On televised NBA coverage, ESPN and otherwise

Rachel Nichols is out, The Jump is over and ESPN has little reason to believe it should change its coverage.

Good morning. Let’s basketball.

The Abbey in the Oakwood, Caspar David Friedrich

Sports Business Journal reports that Rachel Nichols will no longer appear on ESPN’s NBA programming and that her daily NBA show, The Jump, has been cancelled. Nichols herself confirmed that the show is over on Twitter.

This is all related, one presumes, to the explosive tapes of Nichols grousing to an NBA insider about Maria Taylor taking work from Nichols during the 2020 NBA Finals in what Nichols felt was a diversity play from ESPN. The comments were captured by ESPN cameras in Nichols’ bubble hotel room and transmitted back to ESPN HQ, where they leaked internally a year before being made public as Taylor’s exit from ESPN approached.

Now Taylor is at NBC and Nichols is off the air.

Malika Andrews took on sideline duties for the 2021 NBA Finals amid this controversy. You may have noticed that Andrews got a few interviews in the afterglow of the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship that Nichols would ordinarily have had. I did, at least. It would be smart to presume that Andrews’ role in ESPN’s NBA coverage will continue to be elevated, presuming she wants that. She was a breakout star of the bubble from a reporting aspect; hosting frequent T.V. shows would likely cut into her ability to continue to be a newsbreaker.

A lot of smart NBA and ESPN watchers spent the aftermath of the Nichols news talking about how The Jump failed. This is the thing, though: it didn’t! It ran five years. ESPN running a relatively stable show about the NBA for five years is an incredible feat. The cast of co-stars changed: Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst were regulars as panelists, along with a rotating cast of retired players. Kendrick Perkins and Richard Jefferson took on prominent roles last season. But the show was largely the same from its genesis: cover the NBA like the dramedy it is. This worked. If it hadn’t, ESPN would have changed or spiked The Jump a long time ago.

(This is where I note that the stated purpose of this newsletter is much more aligned with the stated purpose of The Jump than anything else. Whether that’s bias or not, you decide.)

People on NBA Twitter say they want televised NBA coverage with more substance. Less soap opera, fewer bold takes, more Xs and Os. As someone who grew up watching Ron Jaworski break down film on NFL Matchup early on Sunday mornings, I’m all for it. (If I’m remembering correctly, on the West Coast we got NFL Matchup at 6 a.m. in the early ‘90s. Not exactly primetime.)

ESPN — or Turner for that matter — hasn’t had a program like that focused on the NBA in ages, if ever. The closest we have is Tim Legler’s popular (on NBA Twitter, at least) segments on Scott Van Pelt’s late-night Sportscenter episodes. NBA TV features some of this type of analysis, but it’s scattered over programs and voices. TNT’s NBA coverage, of course, has Kenny Smith’s giant augmented reality Telestrator (a marvel of modern technology, really) but that’s five minutes during halftime. Someone really should have a 30-minute regular product completely focused on Xs and Os, at least to see how it does. But given the high quality of internet-based tactical analysis from people like Steve Jones Jr., Zach Lowe (again, a Jump regular and ESPN employee), Mo Dakhil, Nekias Duncan and Mike Prada, and deep analytic analysis from Kevin Pelton (an ESPN employee), Ben Falk and hordes more — can ESPN compete for attention there?

(Well, they could hire Steve Jones Jr. and Nekias Duncan and give them a 3-month crash course in television presenting, put them with an experienced host and give it a run, couldn’t they? #BringTheDunkerSpotToESPN)

(This is also as good a spot as any to make my plea that ESPN use Bomani Jones, the unquestionably clearest, most thoughtful and smartest thinker in sports, to talk about interesting NBA stories on television as much as possible.)

The Jump as a brand is so closely tied to Nichols that ESPN couldn’t continue it with Andrews or someone else in the host’s seat. But there has been no indication whatsoever that ESPN brass is displeased with the performance or model of The Jump itself, based on its longevity and prominence. A show like that — focused on the narratives dominating the NBA discourse, setting the agenda for the conversation, reflecting and amplifying NBA Twitter (for better and often worse), being yet another ESPN take factory when things are otherwise boring — will almost certainly be back.

The dirty little secret that isn’t much of a secret about ESPN’s broadcast NBA coverage is that there really isn’t much of it. There’s The Jump. They talk about big NBA stories and debates on the take factory shows (some of which, like Highly Questionable and usually Around the Horn) and show highlights on SportsCenter. There are specials around big events like the NBA Draft and the start of free agency. The ESPN Countdown program is severely limited in actual airtime — time for analysis, that is — and tends to be a little more focused on take explanation than analysis. ESPN’s halftime coverage is basically non-existent. You get only a couple scattered actual minutes of talk about the game in there. You have the games themselves: Jeff Van Gundy can talk tactics with the best of them (JVG on Lowe’s podcast is a revelation), but on T.V. you’ll more often find him complaining about league rules interpretations or debating Mark Jackson about something or other. Doris Burke and Richard Jefferson provide good in-game analysis. Evening NBA games lead straight into SportsCenter, where you’ll get highlights and hopefully a Legler segment (sometimes an interview with a star player fresh off the court — SVP is a talented interviewer, so these are often great). That’s about it. Everything else: go to the internet for podcasts or website stories. (Of which there is a lot to recommend, to be sure.)

The second dirty little secret is that Turner, which runs NBA TV on behalf of the NBA, has a bunch of great on-air talent but really has not worked to build brandable products on NBA TV or TNT outside of those centered around the personalities of the classic Inside the NBA cast. There is enough airtime on NBA TV to have a couple of daily analysis shows. Money isn’t really an object for the NBA in this regard; producing TV isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s all relative for the league, and putting together a Jump-like show controlled (in a way) by the league on NBA TV alongside a tactics show alongside an interview show — I know it’s easier and cheaper to just throw up a replay of the previous night’s game or an NBA classic, but give it a shot to build up interest in the league from the ground up. And bring back Inside Stuff while we’re at it. (Heck, #BringTheDunkerSpotToNBATV.) Not everything NBA on TNT or NBA TV has to star Charles Barkley or Ernie Johnson. It’s a crime that Turner didn’t put Chris Webber on a regular interview show before he left during the playoffs. Steve Smith is on a lot for the primetime NBA highlights and chatter — he should be on a lot more, too. Channing Frye could be the starring retired NBA player on a Jump-like show for NBA TV; he’s hilarious and smart. Put him with Kristin Ledlow, Stephanie Ready and Chris Haynes; boom, that’s a great daily studio show.

I don’t need to tell you that Candace Parker, Dwyane Wade and Adam Lefkoe are awesome with Shaq, because we’ve already discussed the Tuesday Inside the NBA cast recently. More of them, please. (Does Parker have time for more of anything?) When Draymond Green is available, why isn’t he being paid to be on my television screen constantly? Why didn’t that Bleacher Report (a Turner subsidiary) interview with Kevin Durant air in primetime on NBA TV with lots of hype and 20 minutes of studio hosts and analysts losing their mind in the aftermath? Draymond Green has the potential to be the greatest on-screen NBA personality in history, between his raw interview and talk skills and his superb ability to break down the game (from having an incredibly high basketball IQ). His T.V. contract should be broken down like Steph Curry’s NBA contracts.

To be clear, little old me doesn’t know nearly enough about the inner workings at these networks — the ratings, the costs, the availability of the talent involved — to say what they should be doing authoritatively. What I do know is that it constantly seems like a misuse of the firehose assets of cable networks to not build up brands around the NBA. We can all talk about shows we’d watch or personalities we’re attracted to watching. Like it or hate it, ESPN and Nichols built something with The Jump that was all about celebrating the NBA. Something like it will probably spring up. Let’s hope that in the future a diversified type of NBA programming springs up, too.

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Scores

Mercury 106, Liberty 79 — Brittney Griner had 26-9-6 in 30 minutes. And, uh, this.

Skylar Diggins-Smith with 27 and 5 assists in 31 minutes. I know we have our big four with the Mercury on the outside but … the Mercury could absolutely win the title, right? Griner is still in that top echelon of WNBA centers.

Schedule

All times Eastern.

Aces at Dream, 7, NBA TV
Sparks at Sun, 7
Wings at Mystics, 7, Amazon Prime

Links

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Emoni Bates, one of the best prospects in men’s basketball, committed to Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers. Like I said the other day, Memphis is becoming the center of the prep basketball universe.

Emma Meesseman won’t play for the Mystics this season.

The three players most likely to get fewer free throws if the NBA actually cracks down on iffy shooting fouls: Trae Young, James Harden and … Steph Curry.

The NBA scored well on Richard Lapchik’s annual racial and gender report card.

Justin Tinsley on Nipsey Hussle’s legacy within the NBA.

I’m undereducated on the topic but the cool Suns Aztec uniform concept might not quite hit the mark from a historical standpoint?

Be excellent to each other.