On a recent morning high above the Manhattan skyline, TNT's Charles Barkley was opining about one of his favorite subjects:
Asked about recent reports that he was interested in becoming an NBA general manager, Barkley offered a unique sales pitch on why he should get a shot. "I always say: Some of these other guys suck, so give me my chance to suck," Barkley said. "I know I can do a better job and I think it would be fun to build my own team. [TNT's] Kenny [Smith] has interviewed for a couple of GM jobs and we talk about it all the time. We say, 'What is this guy doing? Why did they draft that guy? Some of these guys have done a bad job, plain and simple. If some of these other guys suck, I want to suck, too.'"
Everyone is an armchair GM at the beginning of the NBA season, especially those who analyze the sport on television. On Monday TNT hosted a luncheon on the 10th floor of the Time Warner Center in midtown Manhattan, which featured Barkley in his usually unplugged state. He was joined by Smith and Ernie Johnson, the host of TNT's popular Inside the NBA studio show, which remains the best in class among all sports.
The always-voluble analyst offered some interesting takes on a number of topics ...
On who will win the NBA title:
"There are five teams that can win the championship, but I think all five have questions. Clearly, the Lakers are the favorite but you have the Ron Artest question. San Antonio has done a great job with Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair and Richard Jefferson. The question for the Celtics is how is Kevin's [Garnett's] health and how is Rasheed [Wallace] going to act. I look at Orlando. How will Vince Carter and Brandon Bass fit? Those are the four best teams to me. Then there is Cleveland and can they keep Shaq healthy."
On his being arrested last Dec. 31 on suspicion of drunken driving in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Test results showed Barkley had a blood-alcohol level at .149 percent, nearly twice the legal limit of .08 percent in Arizona. He pleaded guilty to two counts of DUI and "responsible" to a third charge of running a red light. Barkley served 36 hours in jail and received a reduced sentence for attending alcohol education classes.):
"I drink. I like to drink. I'm never going to stop drinking unless the doctor tells me to. Clearly, you've got to be careful not to drink and drive. It's interesting when something happens. Well, someone will say, 'Is he an alcoholic?' No, I'm not an alcoholic but I like to drink. I don't drink every day. I think the classes were great for me. But I just leaned that drinking and driving is a very serious thing and not to do it. But everybody is watching everything you do and it's becoming more and more intense now. Anything you do will be out there.
On the class of 2010 free agents:
"Let's be realistic here. LeBron is the only guy who I think is a franchise changer. There are bunch of guys who will be free agents who are good players, but LeBron is the only one where you go, 'OK, we might not be championship material if we get LeBron but we are close.' He's the only guy. Let's say you get Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Your team is going to be better but I don't think that makes you an instant contender. I think if you get LeBron and one of those other guys, it's different. I think you get Dwyane and Chris your team is pretty good but I don't think it's a champion."
And on athletes having short memories:
"I was watching football the other day and I saw Cedric Benson talking really bad about the Bears. He hates the Bears and blah and blah. I was like, 'Bro, you did suck in Chicago. They drafted you No. 3 and they wanted you to do well. But you did suck. If you did what you were supposed to in Chicago, we would not be here."
No topic generated more discussion at the luncheon than what James will do at the end of season when he can opt for free agency. "LeBron James should stay in Cleveland," Barkley said. "People say you are going to be bigger if you are in New York but the only people who say that are people from New York. LeBron is not going to be bigger than he already is."
Added Smith: "There is no rationale for him to leave and go to any other city other than New York. There are only three franchises you can leave Cleveland if you are LeBron James: The Lakers, Celtics, and the Knicks. All the others are parallel in terms of mystique or anything else."
Expect to see and read plenty about James and the league this season. As a television entity, the NBA is coming off one of its best seasons in years. TNT regular-season coverage was up 14 percent for its 53-game schedule, and the network's 43 postseason games were up 16 percent from the previous year. ESPN's coverage of the NBA regular season on ABC was up 16 percent from 2008, an increase that represented the most-viewed season on ABC in six years. The network was also up 19 percent in viewership for the playoffs and drew historic numbers for its airing of the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Nuggets, including the five highest-rated and most-watched basketball games, pro or college, in ESPN history.
No team is a better television draw than the Lakers and they'll be seen often on national television. TNT's biggest regular-season game likely comes Jan. 21 when Shaquille O'Neal and James host Kobe Bryant and those Lakers in Cleveland. Other featured TNT matchups include a New Year's Eve game between the Heat and Spurs, a Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 18) tripleheader (Suns-Grizzlies, Celtics-Mavs and Magic-Lakers) and a 2008 Finals rematch between the Celtics and Lakers (Feb. 18). In all, TNT's schedule features a maximum 10 appearances each by the Cavaliers, Nuggets and Magic.
"We work with the league but we do have our choice of which teams will draw ratings," said Turner Sports president David Levy. "Last year I had a great conversation with [Knicks president] Donnie Walsh. I said, 'Listen, we don't have any Knicks games on Thursday night,' and he said, 'That's OK, we haven't earned the right for your Thursday night telecast.' The players know and the coaches know: In order to get national exposure on TNT or ESPN, you have to be a quality team that produces numbers."
Indeed, the Celtics and Lakers will appear on ESPN/ABC 16 times (the maximum number a team can appear on a network) followed by the Cavs (14) and the Magic (14). ABC's games include six appearances each by the Celtics and Lakers and ESPN/ABC will show five Christmas Day games including a doubleheader featuring the Magic at Celtics (2:30 p.m.) followed by the Cavs at Lakers. The finals rematch between the Lakers and Magic comes on March 7 on ABC.
In all, ESPN and ABC will show 90 games this season, including 75 telecasts on ESPN and the NBA Finals and 15 regular-season games on ABC. (ESPN Radio will air 26 regular-season games with play-by-play announcer Jim Durham and the never-out-style Jack Ramsey).
Unlike the volatility we saw during the offseason among NBA free agents, the league's broadcasting partners mostly remained the same regarding talent. The most newsworthy hire was Turner's addition of Kevin McHale, the former GM of the Timberwolves who will join Johnson and analyst Chris Webber on NBA TV's Fan Night on Tuesday nights. After he was released by Minnesota, McHale met with both TNT and ESPN and opted for the Turner deal because he said he liked the idea of the newness of the platform and the promise of working with Johnson. He is scheduled to work 45 nights for NBA TV//Turner, including some selected broadcasts. McHale has a dry wit and has long been unafraid to speak his mind, as he did with SI.com on a number of topics.
On the Artest signing:
"It will be good or bad. I just can't see him being neutral. Ron's not a neutral-type guy. I don't see him having a hugely negative effect because of the strong personalities of Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher. I don't think they will allow him to be disruptive. That part of me thinks it will be good. And if it is good and if he does all the things he says he will do -- which is defend and not hold the ball, and share the ball -- it can be great. But Ron is one of those guys who says a lot of stuff. Sometimes you have to live it. You can't just say it. I hope it works out well because it will be fun.
On the Timberwolves, with whom McHale spent 15 years:
"Ricky Rubio staying over there was the best thing to happen to that team. You bring Ricky over with Jonny Flynn, and they will be young enough as it is. Rubio was only 18 going into the draft. He needs to stay over there and get a little stronger. That whole team will depend on how healthy Al Jefferson is. Al is, to me, one of the finest young players in the league. And as good as a player as he is, he's that good of a person. You don't say that a lot in our league, and believe me, who he is as a person is as great as his talent. So if he gets healthy and they play inside out, get the ball inside to him and let him create shots for other people, they have a chance to win some games. But they are just so young and I don't know how well they shoot it."
On Shaq's impact in Cleveland:
"It's not Shaq but who plays with Shaq. Shaq will do his thing and he has always played better when he had a power forward -- whether it was Robert Horry or Udonis Haslem -- was there to space the floor and shoot jump shots. It will be [dependent on] whether Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can complement him. They have to find people to allow Shaq to do what he does. Plus, LeBron still has to be able to drive. So who will play with Shaq will be an indicator of how he'll do it. He will be what he is. I don't care how old he is. When he gets in middle of the paint and widens out, there is no getting around him."
On getting another NBA job:
"Once you are in the fight, you are always itching to get back in. I've enjoyed the last three months as much as I've enjoyed three months in a long time. It's been very relaxing. You know these preview shows are no different than what we did around our office. It's like, 'Hey, what do you think the Bucks? How are these guys going to do?' You were always evaluating the other teams, the moves they made, how they will fit together. The nice thing is I could roll out bed and do this thing. But there is something about being in the fire and getting your nose knocked and bloodied. I came in the league in the fall of 1980 and it's been a long time I have not been affiliated with a team."
McHale said he will occasionally pop in on the Inside the NBA studio show, setting up some potential interesting conversation with he and Barkley. "How will Kevin do? I don't know," Barkley said. "Everybody don't relax on TV. But you know what the key is? You can't act like you are on television. I hope he's just able to relax and have fun."