The Big LeadThe Big Lead

ESPN Needs to Make NBA Countdown More Than Just Background Noise

As the NBA season officially enters free agency mode, several players’ futures look as mysterious as that of ESPN’s NBA Countdown‘s. For months, reports have surfaced and pieces have been written, including here at The Big Lead, regarding Michelle Beadle. And while Beadle’s future on the show remains up in the air, according to Andrew Marchand, there is a strong possibility Paul Pierce and Chauncey Billups are replaced by Richard Jefferson and Jay Williams next season. The problem is they need to make changes not to just makes changes, but ones that will give them the same thing they have lacked for years now: An identity.

NBA Countdown‘s rating are and will be fine because it leads into live NBA games. Worst-case scenario, it is background noise, and quite frankly, that is what the pregame show has become. Even top-notch salesmen would struggle to sell this show to those who don’t currently watch. It isn’t newsworthy, in fact, rarely ever does the NBA news from ESPN that gets turned into talking points come from its most important NBA show.

The biggest question they have: What do they want it to be? Humorous, like a conversation amongst friends? That is what TNT presents; that is a great show. Opinion-driven? They certainly have the NBA opinionist to sell it on that. They can even trump Charles Barkley by promoting Stephen A. Smith as the face of the show. They could elect to attack Inside the NBA‘s sole weakness: News.

Bizarrely, they don’t bring on their insiders nearly enough. ESPN could create headlines four times a week by an increased role for Adrian Wojnarowski. Given the widespread interest in NBA rumors, particularly, ones that focus on free agency, it’s rather shocking the show has not figured this out. Brian Windhorst makes news weekly with his thoughts and predictions but they all come from every platform but Countdown. The appetite for discussion revolving around player movement is a trend that has become unavoidable over the past 24 months and no show should capitalize on that more than NBA Countdown. Yet no show has capitalized on it less.

It starts with the host. As I wrote in May, Beadle has clearly struggled as the host of this show. It’s unclear at this point if she will return next season or not; she says she will. If she is removed or begins hosting fewer days of the week at some point in the future – midseason could make sense  – the two names most in the industry point to are Maria Taylor and Rachel Nichols. They both bring completely different styles. Yet both would be the first key step into turning the show into more than just the show on before the games begin.

Taylor doesn’t have the experience of Nichols but has exceeded expectations in every role ESPN has placed her in — most notably, when she began filling in for Beadle last summer on Get Up. Taylor brings a certain level of energy, passion, knowledge, and fandom to a desk that rubs off and improves everyone around her. She also proved this hosting the NCAAW coverage this past season. Taylor compares to a high energy point guard that lifts up the shooters and gets them to come out of their comfort zone. Translating to media, the often bland former athletes around her open up and are far more interesting when passed to by her. Taylor has stood out in high-pressure moments such as interviewing Nick Saban and her coverage of the NBA draft this season. Which bodes well for her in a role that includes coverage of the NBA Finals. Taylor’s history indicates she would turn Countdowninto a much more upbeat, entertaining, memorable, relatable, and better show.

Nichols excels more as a hybrid-host as opposed to teeing those around her up. Her strengths also come from monologues and her must-see sit-down interviews with stars, hence the success of The Jump. Inserting Nichols into the role Beadle currently has would do neither of those and is not an ideal move. The best way to use her on Countdown would be to have her do exactly what she is doing now on The JumpThe Jump or a show very close in format would certainly be an upgrade as ESPN’s NBA pregame show but is needed in the daily lineup. So there is a roadblock there as it’s hard to imagine her doing two shows that close in format. With that said, if they were to figure that issue out, there is no denying, if given the freedom to be herself, Nichols would give NBA fans multiple reasons to tune in.

That is the first big step. However, in either of those scenarios, an analyst issue would still exist. Replacing Pierce and Billups with Jefferson and Williams accomplishes, well, nothing. They are lesser names and bring exactly what Pierce and Billups are bringing. Sure, their performances would be enhanced next to Taylor or Nichols but neither along with Jalen Rose are going to turn into a show featuring must-hear voices. In fact, The pickings of former players that would be upgrades are slim. At the moment, the belief is Dwyane Wade does not have a great deal of interest in doing a pregame show, which means ESPN should do what they should have already been doing: Using those that didn’t play.

Stephen A. Smith would solve all these problems and some. If they can pair him with Michael Wilbon at times, all the better. Smith is also reportedly interested in doing the show.

The format used on SEC Nation is what should be mimicked by Countdown. An energetic and into the content host, interesting former players, and a compelling personality synonymous with the sport.

These are all moves that ESPN can make that would give basketball fans a reason to watch beyond just getting it on the right channel before the game begins. However many problems you think ESPN has, a shortage of NBA talent is certainly not one of them. But NBA Countdown, this marquee show that surrounds the NBA Finals, is and should be prioritized as such.