Like all NBA seasons, the last few months have been shaped by money. Free agent deals here, renewals there. Hundreds of millions for established stars like Nikola Jokić and Damian Lillard and for up-and-coming youngsters like Tyler Herro and Jordan Poole.
And then another (but still pretty big) deal came along at the last minute: 10 years and almost $200 million. The team? gymnast sports. The player? Charles Barkley.
And as is the case with NBA contracts, Barkley’s massive deal was followed by the roleplayers that trickled in. Shortly after the announcement of Chuck’s deal, it was reported that all three of Barkley’s teammates – Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith – had also reached extensions with Turner Sports.
In other words, one of the most successful and longest-serving teams in the league, Inside the NBA, holds the band together.
It’s an easily defended move. The show is a staple of NBA coverage from opening night through the loss of broadcast rights at the NBA Finals. It has won 17 Emmys. It’s probably more popular than your favorite team.
But there’s a vocal section of the fan base that will hate the move. Despite its popularity “Inside the NBA” has drawn the ire of many fans. With the league struggling with ratings and making everyone a Nielsen analyst in the back seat, some have suggested TNT should swap their happy watch party for more serious analysis. Watch Inside the NBA and any NFL halftime show and the contrast is stark. The former leaves you a fly on the wall on a tipsy night out at a fun group of friends; The latter puts you in a 300-level college classroom.
The complaints are justified. Barkley may have shed the hater label that followed him at the dawn of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, but he and the crew still spend two minutes of airtime complaining about teams and players for every minute they do spend applauding them. Even when it’s light-hearted, like the blooper role “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” there’s an underlying concern that these four might not really like the NBA.
Spend some time in the fascinating and informative hellscape of NBA Twitter and you’ll likely see plenty of rants about the “Who He Play For?” Segment designed a little superficially to highlight the fact that Barkley — who now pays nearly $20 million a year to talk about the NBA — doesn’t really know the players he’s covering.
Any hopes that TNT had listened to the complaints and ended this particular charade were dashed on opening night when Barkley once again stood up for the game and, to the delight of his teammates, blasted a Shaq on the free throw in a line-like 0-for-5. Which, it’s worth noting, is the intended and desired outcome.
The criticism hits a fair point but tends to miss the mark. Those who know where the less-heralded two-thirds of the Holiday triumvirate are playing aren’t exactly who TNT or the NBA are targeting, and they’re not why the ratings are keeping Adam Silver up at night. People watch basketball for entertainment. Sometimes that entertainment doesn’t include Horn’s sets and hedging of the pick and roll.
In the midst of writing this article came the halftime show for Thursday’s showdown between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers. My friend sat on my couch and watched (the pandemic has created a work-from-home ritual for us). I asked him what he thought of the crew.
“I used to hate her, but now I love her,” he replied. “I’ve never been on halftime shows, but I’ll watch theirs.” I texted another NBA-loving friend. The response came, “It’s the only TV sports show I watch … they have by far the best relationship and least Hottakey BS on TV.”
The first week of the NBA season will remind us that two is a fairly insignificant sample size. But both my friends pointed out the same qualities. They all liked the cohesiveness and camaraderie of the quartet and, interestingly, felt that they did best when they weren’t worried about being overly analytical. “Shaq got so good when he stopped saying smart things,” Friend #1 said. “They show their true feelings, even if it upsets influential players/coaches,” added Friend #2. Both admitted that the crew says a lot of stupid things. Neither seemed to care.
The NBA is entertainment, and Inside the NBA is entertainment. At the end of the day, that’s probably all that matters. Especially in this era of basketball coverage. Want a 20 minute explanation of Spanish pick and roll? A quick YouTube search will get you there. Want a movie breakdown? Visit Twitter or dozens of websites — including the one you’re reading right now — and you’ll find endless content. Not enough basketball nerd yet? May I introduce you to a cool new invention called “podcasts”?
It’s not what Inside the NBA is, and while that angers some, it really isn’t what most people expect Inside the NBA to be. We watch them because they’re familiar, comforting, and entertaining. They have been together forever and their friendship and relationship has grown each year. They’re not frumpy, but we know what we’re getting.
The irony of the “Who He Play For?” segment is that it makes fun of the fact that players in the NBA hop from team to team. Keeping tabs on roster changes and knowing who’s playing where is exhausting.
So it’s nice to tune into TNT on a Tuesday night and know exactly who you’re getting. Shaq, Chuck, Ernie and The Jet. Like last year. Just like next year.