Today is Valentine’s Day, and with the steaming hot smell of breakups accompanying some petty BS argument between partners in a relationship wafting up from the frozen tundra of a brutal 2021 winter and your columnist too snowed in by the greater Seattle area’s complete failure to understand the concept of “winter storm awareness” to get businesses back up and running and with COVID and the American vaccine response a complete failure so egregious that it makes the owners and front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves (6-20! Jesus, guys, get it together!) look like a triumph of leadership to make Julius Caesar look down approvingly from the afterlife…
…well, let’s just say I’m in no mood to be nice to anyone today. Especially since I made the mistake of watching a morning of utterly inane “sports content” on ESPN, unable to do anything about it because my home Internet connection and Steam decided to get into an argument that had the upshot of “take a chill pill and play video games” not an option.
Because my gods, is there anything worse than major national media coverage of professional basketball? It’s almost like ESPN in particular could adopt as its motto “Celebrate the Ignorance” when it comes to anyone who isn’t LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
When LeBron was in Cleveland, at least then there was some kind of incentive for ESPN to pretend it cared about small-market teams. When Durant was in Oklahoma City, playing alongside Russell Westbrook, the same applied.
The greatest boost James Harden ever got to his MVP case boiled down to nobody at the so-called “Worldwide Leader” wanting to set foot in Wisconsin. Thankfully, Giannis Antetokounmpo is just that good and the Bucks a regular-season powerhouse under Mike Budenholzer, so Harden had to settle for just the make-up call MVP in 2018 after the league’s media collectively realized (and yes, I’m among that collective media—I don’t have an MVP vote but I do get an awards column to pontificate) that Westbrook deserved the 2017 MVP award about as much as Wall Street “deserved” $1.5 trillion last March while the average American had to survive on table scraps and eviction moratoriums—seriously, the US is the Big Bill Hell’s auto commercial of nations.
We have a league that’s getting hurt by nothing so much as complete fatigue with the completely trash way it’s covered in the mainstream media.
There are so many great stories in the league, so many ways you can attach your fan wagon to the many, many draft horse guys who can pull you forward, but if you turn on ESPN, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Lakers and Nets and maybe the Pelicans—stop trying to make Zion Williamson happen, ESPN, until he and that garbage fire of a franchise that couldn’t put Anthony Davis over in seven years of trying actually do something, you’re just cramming an 11-14 team down everyone’s throats and trying to pass it off as a Finals contender—are the only teams in the league.
Sure, there’s lip service to the Celtics, maybe the Clippers, and the Sixers are finally getting media coverage that suggests that someone actually looked at the standings, saw them in first place, and frantically tried to find some highlights on YouTube, but the 22-5 Jazz and resurgent 16-9 Suns may as well not even exist.
And when the media does cover Phoenix? Well, either they’re outright trying to put a hex on Chris Paul and expecting him to fall flat on his face in the playoffs or they’re looking at the box score, seeing the mind-blowing scoring explosions Devin Booker‘s putting up (just like always; he’s been doing it since he was a rookie) and conveniently not understanding that Booker, by WS/48, is garbage (.071) and by VORP is only the seventh-best player on the team.
Then again, that would require a national NBA talking head to understand even the basics of defense, which as always Booker can’t play for beans. He’s a horrific defender, the kind of guy who can score 30 in a game while his defensive assignment torches him for 40.
You wouldn’t know this from watching ESPN, though. To them, anyone who scores 30 points in a game is an All-Star, and anyone whose 24.4 points per game ranks him in the top 20 in the league (14th through games of February 13) must by definition be a superstar, just ask Twitter.
There used to be a time when ESPN could get away with this. Allen Iverson‘s place in the Hall of Fame is built on the notion that putting up lots of points, no matter how stupidly inefficient a player is while doing so, no matter how much he’s a coach-killing bad-character guy, and no matter how much he couldn’t lead a herd of cattle to an open field of grass never mind an NBA team (one great performance in one Finals game in a series his team proceeded to lose in 5 does not a Hall of Fame playoff legacy make, and he took 41 shots to get those 48 points), that doesn’t make him any less overrated.
The media talking heads said “look at all those points”, we looked at all those points, and we were suitably bamboozled because never mind this site, John Hollinger and Dean Oliver weren’t even media figures yet. It wasn’t until the decade was in its waning years that anything even close to MLB’s advanced-stat revolution was anything more than a twinkle in the most serious hardcore basketball enthusiast’s eye.
In 2021, having all that media attention focused on one tiny little slice of the sport hurts basketball as a whole.
What’s more, the low quality of ESPN broadcasts in particular and the polarizing nature of guys like Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson makes it such that it’s getting harder and harder to sit through a game. The action on the floor, besides being the same old teams that if you’re not a fan of them, you’ve got no interest in watching, isn’t compelling enough to overcome the annoyance factor of any commentator not named Mike Breen (or, on TNT, his just-as-good counterpart in Kevin Harlan.)
At least when Charles Barkley offers up a hot take that shows he only watches the games that are on his own network, he’s got Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson there to give him a “c’mon man” and longtime Inside the NBA fans who can laugh at the act.
ESPN’s pregame, halftime, and postgame shows are so uniformly terrible that you don’t want to tune in early for a game, and you’re liable to miss the second half because you turned off the halftime show and got distracted by whatever else you ended up watching.
And it’s not like you can just, y’know, go to a game because the coronavirus saw to that and said “not on my watch.” It’ll be next season at the earliest before we’ve got fans in the seats again.
The NBA is in a newfound ratings crisis—ratings for the Finals were down 40 percent year over year and think pieces have been all over the Internet about “is this a reason to panic or is everything fine” (spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with “social justice”—racists are not the kind of people who watch professional basketball, they weren’t watching before and they’re not watching now.)
The bigger reason nobody’s watching the NBA on TV anymore, besides streaming and all that, is that the NBA on TV is terrible, especially on ESPN, and no matter how much you may love basketball, being annoyed while trying to watch it is not a recipe for ratings success.
How do you solve this?
How should I know, I’m just a stat guy. It’s not my problem. And thank the gods for that.
But seriously, ESPN. You’re a national laughingstock, you’re hemorrhaging subscribers, and your network is the new factory of sadness now that the NFL’s Cleveland Browns are actually good. Get it together.