The NBA's TV Problem

The games are still covered as if it's 1995, without much explanation or analysis. Smarter announcing could build the audience--and appreciation for the sport.

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The NBA playoffs are underway, and if all goes well, there will be upwards of 90 games before the finals begin on June 3.

This should be hoop heaven for NBA fans, but for me, this wall-to-wall basketball coverage keeps pointing out how television is failing the sport that it helped make into an international phenomenon.

On TV, the games are covered all too often as if it's still 1995. On the surface, this is fine. Basketball is still a very good fit for the small screen. The primary action is always centered on the screen. The ball is always visible and easy to follow, and the close proximity of the camera and simplicity of the gear means that players can be seen clearly--grimaces, glee and all emotions in between. It makes the drama of the games that much more palpable.

Where TV is failing basketball is in not encouraging fans to develop a deeper understanding of the sport. In football, every touchdown reception usually involves a good catch, some stellar blocking to protect the quarterback, and a well-run pattern by the receiver to get open. All those things are explained in the telecast. And both ESPN and the NFL Network feature shows that go further in depth, explaining the rotation of zone defenses, defensive-line schemes, blocking strategies and basic offensive plays of each team. All this helps turn casual fans into passionate ones, and it gives everyone a greater appreciation of the strategic nuances of the game.

Basketball needs to follow suit. The game's nonstop action isn't as well-suited for immediate analysis as football, where there is enough downtime in each game to cook a small feast. The Wall Street Journal put a stopwatch on an NFL game last season and found that there were 11 minutes of action during the three-hour telecast, which leaves plenty of time for analysis. However, an NBA game consists of 48 minutes of action in a 150-minute telecast. Even allowing that some of the downtime is spent shooting free throws or showing commercials, that still leaves ample time to do something more insightful that the current trend of excerpting the predictable platitudes of a coach's huddle during a timeout. These never amount to much more than some variation on ''Let's play hard!''

NBA telecasts need to do more to show its fans the inner workings of the teams in action. What does the Portland Trail Blazer offense do in the absence of their leading scorer, Brandon Roy? What defensive schemes did Boston use in the third and fourth quarters to shut down the Miami Heat offense? NBA fans are not all star-struck worshippers of the league's superstars. Some of us are fans of the sport and care as deeply about how the game is played as much as we do who made the latest circus shot.

Most games come down to who shuts down the paint and who doesn't. If you don't, then the game devolves into dueling layup drills like Game 1 of the Denver Nuggets-Utah Jazz series. Each team has a different strategy--some even employ variations of zone defenses--for preventing close-in shots. On the perimeter, every team starts the game with a base pick-and-roll defense, and some change it during the game. In the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Portland Trail Blazer-Phoenix Suns series, the Blazers began by double-teaming the big man as he rolled to the basket. Then in the second half, they trapped the guard. This enabled Portland to slow the Suns' offense and win Game 1. While no team can afford to blatantly double-team a player on each possession, many teams employ shadow double teams, whereby another defender stays in the vicinity threatening to double-team a star at a millisecond's notice. Every team is 16 wins or less from an NBA title, and each of these strategic nuances will decide whether they hold a parade or clean out their lockers in the coming weeks.

This kind of information would bring the NBA on TV into the new millennium. An onslaught of available information encourages everyone to be a little obsessive, and it sells the game better to focus on the mechanics of the game than it does to solely buttress the celebrity of the leading players. Without it, fans are left with the misleading impression that all these magnificent NBA plays are the result of intuition rather than carefully analyzed strategy.

The irony is that basketball was once a leader in using television well to explain the game to its fans. Long before John Madden and his telestrator sought to educate fans on the intricacies of NFL offensive line play, Bill Russell was a commentator on NBA telecasts, and he often took time to explain how a good defense can dismantle an offense by using varying strategies to counter the pick-and-roll play. In addition, Russell's former coach, Red Auerbach, did a series of brief segments called "Red on Roundball," which further explicated the details of NBA play. Both men worked in the '70s when the league was struggling to find its niche on the small screen. (Magic Johnson' s first title--yes, the game where he played center and scored 42 points and grabbed 15 rebounds--was shown on tape delay.) Neither Russell nor Auerbach was involved with national telecasts by the time Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan arrived, and the NBA became a global success.

It has been almost 20 years since Johnson and Bird were players and 12 years since Jordan was a champion, yet most NBA telecasts approach the game as if all that is necessary is to turn on the cameras and cue the announcers. It isn't so simple anymore. Football broadcasters are working hard to maintain their fans' interests. Basketball needs to adapt the same approach. With ratings flat in recent years, the NBA will have to intensify the loyalty of their base audience and build new ones. Taking fans deeper into the thought process and strategy of the game is a proven method. The playoffs are a great time to start.