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The Future of the NBA on TNT

For decades, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and Ernie Johnson have made watching hoops on Thursday must-see TV. Now there’s a new studio show on the network, led by Dwyane Wade, Candace Parker, and Adam Lefkoe, and featuring the controversial and crusty takes of O’Neal. The generational divide is often striking and usually very entertaining.

Harrison Freeman

It’s pretty simple as far as Shaquille O’Neal is concerned. The Hall of Fame big man has big opinions, and those opinions are based on a lifetime of success in basketball. He’s paid to offer those opinions on television, where he’s been part of TNT’s iconic studio show Inside the NBA for the past decade. You don’t have to agree with those opinions, but he doesn’t see why you or anyone else should get all worked up about them, either. That’s the problem as Shaq sees it. People are too sensitive, particularly the current crop of NBA players.

“I call it G-14 classification,” Shaq told me over the phone in his familiar baritone, a voice so deep and low you almost have to crouch to hear it. It was a Thursday evening in mid-April. The Bucks and Hawks were playing on TV, and O’Neal had just done the TNT halftime hit along with his longtime television teammates Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley. The game had resumed when Shaq rang, but he nevertheless took the time to explain the whole G-14 thing to me. It’s a Shaq colloquialism that can be distilled to what he holds as a self-evident truth: Some guys have earned the right to say whatever they want. “When you hear certain things from certain people,” O’Neal continued, “the first thing you’re gonna say to yourself is, ‘How do you know?’”

Shaq was reminded of when he became a Laker, but before he won the first of his four NBA titles. During that period, the conversation was more about his potential than his past, and O’Neal recalled Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar describing him as a great player who hadn’t won anything.

“Who am I to come at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? He’s absolutely correct,” Shaq said. “He was giving me criticism, but he was telling me, ‘OK, if you want to be a real Laker great, you better win some championships, big fella.’ A lot of these guys now, with this social media thing, they take it personal. I always said, ‘You think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to being a dominant big man? You think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to what it takes to be MVP in the league?’ A lot of these guys take it personal instead of listening to the criticism. It’s like we don’t have constructive criticism no more.”

He somehow stopped short of concluding with kids these days. The whole thing was offered in the fatherly-and-utterly-convinced Shaq-knows-best manner that has come to define his television persona. O’Neal turned 49 in March, and at times it feels like he’s Shaqtin’ his age now more than ever. And yet, on TNT’s flagship Thursday show, O’Neal still somehow qualifies as the youngster; Johnson is in his 60s, while Smith and Barkley are in their mid- to late-50s, respectively. The quartet has been together for what seems like forever. When Barkley joined Inside the NBA in 2000 (!), he was just 37 and fresh off a Hall of Fame career. Two decades later, the show has been canonized, but fresh probably isn’t an adjective anyone would use to describe the program or the panelists.

Inside the NBA is a well-known commodity that has claimed more than 20 sports Emmy Awards, has been honored by the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and received the inaugural Transformative Media Award from the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2020. But none of the accolades can stop Father Time or the evolution of the NBA game. There’s a whole host of Gen Z (and, to a lesser extent, millennial) viewers who know the Inside the NBA crew as analysts but have only fuzzy recollections of them as players—if they have any memory of them at all.

The same could be said about today’s young 20-something players, a group more likely to have seen episodes of “Shaqtin’ a Fool” on YouTube than NBA games with Shaq on the floor. That isn’t an indictment of anyone but rather a fairly obvious statement of fact. Consider the reaction of 19-year-old Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards upon being informed that the franchise was being sold. When told that Alex Rodriguez might be one of the new owners, Edwards replied: who?

The ever-widening age gap between the Inside the NBA analysts and the players they cover has at times created friction, with conversations about the modern NBA periodically devolving into what can feel like the real-world equivalent of an “OK Boomer” rejoinder. In January, promising young Rockets big man Christian Wood got some attention for calling Shaq a “casual” because O’Neal seemed largely unfamiliar with his game. Just a week later, Shaq told Jazz star Donovan Mitchell in a postgame interview that he doesn’t “have what it takes to get to the next level”—and that was after a game Utah won. Mitchell looked bewildered and bothered by the knock, and briefly addressed it with the rest of the media in the larger postgame scrum, saying of O’Neal, “If he doesn’t like my game, he doesn’t like it.”

None of that was exactly new for Inside the NBA, a program that built its brand in part on combativeness and the willingness of the panelists to sling and defend unmoored opinions couched in humor. If nothing else, it has made for years of entertaining TV—the older legends boasting about back in my day, while the new players grumble that their aging on-air critics are out of touch. But while those heated exchanges usually happen between the established big-name analysts and the younger athletes they’re paid handsomely to critique, this season has featured more than a few similar on-set scraps between the panelists themselves.

That’s where the generational divide has lately become most interesting. The Tuesday version of Inside the NBA—which isn’t called Inside the NBA at all, but is instead branded separately as NBA on TNT Tuesday despite having a similar look and format—has gone to great lengths to highlight a new cast of younger characters. While Shaq is the one crossover from the Thursday show, the Tuesday edition is hosted by Adam Lefkoe and features Dwyane Wade and Candace Parker, all three of whom are in their 30s. When Wade and Parker talk basketball, they think and sound less like dusty TV talking heads and more like today’s players—in Wade’s case because he recently retired, in Parker’s because she’s still an active member of the Chicago Sky.

“I think it helps to be kind of in the midst of your career,” Parker said when I asked about her approach on television and how it’s informed by the fact that she’s still playing. Chatting with Parker off-air was a lot like listening to her on-air. She was charming and funny—direct, too. “Every athlete pretends like they don’t pay attention to what the media says. But ever since we’ve gotten Instagram, you can tell by the captions they’re reading and watching what the media says. When I’m in the WNBA and I’m playing, there are analysts you really respect and you like. And there’s analysts you don’t necessarily care for as a player. Not because they say something bad about you. It’s how they say it or the way in which they attack. Or whatever. I try to bring that on air. Playing right now, I know the criticism that I like and that I kind of respect, and I try to go about it like that.”

Wade said essentially the same thing. When he was playing—and this will no doubt shock you—he used to get pissed at the way Barkley would evaluate his effort. Now that he’s on Team TNT with Barkley, he understands what Charles was trying to accomplish, though. Like Parker, Wade has tried to serve as a conduit to the “player’s perspective.” He’s played with and against a lot of current athletes. He said he knows “how they feel” and “how they think,” and he figures translating that for the viewers is not only part of his job but “part of my brand.” Besides, for this generation of athletes, Wade is one of the icons they grew up idolizing. NBA players are some of the most famous and celebrated people on the planet, which is why it’s often amusing to see them practically giddy in postgame interviews when granted an audience with DWade.

“They have smiles from ear to ear every single time,” Lefkoe said about watching grown-up pros fall all over themselves when they talk to Wade. “I sit back and laugh every single time. Luka came on and he was like, ‘Hey what’s up, Luka, it’s DWade.’ And [Luka] starts giggling. We were talking about it. ‘Dude, you’re at that interesting age where you recently retired but all of these kids grew up on your Heat runs. They all saw that. It’s so fresh in their minds.’”

It makes for an often stark contrast between what TNT has offered for years and what it’s now serving up. That’s a feature, not a flaw. Where some networks might seek to create a uniform experience, regardless of the on-screen talent on any given night, TNT has leaned into the differences.

“Anything other than this kind of more progressive version of a studio show would potentially be too close and would be potentially competitive as opposed to complementary to the Thursday show,” said Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports. “We needed that as a differentiator.”

Suddenly, the gripes viewers used to have with certain crusty takes—like, say, Barkley dismissing the Warriors as a jump-shooting team, or Shaq and the gang bemoaning super teams and star stacking—are being voiced on-air in real time by Parker and Wade. For perhaps the first time in the show’s history, the calls complaining about some of the show’s retro basketball opinions are coming from inside the house. All of which invites questions: What should a modern NBA studio show look and sound like, and what should viewers reasonably expect from analysts these days?

Like pretty much all things everywhere, 2020 did not go well for the Tuesday show. (Can we just call it the Tuesday show for now? The NBA on TNT Tuesday is a bit clunky and corporate, not to mention that I’d have to keep typing it and you’d have to keep reading it.) On the weekend before the spinoff was set to debut last season, Kobe Bryant died in a tragic helicopter crash, leading the network to scrub the Tuesday launch in favor of an emotional tribute. Not long after, the pandemic hit and led to the suspension of the NBA season. Every time the Tuesday show seemed like it might get going, some unanticipated event intervened to functionally press pause.

“I’m not going to lie. In the beginning, there was a lot of pressure,” Lefkoe admitted to me over the phone. On Tuesdays, he’s mainly charged with keeping the proceedings from completely derailing while setting up Parker, Wade, and O’Neal with easy assists they can hammer home. I suppose I expected Lefkoe to play it semi-straight when we talked, but instead—like the other three—he was candid about the show, his coworkers, and how they’re all unavoidably measured against the original article. “Because you look around and you go, this is a big deal.” If we’re operating under “a typical sports cliché,” Lefkoe said, Inside the NBA is “definitely on the Mount Rushmore” of sports TV programming, along with ESPN’s College GameDay and SportsCenter. “I know I’m missing one. Mount Rushmore was four,” Lefkoe laughed. “I’ll think of a fourth.”

The underlying if unspoken truth there is that TNT doesn’t have any real rivals. NBA studio shows are almost entirely extinct—ESPN notably has The Jump, but the network’s pre- and postgame shows are largely toothless—which leaves the network in a unique position to plan the future of the genre by experimenting with its present product. Turner Sports essentially gets to control the conversation and set the standard in that space. To that end, TNT executives said the Tuesday group was brought in to supplement the Thursday show rather than compete with or eventually replace it. Which might even be true. But it’s also true that comparisons were inevitable, as is speculation about the future of the network’s NBA talent. (Kenny, Charles, and Ernie are reportedly locked into long-term deals and are unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.)

With the way 2020 unfolded, there wasn’t much to grade the Tuesday show on. At best they could be given an incomplete—to the extent that anyone noticed they’d joined their TNT classmates at all. But if there was little spark surrounding the show last season, this season has produced more than a few explosive moments. Perhaps the biggest of all came in early March, when Parker gave a detailed lecture on modern NBA defense, pick-and-rolls, and the necessity of switching.

Parker did everything but rap Shaq on the knuckles with a ruler while Wade—Shaq’s former and now current teammate—backed up her analysis every step of the way. O’Neal’s counterargument was thin by comparison but predictable: When he played, they did things differently and won rings.

A few weeks later, Shaq stepped on another rake when he suggested that perhaps the WNBA should lower the rims so the players could dunk more—creating an opportunity for Parker to drive the lane and posterize him once more.

And then just one week after that, Shaq was back for more—the cartoon coyote flinging himself off the basketball cliff while Parker dropped another fact anvil on his head.

Not surprisingly, the Reddit NBA community delighted in the exchanges and championed Parker’s knowledge. Even Wade couldn’t resist teasing Shaq on social media. But while corners of the internet predictably wondered whether there’s tension between Parker and O’Neal, Shaq didn’t seem fazed in the moment or afterward. Perhaps that’s because he’s lived his life as an outsized one-named figure who hasn’t had anything to prove to anyone in a very long time. Perhaps that’s because he was taking his own advice and trying not to be so sensitive about the pushback. Just as likely, he’s a TV veteran who understands every good wrestling promotion needs a quality heel to help put the new face over.

O’Neal’s own version of events is simply that he enjoys Parker’s company. When we talked, he gushed about her and said there’s mutual respect—and when you have that, Shaq said, “you can say whatever you want to me.” For Parker’s part, she offered that Shaq is constantly texting the Tuesday group and checking up on them. She said he called her daughter on her birthday, and he plays Uno with her daughter whenever she accompanies Parker to the studio. While Shaq and Wade have obviously known each other for a long time—winning the 2006 NBA title together in Miami—Parker and Wade go back a ways too. When Parker was in college at Tennessee and Wade was a pitchman for T-Mobile, he made sure to send Parker the official DWade Sidekick so she could be “cool in school.” (As with the rest of the gang, I had a delightful conversation with Wade, and I was honored that he was comfortable enough to disclose a possible NCAA violation.) Their collective collegiality and history have made it easier to brush it off whenever they’ve tried to brush each other back on set, and it’s helped them find the kind of chemistry that can take time on TV.

“I don’t know if people can hear or see on the camera,” Wade said, “but when they have those moments back and forth, I’m sitting there cracking up. I’m dying laughing.”

Shaq pointed out that they’ve been busting each other’s chops forever on the Thursday show. He didn’t see why Tuesdays should be any different. Parker and Wade might take a more clinical and analytical approach, but Shaq figured his role remains the same—clown on his coworkers, and get clowned on in return (which evidently includes everything from picking his nose on-air to falling asleep in a back room while Parker and Wade shoot grapes into his mouth).

“We are different,” Parker said about her exchanges with Shaq. “We come from different eras. I am a female. He is a male. He played in a different era than I play in and they play now. We’re different ages. There are a number of different things that go along with it. For me, and I hope this is the case, when the cameras are off that’s the same exact way we act in the back. When we’re getting makeup, when we’re watching television, we debate.”

That last part is telling. The cast on the Tuesday show might have been chosen to better reflect the times, but the show’s format remains the same. The embrace-debate ethos is hardly new to sports television or studio shows. Disagreements attract eyeballs and boost ratings. The talking head industrial complex is built on this. And just like in the world of professional wrestling, whether what’s happening on camera is kayfabe or not is ultimately less important than whether people watch. NBA on TNT Tuesday is ostensibly a basketball show, but really it’s a television show. Above all, the network sees it as entertainment—and the folks at Turner Sports are cool with your being in on it.

How the TV sausage gets made depends on who does the grinding. Some network shows are heavily scripted and the production is tightly controlled. In certain cases, straying too far from preapproved topics or time allotments is frowned upon. TNT’s Tuesday and Thursday NBA shows are decidedly … not that.

On one recent episode of the Tuesday edition, Lefkoe narrated highlights from that evening’s NBA action. “Check out this lob,” Lefkoe exclaimed—with Shaq, Parker, and Wade shouting their reactions right behind him. If you were tuned in that night, you might have gotten the impression that the panelists were seeing the clip for the first time in real time. That’s because they were. Lefkoe is regularly the only member of the program to attend preshow meetings. That is by design. It mimics the Thursday approach applied by Ernie Johnson.

“I wish I could send you the rundown for the NBA on TNT versus other networks,” Lefkoe told me. “The rundown will be—for example last night. Bucks-Warriors highlights. Sixers-Celtics highlights. Standings. And that is it. It’s complete freedom.”

The conversational nature of the show has its advantages and disadvantages. To the network’s and panel’s credit, the program hasn’t shied away from having serious conversations about pressing social and racial issues. After former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was recently convicted of murdering George Floyd last summer, the show dedicated its pregame segment to discussing the matter, what it meant for a deeply divided nation, and how much progress still needs to be made, particularly in the way we approach policing in this country. It was a thoughtful and important conversation, and it continued after the Clippers won and Paul George joined the show.

With less weighty matters, the Tuesday show can be more inclined to go off topic and indulge their whims. One minute they could be cruising along as they break down the Chicago Bulls’ effort on a given night and the moves the organization made at the deadline, the next they could hit a ditch when they swerve to address some random tangent. That happened not long ago when Shaq wondered aloud what Zach LaVine might look like on Golden State next year. The reaction from Parker and Wade was swift and mirrored my own at home. LaVine? On the Warriors? Next year? What? Why? How?

“Shaq looks at things differently because Shaq is a one of one of one,” Wade explained. “He doesn’t understand a lot of things that we may understand. He’s a one of one. We’re Earthlings to him for real. He’s human but he’s not.”

If there’s anything they all agree on, it’s that O’Neal knows how to put the quarter in and wind them up—intentionally or not. That usually results in Parker reacting in a way that gets screen-captured for Twitter’s amusement. (Wade and Lefkoe independently offered that she has “a memeable face.” “My facial expressions tell everything,” Parker said, laughing when I relayed the message. “Whether I say it or not, they know what I mean.”)

It also doesn’t hurt that Shaq is generally eager to be the punching bag and take the hits. In February, O’Neal took some flack on social media when Ernie Johnson asked him if he had his eyes on “Pascal.” “Nah,” Shaq replied, “I got my eyes on Siakam.” Had another former player made that kind of gaffe on a show as heralded as Inside the NBA, he might have been mortified—to say nothing of the producers and the executives who put him on the air and in that position. Not so with Shaq and TNT. The very next week they turned it into a name game bit where O’Neal doubled as a 7-foot piñata.

If this is starting to scan like I’m setting up Shaq as the avatar for what’s wrong with the older generation of analysts and what’s right with the new group, it shouldn’t. I don’t blame O’Neal for not sweating the details. Basketball is a lot. There’s so much of it, and there’s only so much you can squeeze out of a mostly meaningless late-season game as we all wait for the playoffs to finally and mercifully arrive. The idea that we need Shaq to watch every second of every game or else he’s some kind of impostor is deeply dumb. (Besides, his Rosetta Stone lessons probably eat up a lot of time.) We’re in an NBA era defined by analytics. The math won out long ago even if Shaq, Kenny, and Charles often pretend otherwise. But that doesn’t mean any of us need them hunched over an advanced-stat sheet vomiting up half-digested faux opinions on true shooting percentages. There are countless outlets that will scratch that particular nerd itch if you’re so inclined and do it in a much smarter and authentic way. No one wants them pretending to be eggheads or cookie cutter broadcasters, even if angry Twitter trolls and Reddit bros would have you believe that they’re desperate for Inside the NBA to operate more like a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

“On paper, Shaq might look like the odd man out,” Barry, the Turner Sports executive, put it bluntly. “But in practice, he’s not at all. He creates a dynamic there that’s really complementary to the show.” There’s a permission structure, Barry explained, that makes it OK for Shaq—or Kenny or Charles or Parker or Wade or any of the analysts—to not be perfect, to make mistakes, to be self-deprecating. Barry called that execution “part of the charm.” Lefkoe had a more colorful way of describing it.

“I look at it as a four-man weave,” Lefkoe said. “I come and I dribble the ball. I give it to Wade. Wade does three big crossovers and everyone goes, ‘Oooh.’ Shaq looks at it and goes, ‘Oh, that’s how we’re doing it,’ spins the ball on his finger, and then Candace grabs it from him and goes, ‘Gimme that, you dummy.’”

Dwyane Wade was tired. It was late, and it had been a long day. That didn’t stop his Tuesday show colleagues from having a little fun at his expense. That evening in April, Wade was wearing a gray pinstripe suit over a black T-shirt. A bouquet of white and gray flowers were stitched onto the jacket, just above the left breast pocket—leaving one viewer to tweet that it looked like someone had spilled a milkshake on him. Wade initially tried to shrug it off, which is not exactly how the show operates. Certainly not on Thursdays, and not on Tuesdays if Shaq was going to have anything to say about it.

“DWade,” Shaq interjected, “tell him YMLI.”

“I don’t know what that means, Shaq. I’m not saying that.”

“Your mama like it.”

“Ah, nope. Nope.”

An episode that had momentarily sputtered to an awkward halt was suddenly moving again, powered by Shaq smirking and laughing at his own joke while the other three playfully shook their heads. And just like that, everyone seemed energized again. Parker, Wade, and Lefkoe have all acquitted themselves nicely this season, but in moments like that it’s O’Neal who swoops in with the veteran assist.

In a format where everyone knows their roles, Shaq has been comfortable in his for a long time. Meanwhile, Parker and Wade would like to continue growing into theirs. At first, Wade wasn’t sure whether he wanted to do television. Now, after a (mostly but not quite) full NBA season, he thinks he might have found a new career, and he regularly works with a voice coach to polish his performance. For her part, Parker has positioned herself as the voice of reason on Tuesday, the studied stand-in for exasperated viewers at home. It’s a good corner to claim, though availability might be an issue.

When we talked a few weeks ago, she was ramping up her workouts in preparation for the WNBA season. Training camp was rapidly approaching. She said she came to an agreement with the Chicago Sky where most of her NBATV commitments would be done via remote, but she still hoped to hop a plane to Atlanta to shoot the Tuesday show as needed, even once the W begins playing. Most weeks during the NBA season she flew into town on the morning of the show, then flew out first thing Wednesday so she could spend more time with her daughter in Los Angeles. It was an already-hectic schedule that figures to grow more demanding as her on-court career overlaps with her on-air responsibilities.

Juggling the logistics comes with complications, but that aside, Turner Sports seems pretty pleased with the product it’s produced on Tuesday night. It sounded to me like the network wants to keep the show together moving forward, but at every turn everyone I spoke with insisted that the new Tuesday group wasn’t meant to replace the original Thursday version. That’s probably right, at least for the foreseeable future. Right now, no one appears in a hurry to usher the Thursday crew into retirement. And yet just as young players inevitably replace older ones, the same is indisputably true of TV analysts—especially when there’s no shortage of former athletes who age out of the game and look to break into broadcasting.

Of course, you’re unlikely to hear anyone at TNT cop to crafting a succession plan—even if that blueprint is on TV every Tuesday for everyone to see. You certainly won’t catch anyone involved with the Tuesday show talking about taking over the kingdom or being in line to the Thursday throne. The way Lefkoe put it, they’re not trying to copy what the Inside the NBA guys do, but “we’re also not trying to reinvent the wheel.” Lefkoe asks Johnson constant questions, just as Parker and Wade try to use O’Neal, Smith, and Barkley as resources. Sometimes, when they’re in the same town but they’re not on the air, Wade will invite Lefkoe over to his house. They’ll eat together and talk about their show and, if it’s Thursday, they’ll put on Inside the NBA. More times than not, it ends up serving as a sort of study session. Because if the underlying objective is to entertain on Tuesday, what better source material could they review?

“We’re watching it,” Wade said, “because this is our game film—to be able to watch some of the greatest do it, right?”

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