repeating it to hide that there’s nothing else there.