ESPN can’t repeat Stephen A. Smith playoff mistake during NBA Finals

Before the Knicks faced the Pacers for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in their playoff series last month, ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” might as well have been “The Stephen A. Smith Show.”

There was a big production of Smith entering Madison Square Garden, giving the Knicks a pep talk as a fan of the team and putting his arm around Spike Lee.

A counterbalance, there was not.

ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith during Game Three of the NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns at Fiserv Forum on July 11, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Getty Images

The next day Dan Patrick, the former ESPN legend who had the gravitas to speak on the matter as he once was the network’s top NBA studio host, issued a scathing review.

“How about some impartiality here?” Patrick asked. “I was embarrassed for ESPN.”

As the NBA Finals between the Mavericks and Celtics tips off on Thursday night on ABC, Smith’s commentary should focus on the games — and not himself.

Smith is a lightning rod and most of his time is spent starring on shows that are built around his cult of personality — “First Take” on ESPN and “The Stephen A. Smith Show” on YouTube.

On those shows, people are there to see him, and with the help of a team of producers and other contributors he drives a bigger audience to “First Take” than perhaps anyone else in sports media would in that two-hour weekday morning time slot.

In contrast, viewers of “NBA Countdown” are mostly there for the actual games.

The program has had a lot of turnover over the years and it’s a challenging spot for analysts to get their shots in, so to speak, as there’s not a ton of time between commercials and content outside of the panel.

Stephen A. Smith and Spike Lee were cheering on the Knicks on ESPN before Game 7 of Knicks-Pacers. ESPN

ESPN has been chasing the TNT “Inside the NBA” dragon for eons and will probably never catch it before that dragon becomes a ghost after next season.

Smith’s Knicks shtick had to go through a phalanx of producers — it was planned, not spur of the moment — and thus there’s a metaphorical pie chart of blame to be spread around.

Smith spent years clamoring to be a part of ESPN’s main NBA studio show but in the Eastern Conference Finals he jokingly admitted to wanting less of that responsibility.

“You’ve been my partner for years at this network. You ain’t never heard me say what I’m about to say,” Smith said in a comment directed at Michael Wilbon before the Celtics played the Pacers in Game 2. “I ain’t rooting for no damn long series. I need some time off.”

He said it with a smile on his face and the rest of the “NBA Countdown” panel laughed, but there seemed to be some truth behind his words and he doubled down on the sentiment.

Stephen A. Smith accepts the Gil Nickel Humanitarian Award onstage during the 27th Annual UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation’s Taste for a Cure Event at the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotel on May 10, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. Getty Images for UCLA

“It’s gonna be a long series — but I ain’t rooting for it,” Smith said, ultimately getting his wish with the Celtics sweeping the Pacers.

Meanwhile, the network and neutral basketball fans are aligned in rooting for the two greatest words in sports: Game 7.

The drama of extra games in playoff series makes a big difference for rights-holders in driving ad revenue to help recoup the billions of dollars they pay to air live sports.

There aren’t a ton of opportunities during the year for ESPN to drive over 10 million viewers to a non-football game, but a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals is one of them.

Nevertheless, Smith openly preferred a sweep so he could travel, presumably somewhere warm by the ocean. He frequently worked remote after the series on “First Take.”

It may be a double standard that Charles Barkley can crack a similar joke and be beloved for his honesty, but there are a lot of things that Barkley can get away with that aren’t as charming from other voices.

As Smith himself has said, fair is where they judge pigs.

Smith is openly seeking to surpass the paycheck of ESPN talents like Pat McAfee, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman who have leapfrogged him in recent years and hopes that his next deal will be worth over $20 million a year.

As far as his “NBA Countdown” responsibilities go, he would be more valuable to the company if he focuses on the actual games on the sport’s biggest stage.

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