Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman's combined talents have elevated First Take into ESPN's premier debate show over the last five years. As close to a perfect yin and yang as possible. Both men deliver takes that blow the audience's mind with regularity, but Kellerman delivers his with a calm smoothness that offsets Smith's tendency to get fiery. And, of course, there is nobody better at listening to Stephen A. Smith rant his heart out than Kellerman.
But there's a chance the partnership will come to an end soon. Michael McCarthy of Front Office Sports reported today that Kellerman could leave First Take at some point in the near future, leaving Stephen A. without his longtime partner.
Max Kellerman’s nearly five-year long stint on ESPN’s “First Take” may be coming to an end.
Kellerman could leave his debate chair opposite Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim Rose for more extended duty on ESPN Radio, sources told Front Office Sports.
The decision is not finalized, said sources, but if Kellerman leaves Smith is not expected to have a daily debate partner. Instead, he could debate various ESPN personalities as well as high-profile guests.
This is not a big surprise. Kellerman has always been a big radio guy and seems to enjoy spreading his wings to cover boxing and MMA more than arguing with Smith about the latest NBA drama for the ninth day in a row. Kellerman is important to First Take as the foil to Smith, but Smith's personality is what drives engagement and viewership on the show. Kellerman isn't necessarily replaceable for ESPN as an entity but certainly is on First Take.
The natural question would be who Kellerman's successor would be. McCarthy notes above that it very well could become Smith's show as he debates a rotating cast of characters from the World Wide Leader's inventory. The network already does that to an extent to keep the show interesting. McCarthy also raises the possibility of reuniting Smith and Skip Bayless, as was rumored to be in the works earlier this summer. But money is an obstacle for that reunion and ESPN doesn't seem likely to fork over a bag for Bayless after jettisoning a ton of talent over the last few months.
There isn't one particular potential panelist that seems a suitable replacement for Kellerman if ESPN decides to search for a permanent debate partner for Smith. Guys like Dan Orlovsky, Damien Woody and Kendrick Perkins have all done well in spot appearances on First Take but don't possess the same breadth of knowledge Kellerman brings to the table. Mike Greenberg has the kind of widespread, general knowledge about nearly every sport that would work, but he's much better as a traditional host and couldn't pull double duty with Get Up and First Take every day.
It does seem like ESPN's best option is to keep Smith on permanently and rotate his debate partners. The network has a lot of talent on its roster who are specialized to talk about a particular sport, i.e. Orlovsky with the NFL or Perkins with the NBA. Not everyone is suited to the fast-paced, intense debate structure of First Take on a daily basis and that's OK. ESPN may as well utilize its depth rather than immediately try to find someone to step in for Kellerman and attempt to replicate the synergy he and Smith have built over the years.
It would be strange to see Smith up there without Kellerman after a half-decade of working together. But if Kellerman makes a move, ESPN knows it has a lot of different paths to take. That's all the network can ask for in a situation like this.