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Friday, July 23, 2021

ESPN's Clown Show NBA Coverage, Featuring Stephen A. Smith and Kendrick Perkins Being Wrong About Almost Everything

The NBA Finals were a treat, culminating in a performance for the ages by Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, ESPN's NBA Finals coverage was often nothing more than a clown show, from the Rachel Nichols/Maria Taylor controversy to the futile and failed attempts of Stephen A. Smith and Kendrick Perkins to utter a remotely intelligent sentence. 

Smith's loud and tired act has gone on for too long, and his shortcomings have been well documented here and elsewhere. It is sad that ESPN has sunk to branding a specific edition of SportsCenter with Smith's name, but this is not surprising, as I explained several years ago: "ESPN either hires people who are buffoons and instructs them to act like buffoons or ESPN hires people who used to be real journalists and pays them a lot of money to act like buffoons." Smith leads the pack in the first category.

Perkins is a former player who should know something about the NBA, and once in a while he makes sense, but he understands that he is being paid to provide headline-grabbing hot takes, not to provide intelligent analysis. Jalen Rose did a great job of listing just a few of Perkins' hot takes gone wrong about the Milwaukee Bucks and the 2021 NBA Finals:

Young folks like this that have been doing this job, like five years, they get one or two things right, they get one or two catchphrases, then they come over here with their Dr. Seuss lines wearing their 80s pastor suits and think all of their takes are going to be hot. So let me tell you a couple of things that I heard Perk say about this series. Didn't he just slander Coach Bud the entire year about not making adjustments? Hey Perk, the number one adjustment this year was giving the ball to Middleton the last couple of minutes of a game. Jrue Holiday isn't the best two way player in the NBA. Last night you saw the best two way player in the NBA. That's actually Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Khris Middleton is not Batman. That happens to be The Greek Freak. And don't try to flip it and say now he's Superman. You can just say that take was off. By the way, what happened to your guy Deandre Ayton? Is he still David Robinson? I didn't see him. Are the Suns still a dynasty? I don't see that with a 36 year old point guard. So again, it's great to come over here and talk really loud and have all of the catchphrases, but you were so very dead wrong about the Bucks as a guy who said that Giannis should leave Milwaukee. You said Giannis should leave Milwaukee. He stayed and he delivered.

Perkins was indeed "very dead wrong," and his attempt to respond to Rose was pathetic, focusing on Rose's hair line; Rose's joke about "Dr. Seuss lines" was funny, and he followed it with basketball analysis, but Perkins' jokes fell flat and were not followed by any basketball analysis. Rose may be the only ESPN commentator who directly calls out fellow ESPN commentators. As Kwame Brown recently noted, Rose deserves credit for attempting to set Stephen A. Smith straight years ago about using the words "bust" and "scrub" to refer to any NBA player. Rose has sometimes provided mixed or muddled messaging on racial issues but his basketball analysis is generally on point.

In addition to the foolish commentary that has become as much an ESPN trademark as anything else, the network also foisted on the public a soap opera pitting Rachel Nichols versus Maria Taylor. In my recap of game four of the 2021 NBA Finals I briefly addressed the Nichols/Taylor controversy:

Can anyone honestly say that either Nichols or Taylor consistently add something meaningful and profound to the telecasts? In 20 years, NBA fans and historians will still be talking about Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Booker, and Paul, but it is doubtful that many people will remember or care who served as the pregame and halftime host for ESPN/ABC's Finals coverage. It is worth noting that Taylor, ESPN/ABC's newly anointed NBA Finals studio host, was the only one out of 100 media award voters who did not select Anthony Davis for the All-NBA Team after the 2019-20 season (Davis made the First Team after receiving 79 First Team votes and 20 Second Team votes). Taylor's excuse for leaving one of the NBA's top five players completely off of her ballot for the NBA's top 15 players is that she forgot about him. Anyone can make a mistake, and one hesitates to make extreme and/or absolute statements, but it must be asked: How can a media member who "forgets" about one of the league's elite players be elevated to a job that makes her the face of ESPN/ABC's pre-game and halftime NBA Finals coverage?

Nichols is not bad at what she does, and she is better than Taylor, but both of them are quite replaceable. For those who are unaware of the basic facts of the controversy, a private phone conversation that Nichols had with one of LeBron James' advisors was recorded--unbeknownst to Nichols, which is illegal in Florida (where Nichols was staying at the time she participated in the phone call)--and then excerpts of that recording were intentionally leaked by at least one ESPN staffer who did not approve of what Nichols said. Nichols asserted that it is written into her contract that she will be the pregame and halftime host for the NBA Finals, and she declared that if ESPN wants to prove its wokeness by expanding Taylor's role then it should find a way to do so without violating that contractual obligation. Nichols praised Taylor's work and at no time asserted that Taylor is not qualified to be the pregame and halftime host; Nichols just claimed that ESPN has no contractual right to give those assignments to Taylor.

I have not read Nichols' contract, but assuming that she knows what is in her contract and that she stated those terms accurately, she has every legal right to feel wronged if her employer essentially demotes her without cause and in violation of a signed agreement. Nichols also has every right to feel violated that her private phone call was recorded without her knowledge and then broadcast to the public without her consent. All of that being said, there is not a little irony that Nichols is facing the cancel culture after she has been so outspoken and politically slanted during many of her basketball broadcasts. Self-proclaimed "progressives" now portray Nichols as a hypocrite, as someone who claims to be down with the cause but is really more focused on herself. Nichols opened herself up to such criticism by portraying herself in a certain fashion and then daring to utter private remarks that do not live up to others' expectations of her. It is never pretty when self-proclaimed "progressives" turn on their own, as we have seen throughout history (perhaps most notably in the Soviet Union, where a person could be a hero one day and literally cut out of state-controlled newspaper headlines the next day).

The problem--which neither Nichols nor Taylor nor most people who have commented about this acknowledge--is that once you accept the view that hiring practices should be based on any form of proportional representation as opposed to solely based on qualifications then you are going to open the door to resentment, to assumptions that certain people are not qualified for the positions they have, and to a host of other problems. ESPN spends more time and energy trying to act "woke" than it does trying to fill positions based on merit, and that is a bigger issue than Nichols' privately expressed resentment of ESPN's assignment shuffling.

Taylor took great offense to what Nichols said, and Taylor subsequently refused to appear on camera with Nichols. Nichols, who is often outspoken about being woke and certainly does not need a weather report to understand which way the wind is blowing, offered a public apology to Taylor that Taylor neither acknowledged nor accepted. Taylor probably correctly assumed that the apology was not sincere, because if Nichols were given truth serum she would most likely not think it necessary to apologize for privately griping that her employer is violating her contract. We are just watching an elaborate song and dance: Nichols' apology was a necessary damage control move, and Taylor's non-acceptance of the apology was an expected response from someone who feels entitled to be aggrieved despite being elevated to a position contractually promised to another person who has more seniority and experience on the NBA beat.

ESPN removed Nichols from its Finals coverage for a day or two, and then figured out how to ease her back in without having her ever appear on the same show as Taylor. Even though Taylor won the battle to be the pregame and halftime host, it was obvious that this would be her last assignment with ESPN. After the NBA Finals ended, ESPN and Taylor announced that they have mutually agreed to part ways. Taylor will no doubt grab adoring headlines--and huge dollars--regardless of where she goes next. 

No one would dream of putting together an NBA team based on some kind of proportional ethnic representation of the U.S. or world population, and it does not make any sense to put together any organization with such proportional ethnic representation as the goal. I don't care if the pregame/halftime host is White, Black, Asian, male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or belongs to any other racial group, gender, sexual orientation, and/or religion. All I care about is that the pregame/halftime host understands NBA basketball, and can be a "traffic cop" for the other participants in the broadcast. Bob Costas and Ernie Johnson are the gold standard for the past 30 years, if not all-time. We all know that Nichols and Taylor are nowhere near that level, and it is a reasonable assumption that ESPN bypassed more qualified candidates to put first Nichols and then Taylor in the role--and even if Nichols and Taylor are the best that ESPN has, the focus on "representation" will always leave lingering doubts about how they achieved prominence.

When the focus shifts from creating equal opportunities to creating equal outcomes, we all lose.

I cannot wait until the current NBA media contracts expire, and I hope that TNT will cover the NBA Finals under the next deal.

Just to put a bow on all of this, it should be mentioned that some ESPN basketball commentators/analysts are first rate, including Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Tim Legler, and Jalen Rose. Hubie Brown's role has been reduced, but in his prime he was the absolute best, and he is still top notch even now. That is not an exhaustive list of qualified ESPN broadcasters, but the problem is that the unqualified ones are often provided the most attention, air time, and compensation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:31 AM



At Saturday, July 24, 2021 5:28:00 PM, Blogger RFU said...

The hot take phenomenon is sad and pathetic honestly…but like you said it seems that’s what it takes to get attention in this social media / buzz craving world

At Saturday, July 24, 2021 10:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All well said, David. I would add Doris Burke, FWIW, to the ranks of highly capable ESPN analysts/commentators (if she’s still even there). Was puzzled that she never got more run, but as you’ve said, intelligent commentary seems be at best a second or third-order concern there these days

At Saturday, July 24, 2021 11:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is sad and pathetic, but it will continue until the consuming public demands better content.

At Saturday, July 24, 2021 11:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

I agree that Burke is highly capable. My list, as I stated, was not meant to be exhaustive. Also, Burke has never been the analyst on the primary broadcast team the way that Hubie Brown was and Jackson/Van Gundy are now, nor has she been a staple contributor to SportsCenter/game coverage the way that Legler and Rose are now.


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