NBA Finals: Rating the Announcers

NBA Finals Announcers

As someone who frequently has to fill in on play-by-play or color analysis on a broadcast, I am pretty forgiving with what people say on mic during sports broadcasts. The action is faster than people realize at home, you have less angles to work with (sometimes your view from the floor isn’t as good as the press box camera view that you’re used to seeing when you watch a game) and while you, as a fan are watching a play unfold and possibly reacting, you’re not having to describe what just happened in a coherent, interesting way.

It’s not easy, and I make a lot of mistakes. You do enough broadcasts, you learn to get over yourself pretty quickly. Everybody mumbles words, mangles player names or reads the wrong score off the scoreboard. It happens.

However, this doesn’t give excuse to be just plain poor in what you provide on the broadcast. The play-by-play guy normally does the ‘heavy lifting’ of the broadcast; he calls the players’ names/numbers, talks about fouls, point totals, how many time outs are left for each team, items like that. The color analyst is expected to drop in insight about the game, such as what one team is doing that is working (or not), or what type of adjustments might be made to change what has happened so far. Even if the color analyst doesn’t have a specific insight, sometimes they can be very effective just by being engaged. The cardinal sin is to be boring, but a close second is to make statements that are wildly incorrect or ignorant.

And yet…

Announcers aren’t rated or even reviewed by other media members after a game. Referees have a little review, but not much. In a sports world where every play is scrutinized, talked about and reviewed by media and fans ad nauseam, almost nobody really breaks down (publicly) the announcers of a game.

There are two major reasons for this:

1. People don’t really care about what announcers say all that much, after the game is over. This is great news for those of us on the mic, because all those stupid things we said get lost in the ether after the final buzzer, for the most part.

2. The announcers are part of the media, and the media guys don’t want to openly bash other media guys very often. This is because…drum roll…we all know each other. And even if we don’t, we might in the future. You really want to find yourself in the media room at halftime sitting next to a guy who knows you called him an idiot? You’re going to see the same media guys all over the country, all the time, and there’s even a good chance you might be at the same company at some point.

But I’m going to break that, just a bit, starting today. I run a tiny startup broadcast network, NetCast Sports Network (you might have heard of it). And I’ve worked with quite a few broadcasters. What we look for at NCSN isn’t going to be the same as what ESPN or CBS are going to be looking for, but I couldn’t care less about that. This isn’t about ‘how NetCast Sports does things’ and more about what a good or bad broadcast performance is.

And I’m starting with the NBA Finals, which just concluded.

The announcers for the NBA Finals (on ABC) were the familiar team of Mike Breen (play by play), Jeff Van Gundy (color) and Mark Jackson (color). Doing a three-person broadcast has specific challenges, especially in the sense that the two color analysts are pretty much set up to step all over each other, even if they are trying not to.

These are my comments just on the NBA Finals, so don’t consider this anything other than the ABC broadcasts.

Special Kudos to ABC for working to bring in Craig Sager, who has been battling a terminal illness and is someone beloved by fans, coaches and players for his flamboyant suits (and awkward interviews with Spurs coach Greg Popovich).

Mike Breen does a very good and underrated job on the play by play. Doing excellent play by play is not easy, as ideally it should seem to the viewer as though you aren’t even there. There is an exception to this, of course, when you are the only person on the broadcast. But Breen does a good job describing the action, inflecting at the right points to create more emotion without overselling. He also does a very good job not getting into the forced trash talking with his on air partners that so many other announcers try to do. But don’t worry, we’ll get into that.

Jeff Van Gundy has improved over the years, but to be blunt, it’s hard to believe from his comments that he actually coached an NBA team at one point. He’s developed an on-air personality that’s kind of a ‘clueless goofball’ which is not very appealing – rarely, if ever, does Van Gundy comment on what each team could do as far as adjustments or strategy that’s any deeper than you’d get from your mail carrier or neighborhood dog walker.

During Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Golden State forward Draymond Green threw a bad pass right into the arms of Lebron James, who corralled it for the steal; Van Gundy stated, “How do you grab a ball out of the air like that?” in praise of James, when in reality the real analysis should have been focused on why Green threw such an ill-advised pass when he had a near-open path to the hoop. Or, perhaps, he could mention that James’ positioning on defense – dropping back to split the difference between Green and a teammate – put him in the right place at the right time. These are the types of comments I would expect from a former NBA coach. Not ‘wow, how does catching a ball work?’ Remember earlier, when I said everyone says dumb things on mic during every broadcast? I have trouble finding any point during the NBA Finals where Van Gundy offered anything other than a layman’s perspective on the game. Van Gundy does a good job of not stepping on his on air partners, however. He does listen to them when they interact with him on the fly. However, most on air interactions seem forced; as if he and Jackson are trying to create a disagreement to spice up the broadcast. It’s good to have differing opinions, but sometimes, there just isn’t anything to disagree about, and Van Gundy seems to have taken the role of taking an opposing viewpoint just for the sake of having a differing opinion, and this is where I think his ‘goofball’ persona has overtaken his actual knowledge. I don’t think Van Gundy is as clueless as he comes across, and I think his persona makes him dispensable. If you have two color analysts, and one seems to know what he’s talking about and the other doesn’t, why do you need the clueless guy?

Mark Jackson is much more polished and insightful than Van Gundy, and Jackson, also a former NBA coach in addition to being a very good player, does a better job with actual insight. He’s reduced his use of a terrible catch phrase (“Mama, there goes that man!”) so that even though it’s cringe-worthy, it’s rare. Jackson also does a better job talking about things that matter at court level: body language, players attempting to set specific picks, defensive mismatches. These are the types of things that I would expect an NBA coach or player to be seeing. When the Cavaliers ran the same play three times in a row, Jackson called out the switch that they were running to try and get the ballhandler free, then pointed out how Golden State started paying attention to it and tried to change on the fly to stop it. Add in the fact that Jackson is more ‘third chair’, which means he has to try and fit his commentary into Van Gundy’s breaks and he does an overall good job.

Next up for the summer: soccer, college world series and the Olympics. The Olympics in particular are a good chance to see a bevy of announcers in sports we normally don’t get to see, so that’s always interesting.

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