In the long and often fruitless search to match the buzz and unplugged genius of TNT's Inside the NBA, ESPN has consistently tinkered with its pregame show. Last year it forsook a traditional studio host and moved its base from Bristol, Conn., to Los Angeles, and management historically has fallen in and out love with talent at a rate Don Nelson would admire.
On Thursday, ESPN formally announced yet another makeover: Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose have joined holdovers Magic Johnson and Michael Wilbon on NBA Countdown. The new quartet will debut Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. ET for a one-hour show before ESPN's doubleheader of Knicks-Heat (8 p.m.) and Clippers-Lakers (10:30 p.m.), the network's first broadcast of the regular season.
Before Thursday's announcement, ESPN had seriously pursued former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, a potential television star given his outspokenness on, well, everything. Van Gundy suggests that commissioner David Stern quashed his candidacy. The NBA says it was ESPN's decision and ESPN's alone. ESPN says the network and Van Gundy differed on potential assignments. (For something less confusing, I'd recommend the movie Inception.)
Clearly, ESPN wanted Simmons. The online franchise turned down offers for a Countdown role in previous years. Why was the timing right now?
"I nearly ended up doing it last year but Grantland just wasn't ready yet -- we had only been up for six months and we had half as many people as we have now," Simmons told SI.com. "We were working insane hours and I couldn't have asked the others to pick up any more slack. I would have had to drink three times as many Diet Cokes as Mike Francesa," a New York sports-talk personality who is famous for pounding the beverage during his radio shows.
"We're in a much better spot now and I couldn't be happier with Grantland in general," Simmons said. "For me personally, it's going to be such an incredible NBA season that I couldn't resist being involved. Just seemed like a logical next step for me. Remind me we had this conversation when I'm working 80 hours a week next May and starting to look like one of the Walking Dead zombies."
Rose said he was only asked to do Countdown within the last three-to-five days and jumped at the chance to work with his basketball idol, Johnson.
"I have a very good pulse on what is happening in the league," Rose said. "I think my experience and my wealth of knowledge of not only players but the front office ... makes me a great addition."
Said Simmons: "With me and Jalen, I think at the very least, we can all agree that we don't give a crap: We are going to say what we are feeling. I'm not going to pull back punches and neither is he. I think the calibration of this show is going to work. Last year I felt like they were almost leaning too much on Magic to be the be-all and end-all. …I do want the show to have a level of sophistication that I think you have to have in this day and age, especially with all the basketball bloggers out there. They are all so smart, they know how to use statistics, they know how to use the trade machine. I don't want to say you have to cater the show to those people, but you have to earn their respect, too."
In a statement crafted from corporate central casting, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross said the new team will fit perfectly with the show's format.
"Bill brings a deep knowledge of the league past and present, an entertaining style and an ability to articulate his inventive thoughts from a fan's point of view," Gross said. "Jalen's lengthy playing experience and his strong, informed opinions will give fans great insight into how and why things happen on the court. They join a team that includes one of the greatest players of all time and one of our most versatile and engaging commentators."
Jon Barry and Chris Broussard, the other two members of last season's Countdown team, have been reassigned. Barry will be a game analyst while Broussard will work as a courtside reporter on selected games and serve as an ESPN NBA insider. How successful will this iteration be? Simmons and Rose will surely add some bite. Simmons also brings a ready-made fan base thanks to his Internet fame, which should result in some additional viewers early if only for the curiosity factor. Last year, the show's panelists too often deferred to Magic -- especially Wilbon -- and as genial as Johnson is, he doesn't have the broadcasting chops to be the center of every discussion. With Thursday's moves, Countdown certainly becomes more watchable. Whether it becomes must-watch will depend on the chemistry of the quartet and whether the show pulls back from being the Magic Hour.