NBA roundtable: Debating analysts, Bill Simmons and more
With the start of the season only days away, I invited four avid NBA watchers -- SI.com's Matt Dollinger, Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Dwyer, longtime NBA writer Holly MacKenzie and Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor -- to join me for a roundtable on a number of television-related topics.
Who is the best national play-by-play announcer?
Matt Dollinger: TNT's Marv Albert is the soundtrack to enthralling basketball. His voice has punctuated so many great NBA moments that simply having him on the call seems to infuse a game with importance. His knowledge is unparalleled, his pacing is perfect and his voice separates him from the pack. He yells at the right times (what's better than an emphatic "Yes!") and he knows when to keep quiet and let the game do the talking. There are a slew of talented play-by-play guys around the league, but none quite like Albert.
Kelly Dwyer: The cream of the crop is so well-vetted by the time they get to this stage that there really isn't a bum one out there, so I'll defer to preferences and taste over "best." I still much prefer listening to Albert call NBA games over any other national voice, although ESPN's Dan Shulman (ESPN) is quite good (Shulman is not assigned to NBA games at the moment), and ESPN's Mike Tirico is engaging and curious in a way that I dig.
Holly MacKenzie: Albert, because as long as I can recall watching basketball, his voice is one that has been familiar. And also Mike Breen, who is always fully in control of what is unfolding in front of him.
Phil Taylor: Albert. For viewers of my generation, his is the voice associated with big NBA games. He may not be quite at the top of his game anymore, but he's still plenty sharp, he has a distinctive style and, with his dry sense of humor, he's really good at drawing personality out of his partners.
Richard Deitsch: Kelly hit on the right note here: Most NBA game callers at the network level are terrific, from Albert to Shulman. It's also a subjective question. I consider Breen at the top of the profession given his preparation, knowledge of the rules, byplay with partner Jeff Van Gundy and innate sense of when to raise his tone. Kevin Harlan is also a big-game voice.
Do you like Bill Simmons on NBA Countdown?
Dollinger: He's a little awkward and a little unpolished, but isn't that why we like Simmons in the first place? We see a bit of him in ourselves -- he's truly the ultimate sports fan. We've all seen former athletes on TV spew overused clichés and down-the-middle analysis; isn't it refreshing to see someone with a different background analyze games? No one loves the NBA more than Simmons, and he's given ESPN's studio show something its sorely lacked in recent years: an identity.
Dwyer: I rarely watch NBA Countdown. If I come across it, it's because I have nothing to do at halftime, or I hear it from the other room as I prep for games. That's right, Mr. Eight Trillion Word Count NBA Blogger Since 1997 Who Obsesses Over League Pass At the Risk Of His Own Sanity doesn't watch the league's flagship broadcast network show. That's who ESPN has lost, which is saying something. With that said, and while I have had major issues with a lot of Simmons' work over the years, he does a fine job on that show and I'm looking forward to giving his gig another chance this season. Unlike the other panel participants from last season, Simmons actually appears to have watched a game or 12 over the week in between national broadcasts. He actually bothers to follow trends, salary-cap situations and all manner of what last year's participants probably thought to be minutia, even though it's of great use to the fans they're paid to inform and entertain. Simmons is still curious about this game, and the league, and it shows.
MacKenzie: I loved Simmons during ESPN's draft coverage. His live reactions as decisions unfolded and surprises happened (such as the Cavaliers' unexpected selection of Anthony Bennett at No. 1) felt authentic. In a setting more similar to TNT's studio coverage, I'd enjoy Simmons giving his unfiltered opinions.
Taylor: I like him. It felt like we were getting diluted Simmons on Countdown last season. ESPN might as well experiment with the Breaking Bad, 98 percent pure version of Simmons this year and find out once and for all whether he can become a full-fledged TV personality. Plus, ESPN has the reputation of kissing up to the NBA. You know Simmons won't do that. He doesn't even kiss up to his own employers.
Deitsch: I like him, because he's an unorthodox television play in an industry that tends to be safe, and as a viewer I believe he's 100 percent invested in the content of the league, even if I disagree with him on some of his opinions. His back and forth with Doc Rivers at the draft was honest, uncomfortable television, the direct opposite of ESPN at its manufactured debate worst.
You are in a roomful of ESPN, Turner Sports and NBA TV executives. What would you tell them to improve their product?
Dollinger: I'd ask them politely to stop airing terrible games. How hard can it be? More important, aren't they a little more invested in television ratings than I am? The NFL has gone to extended flex scheduling, using it from Weeks 11 to 17. Why can't the NBA follow suit and use it throughout the year? It's too hard to predict before a season what games are going to be captivating three to four months later. Why not build in more infrastructure so you can move things around on the fly?
Dwyer: When Charles Barkley first made his cameos with Turner in the spring of 2000, talking with Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson, it was obvious from the start that this was going to be something special. Executives have to understand that this mix is a once-in-a-generation thing. Modern NBA fans know quite a bit. They know about traded player exceptions, they're aware of advancing statistical trends and they've likely spent the bulk of their day being bad at their jobs while following various NBA Twitter feeds. Television executives have to start speaking to that crowd, or they're going to lose not only viewers but also people who bother to pay for subscription cable in the first place. Again, I'm as big an NBA-nik as you'll find, but I tune in for tip off and little else, because the rest of the programming isn't going to teach me much. And even if we do miss a wacky on-set highlight? That embedded video will be everywhere the next day. Executives have to start treating their would-be viewers like adults, and the best way to do that is to go against the grain and start using the talents (at Turner, the NBA's website and ESPN) who are watching the Milwaukee Bucks game on a random Tuesday in January.
MacKenzie: Fans have access to so many behind-the-scenes photos, video clips, tweets and more that it would be wise to give context to what we are seeing. Discuss and debate NBA news, but also current events and issues. Sports can be a distraction from real life, but real life also affects the people suiting up. Remind us of their humanity. Make your product a necessary companion to contextualizing the game being played on your network.
Taylor: I'd suggest they widen their focus instead of concentrating so much on a few teams and players. I thought it was ridiculous, for instance, how much coverage of a mediocre Lakers team we got last year. Yet it felt like we didn't hear much of anything about the Pacers until they got to the Eastern Conference finals. A little less Heat/LeBron and Lakers/Kobe, and a little more Pacers/Paul George and Grizzlies/Marc Gasol. But that would improve their product, not their ratings, which is why all those executives would have security escort me from their offices.
Deitsch: Look above, and you'll find why it's difficult to be a great sports television executive. You have to cater to disparate viewers, so executives tend to play it safe and play the hits (LeBron, Lakers/Knicks, etc.). If I had TV executives in a room, assuming I got past their PR staffs and security, I'd advise them to continue to expand broadcasts into emerging areas such as analytics and fantasy. I'd have my studio analysts holding Twitter chats with fans between quarters for a social connection. I'd beg the league to let my network air something cool, like an outdoor game. I'd also continue to spend a ton on improving a fan's mobile experience.
Who is the best national game analyst?
Dollinger: The Larry David of basketball analysts, Jeff Van Gundy, is the voice I want to hear on national games. He doesn't hesitate to call out a player if he messed up or a referee if he blew a call. Like a fan, he seems genuinely peeved when incompetence is abundant, and he's not afraid to throw out radical solutions. Now, you might be thinking, "I'm not afraid to do that, either." But remember, he's doing it on national television. Van Gundy can diagnose plays with precision and sees basketball nuances that are lost on common fans. He's perfect alongside Breen and was even better flanked by Mark Jackson.
Dwyer: Hubie Brown, as it's been for years; it's not even close. He's exacting, but he also presents his between-play vignettes in a concise, strident manner that I appreciate. As a viewer, Brown doesn't talk down to me, and he isn't interested in chasing some sports talk radio "point" that has nothing to do with the game he's calling, unlike ABC/ESPN's lead game analyst. As a result, Brown and Tirico are my favorite national duo.
MacKenzie: Brown or Chris Webber, for very different reasons. Brown's passion and love for the game come across regardless of the score and situation. Webber is fantastic at illustrating the player's point of view while also peppering in stories and anecdotes.
Taylor: Van Gundy. A lot of analysts can give you X's and O's, and Van Gundy can certainly do that, but I also know I'm going to get candor and something a little off the wall and amusing from him. I'll stay with a game that's moved into garbage time if he's working it, because he's often even better in blowouts, when he's more free to comment on anything that piques his interest. He needs to be careful not to cross the line into doing more comedy than analysis, but right now he's the one analyst who makes me more interested in watching a game as soon as I see he's doing it.
Deitsch: I really enjoy Steve Kerr and Van Gundy. Along with obvious X's and O's knowledge, each brings a welcome element of humor and self-deprecation to a broadcast. So many analysts are enablers of the sports pro establishment, but Kerr and Van Gundy do something that's vital for me when thinking about the best of the profession: They are willing to address the problems of the game, knowing it might cause some agita in the league office. The best broadcasters think viewers first, and their league masters second. I'll also note I love Brown, even when he talks my ear off.
When will we see a woman call NBA games on a regular basis?
Dollinger: In the next two to three years. You won't find many broadcasters smarter, more talented and more experienced than ESPN's Doris Burke. She's making a part-time shift to the studio this year, but her true talents are best displayed during games, which ESPN will realize quickly. She's proved to be a stellar sideline reporter and color analyst and she'd likely succeed as a play-by-play announcer if the network asked her to do that, too. She's built up enough cachet with fans that hearing her voice no longer triggers the thought of a woman analyst, but just an analyst.
Dwyer: Probably when we lose this ridiculous notion that puts a woman into a sideline reporter's role without a second thought. Just one look at various comments sections will have you wondering if you'll see one in this lifetime, much less the 2013-14 season. It's sad and depressing, and as the stepfather of two girls, enervating.
MacKenzie: This should already have happened and it should have happened in Charlotte with Stephanie Ready, who is fantastic behind the mic. While she is currently the sideline reporter for the Bobcats, I'd love for her to slide into a play-by-play role.
Taylor: Soon. Two or three years. The impact of Burke has been huge here. Thanks to her, viewers have gotten familiar with the sound of an authoritative female voice on basketball. I'm not saying there haven't been others, but Burke has really established herself in a unique way, which I think will make it that much easier for viewers to accept female voices in any sportscasting job, including play-by-play.
Deitsch: Michele Tafoya addressed this prospect with me in a recent media column. I believe it will happen, though these things usually lag behind our best guesses and hopes. The good news is that, thanks to Burke, NBA broadcasting is well ahead of the NFL regarding prominent on-air roles for women. Sage Steele joining NBA Countdown also helps. The biggest impediment for women in this context is they don't get play-by-play opportunities in men's sports at any level, and the business steers them toward on-air positions like sideline reporter or studio or update host.
Who is the best national studio analyst?
Dollinger: There isn't a question for me to give props to Ernie Johnson, so I'm going to do that in this space. The man is the glue that holds together the best studio show on television, Inside the NBA. He's mainly tasked with playing the straight man, but he has the versatility and comedic and basketball chops to hang with -- and occasionally outshine -- TNT's star-studded panel. He's a two-time Emmy winner, a cancer survivor and one heck of a host.
Dwyer: It's not a crowded field. The fallout of the Inside the NBA crew's ascension to prominence in the 2000-01 season has resulted in a litany of shows more concerned with acting as a yukfest than offering analysis (Pardon the Interruption also added to this bullet-point style). With nobody really rising above, Webber becomes the default choice. That's not a shot at Webber, who is quite good.
MacKenzie: Barkley. You trust that he believes whatever it is he is telling you, and he doesn't shy away from important issues and topics. His response to Jason Collins' coming out was one of my favorite television sports moments of the year.
Taylor: You mean besides Barkley? He's the clear No. 1. He's irreverent, unpredictable, fearless and naturally funny, and he has been for years. Inside the NBA is the best studio show in any sport because it has essentially taken on his personality. Webber's coming on strong. He's not afraid to criticize when warranted and he played recently enough that he can speak from experience about a lot of current players. He's probably my No. 2. But nobody can touch Chuck.
Deitsch: Barkley is a unique talent, and I'd argue he is the one on-air talent in sports television who is responsible for an increase in audience. (The metrics show announcers do not have an impact on ratings, though a massive one on enjoyment and professionalism.) People tune in to hear what Barkley has to say. That's an incredible thing in today's crowded and loud marketplace.
If you were in charge of NBA Countdown, how would you staff it?
Dollinger: I would make Simmons the host. ESPN unofficially handed him the reins last season and it's clear the network is more or less building around its multi-platform star. Why not fully embrace it and make him the face of the program? Simmons is polarizing, but he's also insanely popular -- and knowledgeable. You could do a lot worse than letting him learn how to host on the fly while surrounding him with analysts with whom he's comfortable. Rather than fight the stigma that Simmons is running things behind the scenes, why not let him do it in front of everyone? The show might struggle at first, but people don't look at Simmons and expect to see Brian Williams.
Dwyer: Exactly as they have. NBA fans apparently want pablum and milquetoast in the back and forth as its lead-in, according to ESPN's research, and ESPN has responded with some mild background noise as a result. To its credit, ESPN has realized that the typical general columnist and ex-jock have about 1/10th the knowledge of the current NBA superfan about league trends, modern analysis and the salary cap. Letting Simmons loose and pairing the clearly well-researched Burke with the rest of the crew is a sound move. Because, really, when was the last time Michael Wilbon, Chris Broussard, Jon Barry or Magic Johnson told an in-touch NBA fan something he or she didn't know?
MacKenzie: Similarly to TNT's studio show, with banter and entertainment that feels genuine and unscripted.
Taylor: They're pretty close right now. I'd go with Burke (host), Jalen Rose, Stan Van Gundy and Simmons. I'd make Simmons the star. Not everybody loves him, especially on TV, but shows like this need someone who makes viewers think, "I wonder what he'll have to say about this," when something big happens. Simmons is the closest thing ESPN has to that guy on the NBA. I'd turn him loose the way TNT has with Barkley. As for Van Gundy, David Stern really hurt ESPN when he told the network not to hire him (OK, allegedly.) He's opinionated and would bring a coach's perspective. Rose is a TV natural. I can envision some entertaining arguments between the three of them, with Burke, smart, knowledgeable and calm, being the perfect traffic cop.
Deitsch: Scott Van Pelt hosts alongside Jalen Rose, Simmons and Stan Van Gundy, with occasional appearances from Burke, Jeff Van Gundy and ESPN analyst and former Trail Blazers assistant general manager Tom Penn.
The NBA's television rights deals run through the 2015-16 season. Which networks should be awarded rights on the next deal?
Dollinger: I admire Fox's intergalactic efforts to try to take over the sports television world, but I'm pretty good with ESPN. We've seen what the network does to sports it doesn't own the rights to (there's this thing called "hockey," and it's played on ice!). I'd rather have ESPN and the NBA stay on good terms and continue to have pro basketball games and highlights as a major part of my SportsCenter diet.
Dwyer: Between the Turner studio show and broadcasters, the growth and recent hires at NBA TV, and ABC/ESPN's fantastic array of play-by-play workers and color commentators, this NBA freak is just fine with the current setup. I'd venture to guess that, Jeff Van Gundy rants aside, David Stern and Adam Silver feel the same way as well.
MacKenzie: As someone who feels very lucky/spoiled to have access to the entire league via NBA League Pass, I think the current ESPN/TNT/NBA TV set-up works.
Taylor: Going with the Disney/ESPN conglomerate probably makes the most business sense. But as a viewer, I'd rather see the league choose Turner. TNT has earned it. It just does a better job of covering the league. Its on-air talent, overall, is better, and the telecasts give you more of an insider feel than you get from ESPN or ABC's very polished product.
Deitsch: ESPN will retain its NBA rights. Commissioner-to-be Silver (who will handle the negotiations) understands the importance of maintaining this relationship. The league should also stick with Turner Sports, which has treated basketball like a major league property. The big question is, Will the league create a third package to bring Fox Sports (and its very large paycheck) into the fold? I'd advise against it because it would dilute the product (not to mention ESPN and Turner would pay less). I'd stay the course and consider Fox Sports down the road.
What NBA broadcaster has overstayed his or her welcome?
Dollinger: I'm from Indiana, so I'm legally obligated to ignore Reggie Miller's broadcasting career. That said, Shaquille O'Neal hasn't blossomed into the post-retirement personality we thought he would be. There's no denying that Shaq is humorous, but rather than tell the jokes, he often seems to be the butt of them. He's let his pride get the better of him on multiple occasions on the TNT set (Dwight Howard and his free-throw shooting, namely) and he racks up nightly double-doubles of curious comments and unfunny one-liners. On paper, Shaq looks like a great on-camera personality and a perfect addition to Barkley and Co., but in reality there's something that just isn't right.
Dwyer: I don't want to be in the business of going on record to say that someone should lose his or her gig, and in a way ABC/ESPN has already done that for me. There are some local broadcasters, even one in particular in a very large market, who don't do their homework, but I don't want to name names. On a national level, things are fine. When there's beer in the house, I can tolerate Shaq. The ABC/ESPN analysts and studio show wonks, more than the other national crews, need to stay away from the sports talk radio nonsense. Most viewers are past the week's top talking points by the time the game tips off that it has no place on a broadcast in today's Twitter-mad culture. Jeff Van Gundy has as big a basketball brain as exists in our green world, but he too often goes off on tangents, scratching itches that should have been taken care of during his myriad ESPN Radio interviews. I like Jeff quite a bit, and he's so good and informative when he's on subject, but he strays too often.
MacKenzie: While it's gotten better, I preferred the Inside the NBA dynamic better before Shaq joined the panel.
Taylor: Dick Stockton. Great, distinguished career, but in recent years too many mispronounced names and miscalls of the action. When you start making those kinds of mistakes regularly, you're probably not the best choice to work playoff games anymore.
Deitsch: There are a number I can name, but I'd rather use this space to call out NBA TV for its dearth of women broadcasters.
What NBA broadcasting newcomer excites you the most?
Dollinger: I'm pretty pumped for George Karl to say something on television he shouldn't. His comments on the Nuggets alone -- they fired him after winning Coach of the Year -- would be enough, but Karl has too much intimate knowledge of the league to not contribute fascinating, inside analysis. The only thing that could prevent his rise is if he uses his new job as a platform to land another coaching gig. If that's the case, we likely won't hear him say much of anything controversial.
Dwyer: Avery Johnson and Karl are pros and passable enough, but their last TV go-rounds didn't offer much that was memorable. Collins, sadly, was not at his best during his last few years at Turner, as he seemed somewhat out of touch with his scouting reports in ways you can't say for someone like Hubie Brown. Hill basically will be running a children's show on Inside Stuff, which was of little interest to me even when I was a kid because I was old and dyspeptic even before I could write in cursive. Burke works her tail off and researches the hell out of what she's asked to cover. I will continue to look forward to her takes on the game.
MacKenzie: I'm curious to see how Hill is as a broadcaster and I always love to hear Karl talk about basketball, but I can't wait to see Burke on NBA Countdown. She's incredibly knowledgeable, succinct, direct and strikes the perfect balance between discussing the game and the people who are playing it.
Taylor: It's hard to get excited about recycled coaches, even ones who have proved to be solid analysts like Collins and Karl. Hill has a reputation for being intelligent and classy, which he is, but he's got more of an edge to him than people think. He also seemed smooth and comfortable in some brief studio time during the postseason. I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a breakout star.
Deitsch: Burke and Hill are going to be terrific in their roles and I'm going to enjoy being right again on a media prediction.