ESPN's most recent round of layoffs hit like a ton of bricks on Friday as numerous on-air talents were given their walking papers, some after many years at the network. There was perhaps no stronger reaction than to that of the news that Jeff Van Gundy was among those talents. JVG had his flaws as an analyst but he'd been a staple of ESPN and ABC broadcasts for two decades and remains one of the top color commentators in the game. Even after the weekend it still feels shocking that ESPN chose to send Van Gundy on his way instead of doing whatever they could to preserve their top NBA broadcast team as rights negotiations begin in earnest over the next 12 months.
Regardless of what you think of the decision, JVG is gone and he ain't coming back. To ESPN, anyway. Which means there is an open spot alongside Mike Breen and Mark Jackson that the network has to fill. There is a chance they roll with Breen/Jackson as the two-man crew for the 2023-24 season but that is not likely. They've worked as a trio for nearly 10 years. Switching back to a duo would be more of an adjustment to everyone's work flow than a new person in JVG's place would be. And, frankly, just Breen and Jackson wouldn't be a very good booth.
Who might ESPN tap to replace Van Gundy? It will almost certainly be an internal candidate, as laying off Van Gundy only to then write a big check to pay somebody from a different network to join wouldn't be a great look. Between the layoffs and the cash shelled out last year to overhaul the Monday Night Football booth, a promotion from within seems like the only path.
Here are a few potential options on that front.
Redick is, at the moment, ESPN's most popular basketball personality who isn't already on a broadcast and as such is a prime candidate to step in for JVG. He has brand recognition as a former player who suited up for a lot of different teams. He has the acumen and the ability to break down basketball lingo to an unfamiliar audience in an appealing manner, as his constant duels on First Take have proven. Between that and his podcast Redick has a lot of experience talking ball in different environments.
Working in his favor is that ESPN has used him on broadcasts before, including playoff broadcasts this year, and he was pretty good. He wasn't perfect, but he was good. The comments he made leading up to the postseason about the speed of the game affecting the analysis he can give suggests he understands the flow of a broadcast. There is a lot to like about Redick as a candidate; the question is workload-related. Can Redick do his podcast and regular studio appearances while also doing national games every week? If not, is ESPN willing to sacrifice the great theater of him going toe-to-toe with Stephen A. Smith or Mad Dog Russo in order to get him in the booth? Would Redick be willing to ease off the podcast? If he can do it all, great. But if not, there are decisions to be made that might derail his potential in this arena.
Burke was the lead commentator for ESPN's B-team booth behind Breen/Jackson/JVG during the playoffs this year, doing half the first and second-round games alongside Mark Jones. She did a good job, as is expected. That's the strongest contributing factor to Burke as a JVG replacement-- she is very much a known quantity at this stage of her broadcasting career. There is very little risk involved. ESPN knows they'd be adding a pro to their A-team, someone with a great combination of acumen and personal anecdotes to share with the viewers. It would also be a landmark moment in broadcasting to have a female personality in the network's lead booth for an entire season's worth of nationally-televised games rather than the spot appearances Burke has made for a while now.
She is, in many ways, the safe option, which is why the job may not be hers. ESPN has to know they have traveled into stormy waters by choosing to break up their top NBA booth a year out from rights negotiations. Presumably, they would like to keep those rights, but the league may be less inclined to work with them if the onscreen product is uninspiring. Burke would ensure the quality of the booth would not take a dive, but does ESPN want to shoot for a Tony Romo-type emergence by going with a more risky personality with more potential? If so, then Burke won't be in consideration. Otherwise she should be thought of as the frontrunner.
Jefferson is a very interesting candidate. He is obviously a bit of a goofball, which plays well with some and not with others, and has a habit of toeing the line of family-friendly content when it comes to his one-liners. But his film breakdown on NBA Today is always really good and he swiftly builds great chemistry with whomever he shares a desk with. More relevantly to this particular gig, Jefferson knows what it takes to be a game analyst for a full season of regular-season basketball. He's held that position for the YES Network for a few years now and has amassed a fairly significant body of work. ESPN has liked him enough to throw him on a few games every year. Do they like him enough to give him the big job?
The former NBA champion feels like the "big swing" option for the network since they will not want to hire from the outside. He's pretty well known as a former player and isn't that far removed from playing with LeBron James himself. He has a magnetic personality and the sort of quick wit required to go viral as a broadcaster. Jefferson could be a hit, a broadcasting sensation that gives ESPN's NBA coverage the sort of boost its needed for years now. Or he could flame out because his wacky sense of humor is a blast on studio shows but may become tiresome over a two-and-a-half hour broadcast. If ESPN likes his YES Network tape, though, then he's a serious candidate.