What ESPN Should Keep And Change From Its NBA Finals Broadcast

The NBA Finals came to an end on Monday night, as the Boston Celtics picked up a 106-88 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 to bring title number 18 to Beantown. Now that the season has officially come to an end, let’s talk about one of the most important parts of the Finals: the way that ESPN presents the whole thing.

The Worldwide Leader in Sports™ has broadcast the NBA Finals for years, and based on all the reporting around the upcoming media rights deal, that’s not going to change. That said — and I’m saying this purely anecdotally — this year, it really felt like the gripes about the way ESPN presents the Finals were ramped up. A part of this was the series itself, which featured three blowouts, but there are clearly some things that just aren’t working as they should.

We’ve seen what ESPN is capable of at its very best when it’s broadcasting an event, and the Finals just don’t seem to be getting the four-letter’s very best. It can only play the hand it’s dealt based on the caliber of the games it broadcasts — during the blowout win by Dallas in Game 4, Mike Breen just flat out asked the rest of the booth “So, what do you guys wanna talk about?” — but there are important tweaks that need to be made around the presentation of the whole thing to really hammer home that we’re watching something important.

The good news is that the baby doesn’t have to be thrown out with the bath water here, as there are a number of pieces in place around the broadcast that do work really well. ESPN has a very talented crew both in front of and behind the camera, but not everything is clicking, nor is everyone being given the full opportunity to shine. Today, we wanted to separate things into two camps: what ESPN should keep as part of its Finals broadcast, and what needs to be changed.

KEEP: Mike Breen and Doris Burke

Breen is the best of the best, and that’s not just in basketball. Think through the other major American sports and try to think of which other broadcasters bring the gravitas that he does to a specific sporting event. Jim Nantz does it with the Masters, and … that might be it. It’s not a knock on anyone else, but Breen’s got the right voice and the right energy, has built himself as an institution in his sport over his many years at ESPN, and is still exceptional at calling games and meeting the moment.

As for Burke, she’s been a great basketball analyst for a long time in just about every capacity, and getting moved to the top booth in the aftermath of Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson’s departures made a ton of sense. Her love of the game and her ability to break things down for a viewer make her really great on television, plus she’s really good at sliding in lines that are just great, like her Caitlin Clark quip from Game 5 of the NBA Finals. She should not go anywhere any time soon, and I think having a new color commentator alongside her would go a long way.

CHANGE: JJ Redick (because they may have to)

Redick got thrown into a pretty impossible spot this year, and in fairness to him, he did about as good of a job as he could for someone who was dropped into the top booth midseason because Doc Rivers took the Milwaukee Bucks job. Part of the issue is, he and Burke want to be in sort of the same spots as analysts. That can lead to some really good basketball conversation between the two, but it also created some awkwardness when the booth just needed some excitement. Redick is so serious about basketball (which is possibly going to land him the Lakers job) that he didn’t always seem natural doing fun, in-game banter with Breen and Burke, or reading highlights going into breaks.

He’s a leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, and even if he doesn’t get it, going through a proper search to find a replacement for Rivers would make sense. That’s especially true now that Breen and Burke have a year under their belt, giving us a real sense for what the booth needs next to them — I think someone a little more lighthearted, with Breen playing it straight with the play-by-play and Burke as the link between the two, would work well. Whether that’s someone already on the ESPN roster like Richard Jefferson, or if they were to go out and try to poach a TNT analyst with Turner seemingly losing broadcasts rights after next season, a mild shakeup to the top booth may be in order to loosen up what felt at times to be a stiff trio.

KEEP: Malika Andrews and Adrian Wojnarowski

Andrews has turned into a very good point guard between her NBA Today and NBA Countdown responsibilities. She knows how to set up the rest of the panel and keep a conversation moving, which is the most important job of a studio show host, especially when they’re comfortable being part of the conversation and not just getting steamrolled all the time. After years of NBA Countdown trying its hardest to find a long-term host, Andrews has answered the call, and she should stay behind the desk for as long as she wants. On top of her duties on set, she’s also terrific handling sit-down interviews with players.

As for Wojnarowski, listen, it’s not super necessary to have an insider on the broadcasts, but ESPN does a good job using him during the pregame show for quick segments and not overextending him. Here’s some insight on the Kristaps Porzingis injury, here’s an update on the biggest news elsewhere in basketball, boom, done. You get the exact right amount of Woj on NBA Countdown, and unless you’re someone who just hates slop in all forms (which, I get it), it’s worth keeping him in his current role.

CHANGE: Everything else about the pregame/halftime show

Building the whole plane out of Stephen A. Smith has come under a ton of fire over the years, dating back to when the show was hosted by Mike Greenberg and briefly featured Magic Johnson on the panel (remember that?!). Now, it’s just a mess. The only way Stephen A.’s entire schtick works is if he has someone capable of at least trying to match his energy on set. Instead, you have Smith riling himself up opposite two much more low-key counterparts in Michael Wilbon and Bob Myers. Myers wants to be positive all the time, which is certainly not a bad thing generally, but it’s just not the right energy to bring across the desk from Stephen A. Then there’s Wilbon, who is a Hall of Famer for good reason, but is much better on PTI where he and Tony Kornheiser can be curmudgeons together, as opposed to trying to get into debates with Stephen A.

The lack of a former player on set also makes for a bit of a strange feeling, although Kendrick Perkins does make the occasional appearance to fill that void, as that perspective is particularly valuable on a show that looks to provide analysis — especially in the NBA Finals, where someone with Finals experience can really speak authoritatively to the situation the players are about to face. ESPN kept bringing in active players during the Finals, but they were thrown into an already awkward panel with no one to really relate to on the desk. Chris Paul, Josh Hart, Paul George, and Julius Randle were all fine, but they would’ve looked much more comfortable on a desk with someone they view more as a peer.

While Wilbon is a Hall of Fame inductee for a reason and Myers can add insight as someone who has been an agent and a team executive, the show is crying out for perspective from ex-players with big personalities who know how to balance providing analysis with letting loose. We’ll see if Smith’s contract negotiations forces their hand in one way or the other here — I wonder if Smith coming back could lead to ESPN making a monster push for his friend, Charles Barkley, despite his recent claims he is going to retire, and then Countdown is built around those two and Wilbon, who is close with both Smith and Barkley.

And then, of course, there is the fact that the halftime show is objectively a disaster. ESPN would be better running 15 straight minutes of commercials instead of what it does now. Even when they gave their panel a bit more time in Game 5, Stephen A. just Stephen A.’d it up after there were attempts by the other analysts to praise the Celtics for how well they played in a title clinching game. He went on a very First Take-y rant about how Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic weren’t playing well enough, which works a lot better at 10:00 a.m. on a debate show than it does at 10:00 p.m. while the Finals are happening. Smith is undoubtedly a draw, but the attempts to embrace debate on this stage just haven’t worked, especially with this current crew.

Seriously, watch the intermission show during a Stanley Cup Final game. Obviously, the crew of Steve Levy, Mark Messier, and PK Subban (go Devils) get two 20-minute blocks that they have to fill, but they actually get the time and space to talk about the game within that, while Emily Kaplan interviews players and gets insight into what’s happened in the game so far. The NBA Finals broadcast does get that second thing in between quarters, but the differences between the two studio shows is night and day.

If I was made the supreme overlord of ESPN, I’d buy a beach house somewhere because I would presumably have a lot more money. And then, I’d keep Andrews as the host before overhauling the analysts. Have Redick (who I think would be awesome in a studio role with a touchscreen to break things down) on there if he doesn’t head to the Lakers, then hit up someone from NBA Today about moving to Countdown — I’d pick Chiney Ogwumike, who is very good at television and has earned this spot. Finally, I’d chase at least one of Jamal Crawford or Candace Parker from Turner, assuming the network is indeed going to miss out on the next NBA media rights deal. Those two are lights out in the studio, and would immediately bring a ton of respectability and a unique voice to ESPN’s coverage — I wouldn’t be opposed to Crawford as the person next to Burke and Breen, either, as he really blossomed in that role for Turner in the playoffs. You can even keep Wilbon as part of the show by having him do sit down interviews with players and pre-recorded featurettes, which he’s great at.

Do that, let them cook before the game starts, give actual space for a halftime show, have an actual postgame show (more on this later), and we have something special here.

KEEP: Lisa Salters

A pro’s pro, Salters has been good at sideline reporting forever, knows what to ask in the 20 seconds she has with someone in between quarters, and is a great emcee when it’s time to hand a team the Larry O’Brien trophy. The ultimate “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Salters is as reliable as they come. Unless she ever wants to lighten her workload and focus entirely on Monday Night Football before taking a few months to unwind — which, ESPN has a loaded roster of NBA sideline reporters, so someone good would get promoted — this is Salters’ job as long as she wants it.

CHANGE: More big video packages

It is completely insane to me — like, actively makes me upset — that we do not get more big video packages from ESPN. The introductory video leading into the start of the game broadcast is pretty good (it’s a little later in the post, where I bring up something else), but jump to the 6:14 mark of the below video:

While it’s not as over the top as something like this, it’s still awesome. That’s a pregame video for a Game 7 in the first round between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic! It was the single best thing that ESPN created all postseason, and it made the game feel even more important. Every NBA Finals game should get its own — we go through the entire season for the series that determines a champion, and special video packages would go a long way towards making them feel like the biggest thing on earth. One day after the NBA Finals came to an end, Sportsnet (which has a reputation for doing this) gave us exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about here with this incredible video package before Game 5 of Oilers-Panthers.

ESPN and the NBA are sitting on a treasure trove of footage that it can use to piece together gigantic video packages that set the tone for the game that you are about to watch, and the Worldwide Leader has one of the best video production teams on earth. This shouldn’t just be used, this should be a crucial and frequent part of broadcasts. Would anyone complain about a 2-3 minute long video package before games that gets you fired up to watch, either because it features clips from this series or iconic old moments from the franchises participating in it? Of course not! This is a great way to make the NBA Finals feel gigantic, and there’s no reason not to take advantage.

KEEP: Scott Van Pelt and Tim Legler on the postgame SportsCenter

Already said it about Salters, but it also applies here: Van Pelt and Legler are just great pros. The former is great at interviewing athletes after games and getting them to let their guard down a bit, which leads to especially good insight into the game they just played. The latter is ESPN’s single best basketball analyst, and watching him go to work with the telestrator is a delight. Plus the pair have an incredible mutual respect for one another, as evidenced by Van Pelt showing Legler love after Game 5.

The one thing I will say is that I do think there needs to be a real postgame show with the NBA Countdown crew, one which lets them flex their muscles a bit as analysts and give insights into what players think about a game that just happened. Give them 30 minutes to do that, then let Van Pelt and Legler do what they do best (Van Pelt’s interviews with players could be recorded during this time), and all of a sudden, you have at least an hour of awesome postgame content from a bunch of different perspectives, all of which will make sure talking about the game is the No. 1 priority. You could also bump Legler into a Countdown role, where I think he’d also shine, but selfishly, I really enjoy the rapport he has with SVP.

CHANGE: Give me a big musical score that says “NBA Finals”

Here (the 3:30 mark of the below video) is what greets us when broadcasts start.

The song is … fine? It’s a collection of strings that seem like they are designed to not overtake the visuals, which I do get. But let’s compare it to all four of the songs you get for a random ass NFL game.

All of these sound like they’re for a thing that is supposed to be a huge deal, and I have heard them played before regular season games that involve the Washington Commanders. Obviously, ESPN decided to go in a different direction, as it used the above song for its introduction and leaned into its ad campaign built around Metro Boomin’s “Runnin Outta Time” as a source of music. But going forward, I really want to hear a gigantic, epic musical score that makes me go “I am about to witness something special,” all while Breen welcomes me onto the grandest stage in the sport.