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February 26, 2010
Analyzing the Analysts
The NBA's TV Contingent

by Kevin Pelton

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There are a few issues in life which, to me, are so subjective and personal that it is impossible to change anyone's opinion on the matter. I include on this list politics, music and sports broadcasters--all of them things I usually try to leave out of my writing. What makes a play-by-play broadcaster brilliant to one set of ears makes him unlistenable to another, and both sides will be equally passionate about their opinion. I once nearly came to blows with The Painted Area's M. Haubs when he declared that he wasn't a fan of my favorite color analyst working local broadcasts, Golden State's Jim Barnett. (OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But not by that much.)

When I read my esteemed colleague John Gasaway's treatise on college broadcasters, however, I decided I needed to put my usual aversion to the subject aside and offer some complementary thoughts on the men (and woman) who bring NBA games into our homes each week. (With apologies to Kelly Dwyer, who delivered the definitive broadcaster analysis in 2006.)

ESPN/ABC

Mike Breen's ascension to the lead role on the league's marquee broadcasts has been a pleasant development after ESPN/ABC struggled at first to find a signature voice. (Remember Brad Nessler or Al Michaels' brief foray into the NBA? Me neither.) Breen calls a good game and is enough of a presence not to be overwhelmed in a three-man booth while at the same time making room for colleagues Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. If there's one quibble I have with Breen, it's his tendency to drift into lectures on morality from the booth, something that comes out much more regularly when he's calling Knicks games on MSG than in his national work. Still, he's earned his spot courtside on the NBA's biggest games.

Jackson is perhaps the most frustrating commentator in the game in that he can bring solid insight for an ex-player at times, but too often he falls into predictable trends, both in terms of his catch phrases and a rigid viewpoint of the game. Jackson and his former coach, Van Gundy, trade well on their past relationship when teamed together and clearly enjoy verbally sparring. Van Gundy has reinvented his image as an analyst, showing a light-hearted side that was rarely on display during his time as a head coach (who can imagine Van Gundy the coach suggesting with mock seriousness that McLovin' should win Best Actor?). Van Gundy knows the Xs and Os as well as anyone, but occasionally that takes a backseat on the national broadcasts, and he could probably do well to mix them in more frequently among the wisecracks.

Hubie Brown is a legend in the NBA blogosphere, and deservedly so. He won Coach of the Year before I was born, and also won the award six years ago. In between, Brown taught both the game and the second person on TNT. Now 76, Brown hasn't lost a step as an analyst. Basically, what I'm look for a color commentator to do is explain to me something I wouldn't know because I've never been in an NBA huddle or called a play. That's precisely what Brown does, and he respects his audience enough to expect them to be able to follow along. Mike Tirico, a consummate pro as a play-by-play broadcaster, has built a nice rapport with Brown as part of a long-running pairing.

While Dan Shulman is a fine play-by-play broadcaster, you get the sense the NBA is not his passion in the same way as MLB or even NCAA basketball. Dave Pasch rarely stands out, for better or for worse. I'm biased, but any time Kevin Calabro is working a national game I'm more liable to tune in simply for the quality of Calabro's call of the game. Calabro is an artist with the English language and one of the best in terms of capturing the emotion and excitement of a game.

Since being turned loose as an analyst of men's basketball, first at the NCAA level and more recently with the NBA, Doris Burke has been a revelation. She does her homework, knows her stuff and pays keen attention to the little things that might otherwise escape the detection of fans. As ex-players go, Jon Barry isn't bad, and I enjoy his willingness to poke fun at his own career (or go along with the joke), but he's not bringing a ton to the table.

TNT

When it comes to basketball play-by-play, Marv Albert is and probably always will be the gold standard. As a kid, I spent hours honing an Albert impersonation; he simply was the voice of big-time NBA basketball to me. Albert no longer gets to call the NBA Finals, but his role at TNT offers him big stages in the conference finals as well as the All-Star Game and Albert remains very much equal to the task. As Bill Simmons has noted, Albert sets up his partners better than any of his peers, and he calls a near-flawless game as well. Unfortunately, Albert is now regularly paired with Reggie Miller. Miller's concept of winning basketball is dubious, and he too often struggles with the language. Few color men could be Albert's equal, but Miller does not approach this standard on his best days. Mike Fratello is not only more insightful but also more humorous as Albert's partner.

Kevin Harlan's style, like Gus Johnson's, could come off as over the top if it did not seem so sincere. Yes, Harlan really does get that excited about a Golden State-Phoenix game. I could do without some of Harlan's repeated expressions (though "With no regard for human life!" deserves to stay), but I like his attention to detail. It still stands out to me when last year he made sure to properly phrase that some team had "seven seconds with which to work."

Harlan's partner, Doug Collins, is one of the NBA's most divisive broadcasters. I know some people who cannot stand Collins' obsession with certain factors of the game, like how teams end quarters. Collins seems like he values statistics, but isn't up to speed on the latest analytical trends, which is why we're left with him frequently citing the misleading points per shot instead of some variant of True Shooting Percentage. Ultimately, I think Collins teaches well in terms of playcalling (his strength as a coach; I remember someone joking in either When Nothing Else Matters or Playing for Keeps that if Collins could call a timeout and draw up a play each time down the floor, his teams would never lose) and does a good job of offering perspective on strategic trends throughout a game.

Inside the NBA probably deserves a mention here. Charles Barkley can still crack me up, but I liked him a lot more before he started to take himself and his analysis so seriously. Kenny Smith is solid (I'd hire him as my coach before Jackson, often rumored to make that move), but the strength of the show remains Ernie Johnson, a broadcasting legend and probably the best straight man in the history of the role.

ESPN Radio

Basketball is not a sport that translates particularly well to radio, but one of the treats of driving down to Portland for Sunday games in the late winter and spring is the chance to pass the time listening to the national games on the radio. The solid Jim Durham is a good fit for the medium and works very well with Jack Ramsay, who remains one of the NBA's sharpest minds and preeminent teachers into his mid-80s. ESPN's other crew features Calabro, a natural on the radio, and Will Perdue.

Local Broadcasts

For the most part, the NBA's local TV broadcasts, now featured to a national audience with NBA League Pass, feature too much homer-ism. I'm not opposed to rooting for the home team--some of my favorite Seattle broadcasters are guilty of that sin, and I think most fans want their local broadcasters pulling along with them. (Ultimately, they are the far more important audience, not us neutral League Pass viewers.) Where this crosses the line is the incessant complaining about calls that go against the home team. NBA referees have enough image problems, and the league's own broadcasts feed the mindset that referees don't give certain teams the respect they deserve.

(One exception to this rule is Tom Heinsohn, since not even Celtics fans believe his critiques of officiating. It's part of his shtick at this point.)

As mentioned before, Barnett is my favorite local analyst. Few color commentators on local broadcasts have the mindset of educating fans. In part, the local broadcasts feature more ex-players than ex-coaches, and the latter tend to have the most to offer in terms of Xs and Os, naturally. Barnett is the exception. His insight into late-game situations is unmatched, and Barnett offers his analysis objectively, occasionally keeping his otherwise sound but more exuberant partner Bob Fitzgerald in check.

In addition to the Warriors, I end up watching a lot of the L.A. Clippers' broadcasts out here on the West Coast, and I enjoy the chemistry between Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith. Few broadcasters could handle the travails of the Clippers with the equanimity Lawler manages. New Jersey's broadcasts deserve mention, since they are essentially mini-national telecasts with Albert and Ian Eagle splitting time alongside Fratello and Jim Spanarkel. Something similar is true of the Knicks, who use Breen and Kenny Albert with the inimitable wordsmith Clyde Frazier doing commentary. Orlando's duo of David Steele and Matt Guokas is notable as the league's broadcast most likely to reference advanced statistics or offer a shoutout to the blogosphere. Lastly, Indiana's Chris Denari and Clark Kellogg or Quinn Buckner deliver a solid, no-frills broadcast that is perfect for the heartland.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton for more impromptu thoughts on NBA coverage.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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