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.
In addition to greater emphasis on analyzing the game during the telecasts, the NBA Network needs to do more than function as a Headline News Channel. Right now, the NBA Network telecasts a few games and runs a highlight clip, interview and live excerpt show in the evenings. During the 15 head-to-head matchups of the playoffs, the network needs to begin telling more about the teams, their base offense, how they usually defend the pick-and-roll and how they control the pace of the game.
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.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.