Turner Sports tips off its 2013-14 NBA coverage with an opening-night doubleheader of Bulls-Heat and Lakers-Clippers on Tuesday. Before the games, TNT's popular Inside the NBA studio show will air live at 7 p.m. ET from New York City's Flatiron Plaza. As part of the promotion for the start of the season, the quartet of Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith met with a small group of reporters on Monday afternoon in New York. During that outing, SI.com sat down with the always-engaging Barkley.
SI.com: Where should we place LeBron James right now in a historical context? Is he a top 10 all-time guy right now on your list?
Barkley: I have him there. But he can't get any higher than where he is. I have Michael [Jordan] at No. 1. Oscar [Robertson] at No. 2. Then Wilt [Chamberlain], Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and [Bill] Russell. I have Kobe [Bryant], LeBron, Tim Duncan, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor after that. Those are my top 10. Those second five fluctuate, but who do I take off my top five? LeBron can get to No. 6 on my list, but here's the thing that bothers me about the whole LeBron debate: I want to know why y'all killed Kobe Bryant! Y'all don't even compare him to LeBron anymore. You are skipping him for LeBron and going right to Michael. I'm still going to take five [titles] over two. It makes me laugh with my friends -- the media just kills Kobe Bryant. Like he's dead! Five still is a lot more than two!
SI.com: Do you expect LeBron to stay in Miami after this season?
Barkley: That will be an interesting question. I've always personally hoped he would return to Cleveland. That's just my personal opinion.
SI.com: Why has Jason Collins not yet been signed?
Barkley: I think [the question] is a little unfair because he was on the downside of his career. I'm hoping someone picks him up, but to say nobody has picked him up because he is gay is really unfair. He was on his last legs as it was. It's an interesting situation because if you are a veteran team that needs six fouls and has a chance to win a championship, OK, maybe [you sign him]. Or he can mentor some young guy who has real potential but had some stuff going on, like a DeMarcus Cousins. Unless you are a championship contender and need a big body who can give you six fouls a game, it is not like he's averaging a bunch of points.
SI.com: For any team that signs him, how much of a media circus would it be?
Barkley: That's a great question. I don't know if it would be a circus. It would be more about how the fans would react. The players would be cool with it. I'd want to see how the fans would react.
SI.com: How many games will the Sixers win this year?
Barkley: Well, sitting [Nerlens] Noel for the season is probably the smart move. The over-under was 21 [wins]. I'm taking the under now. If Noel was playing, I would have taken the over. But I think it's a smart move because [Noel] is not physically or offensively ready to play in the NBA. [Editor's note: The oddsmaker Bovada lists the 76ers' current over/under win total at 16.5.]
SI.com: Last year, you told SI.com that you were not sure whether you would make it to the end of your Turner contract, which concludes in three years. Where does your thinking stand now?
Barkley: I'm going to finish out my contract, and I think I am going to do more games as an analyst this year. I enjoyed doing the games on site. People don't really understand we are in the studio from 8 p.m. to 2:30 in the morning, but we are only working 45 minutes. I have been doing this for 14 years so it was fun being at the games. You have to be on your toes. It was cool saying hello to the players. And I think Turner liked me doing it so I'm going to do more.
SI.com: Have you seen Andrew Wiggins play?
Barkley: First of all, no. Why would I watch a high school player? That's stupid. I've heard all the stuff. OK, he's a great high school player. Let me see what happens when he gets to college. When people ask me who will be the Rookie of the Year, I say, "I don't know." The guys have played against college players. Nobody expected Damian Lillard to win Rookie of the Year. I will watch the Wiggins kid play when I start watching college basketball. I am not going to project how great he will be. I mean, Kwame Brown was a great high school player.
SI.com: How excited are you for the start of this season?
Barkley: It's been a long time since I have been this excited for a season. In the last five or six years, there has probably been five teams that could actually win a championship. I think there are eight legitimate contenders this year if everything goes their way. There are four elite teams in each conference so I am excited to look at some of these teams. I mean, the Washington Generals might make the playoffs this year! I love [the Wizards] getting [Marcin] Gortat.
All you guys act like Miami is a juggernaut. First of all, they went seven games with the Pacers [in last season's Eastern Conference finals] and they should have lost to the Spurs [in the NBA Finals]. It ain't like they are the Michael Jordan Bulls! Listen, Miami, congratulations, they had a fantastic run. But it ain't like they swept the Pacers and Spurs. Anyone who doesn't think the Spurs blew that series does not know basketball. Now if Greg Oden can play, Miami will be tough to beat. But when they play against big teams, they really struggle.
SI.com: Shaq faces the most criticism of your studio analysts. Why do you think that is?
Barkley: Listen, man, we love Shaq on the show. I don't understand why people worry about this. It's like when I watch ESPN's show. I have never watched and thought, "This guy sucks." For me, it's, "Dude, who is playing tonight and tell me some stuff." But I don't hear criticisms of me either [laughs].
SI.com: I know you love the NFL. What teams have impressed you this year?
Barkley: Every team that has a good quarterback is successful and every team that does not have a good quarterback is not. Andy Reid has done a great job, but the Chiefs getting Alex Smith took them to a whole other level. They have changed the rules so much where it is a 100 percent offensive game and your team is dictated by how your quarterback plays. It is amazing to me.
During the meeting with reporters, the TNT crew was asked about ESPN's NBA Countdown. Here's a partial transcript:
Question: How aware are you of the struggles of ESPN's studio show regarding a consistent group of on-air staffers?
Shaq: The thing that I like about our show is they allow us to be ourselves. You know Chuck is an a-hole, you know Kenny knows everything, you know Ernie is a genius and you all know that I mumble [laughs].
Johnson: I don't think any of us think about anyone else. We have enough stuff to deal with for our own show on a nightly basis. I just think there is no way to predict what will work. You put these three or four guys together and it clicks, but there is no way to know that. We did not know it would happen when it was just Charles, Kenny and I. I thought Charles would get sick of this after six shows and say, "What else I am going to do?" But to his credit he still comes in saying the same he does every night: "Let's have fun tonight."
Smith: I pay attention to what is happening in TV, but in the 16 years I have been doing this, I have probably watched the other basketball shows 16 times. I don't like to listen to anyone else. I want to form my opinions. We talk like we are watching the game at home together.
Barkley: I don't look at it as a competition with those [ESPN] guys. First of all, those guys are our friends. We know all those guys and we want their show to be successful. It's not a competition. We are not on the same nights. It's not like we are matching up against them. I watch their show all the time so I am going to watch the games they have on. But I don't watch their show to critique their talent.
Shaq and I like to make people have fun. I think that is probably the difference in our shows. We really want to make people have fun. Think about it. We are on from 8 to two in the morning and you can't keep people's attention span for that long a period of time if you just X-and-O people to death about basketball. That's why our show is different.