by Peter Walsh / @ayo_petew
While other networks NBA in-studio shows have fans searching for the mute button, TNT’s Inside the NBA is consistently the best show year in and year out. Realizing that this is after all just a game, the Inside the NBA crew of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal keep viewers in stitches with their honesty, insight and love of the game.
Each cast member brings something unique to the table, and their chemistry is undeniable. With other shows faltering and shuffling panelists last minute, Inside the NBA is quickly approaching GOAT status with their unscripted approach to programming. When SLAM got the invite to to join the crew for a luncheon yesterday in midtown Manhattan, it was a no-brainer to come through, show love and get the guys’ thoughts on the upcoming season.
NBA on TNT vs basketball programming on other networks….
Ernie Johnson: This is my 23rd year in studio and I don’t think any of us think of the other programs, we have enough stuff to deal with on a nightly basis. I think there’s no way to predict what’s going to work. We didn’t know it would happen when it was the three of us, I thought Charles would get tired of it after six shows, and to his credit he still comes in every night and says, “Let’s have some fun tonight.”
I remember the first show we did together, Charles asked Kenny right before halftime, “What are you going to say about this?” and Kenny said, “You’ll find out.” And that’s how it’s always been. We want everything to be fresh and new so it’s not rehearsed, anything you see on the show is a genuine reaction. We all genuinely like each other, and hanging out together, and no one is concerned with getting face time. I think that’s what has always made it go, we’re not concerned if Kenny or Shaq dominates a segment and that’s what makes it all work.
Kenny Smith: I pay attention sometimes to what is happening but in 16 years of doing this, I’ve probably watched the other shows 16 times. I don’t like to listen to anyone else and formulate an opinion, I like to form my own. If you’re watching the game with three or four of your friends, you wouldn’t figure out what you’re going to say beforehand. The game is on and you’re just going to talk and if all of a sudden, Martha Stewart goes to jail, we’re going to talk about Martha Stewart going to jail during the game because that’s what’s going on. The only difference with us is, you got guys who played the game and everything that happens is something that we have already done or been a part of in a basketball game, so you’ll get more insight from a basketball standpoint than you would have in casual conversation.
Charles Barkley: I don’t look at it as a competition with those guys. First of all, I look at those guys as my friends, we know all those guys and we want their shows to be successful. It’s interesting, I don’t look at other shows and critique their talent, I just want to watch the game to be honest with you. Hopefully we have a good game, one thing that can separate us is if we have a shitty game, we come up with some funny stuff. Me and Shaq like to make people have fun and I think that’s probably the difference between our show and the others. We’re on from 8 o’clock at night until 2 in the morning, nobody wants to be X and O’d to death, that’s just stupid.
Shaquille O’Neal: The thing that I like about our show is we all know Chuck’s an asshole, we all know Kenny knows everything, we all know Ernie is a genius, and we all know I mumble. Before I got the job, I went to broadcasting school because I wanted to be good as Ernie. The first day I went in and tried that I got cursed out by the production team. They said, “We don’t want you to do that, we want you to be yourself and have a good time.” The people here at this company, they don’t micromanage, it’s an unbelievable place to work and I’m glad I made the choice to come here.
On the Eastern Conference and Miami’s three-peat chances…
Chuck: You know what’s funny about you guys (the media), you guys act like Miami is a juggernaut. They deserve credit, but they went seven games with the Pacers and almost lost to the Spurs. It’s not like Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Congratulations to Miami, they’ve had a fantastic run but anyone who thinks the Spurs didn’t blow that series doesn’t know anything about basketball. If Greg Oden can play, I think they’re going to be tough to beat, I’ve said that from the beginning. But if he has any injuries whatsoever, you’ll see, when they play against big teams they really struggle.
Shaq: I think if Brooklyn stays healthy they can make a run at the Heat. I really like their starting five and they got Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko coming off the bench. I tell Chuck and Kenny this all the time; yes I have four Championships but two came from luck. You guys don’t talk about Miami’s good luck piece at all and that’s Mike Miller. He came up big for them the year they played Oklahoma City when he hit seven threes and last year he came out of nowhere and hit six threes. He’s not there anymore and Chuck made a good point, they didn’t blow anyone out and their good luck charm is gone. I’m anxious to see who is going to be their big shot maker in crunch time. I really think that Brooklyn can come together and come together quickly.
Kenny: With Brooklyn, the Pacers, the Bulls, and teams that can push them two or three extra games in a series like the Knicks and maybe Cleveland, the Heat are going to have trouble. Cleveland to me is going to be a great regular-season team, they have a lot of young talent. The East is loaded and the toughest thing about any Championship is injuries. Derrick Rose was hurt all last year, Dwyane Wade was in and out—will he be more healthy this year? This will be Miami’s fourth run to the Finals and injuries are everything. That and mental fatigue because you can’t get up for every New Year’s Eve every year. Every year you get ready for a big party and put a new tuxedo on but after a while it doesn’t feel so special anymore.
On the Western Conference and if the Spurs’ reign is over…
Chuck: The East is loaded but the West is loaded also. If Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan got better as players—and I really like Byron Mullens, and getting Doc Rivers—but the key is Blake and DeAndre. If they have gotten better as players, the Clippers can and should win the West. Houston is loaded too; if Dwight comes back healthy, that team is loaded. OKC is good and the Golden State Warriors, those are the four elite teams in the West. The Spurs are under those four in my opinion.
Kenny: It’s going to be a lot of fun and I don’t think anyone is a heavy favorite. If the Heat lost last year to the Spurs in Game 6, no one would be saying they are the favorite. If the Spurs had closed that game out, all of a sudden they were NBA Champs and no one would be saying the Heat are favorites. Those 48 minutes are changing everyone’s perspective.
Popovich will sit guys against the Heat during the regular season, he doesn’t care too much about the regular season. They’re like the old Lakers, they find guys who come in and sacrifice everything for just 11 minutes. They get guys who go all out for 11 minutes and do everything the team asks of them. There’s not too many other teams in the League who can find that.
On Doc Rivers and Jason Kidd…
Chuck: Doc’s a very good coach but their weakness is getting offense when the game slows down in the halfcourt and it’s going to come down to Blake and DeAndre. I loved them getting Byron Mullens, he’s a very underrated player and he played well for Charlotte last season. They’re solid at every spot but those two guys have to improve their halfcourt games. When the game slows down they can’t score and it puts too much pressure on Chris Paul because he has to make every single play. Then you have to take one of the guys out because they can’t shoot free throws. If those two guys can play in addition to Redick and all those guys, they are going to be nice.
Kenny: The coach makes a huge difference, and this is not disrespecting anyone but if you ask Shaq if he would rather have Del Harris or Phil Jackson, I think he’s going to tell you he would much rather have Phil. You have to understand the dynamic and what goes on during the game and not just for 30 games like in college but for 82 games, plus Playoffs and being in sync with everyone is a tough job. Everyone talks of the inexperience of Jason Kidd and I always say sports are the only place where your tenure as a player doesn’t count and to me that doesn’t make sense. He’s going to have to learn some things in a couple months, but I think it’s going be a quick turnaround. He’s been at the same job for 19 years.
Chuck: And I disagree with that. First of all, I want Jason to be successful, he’s a friend of mine but just because you guys are reporters it doesn’t mean you can run your magazine. I want Jason to be successful because I like him, he was the best leader in the NBA but it’s going to be an entirely different learning experience for Jason being a head coach compared to a player.
Kenny: I wasn’t as great as Jason Kidd as a point guard but as a point guard, I had the power to get guys in and out of the game, 19 years of that? It’s not much different. Five years, seven years, is a hell of a lot different than 19 years.
Shaq: As far as Doc Rivers is concerned, I think he will make a difference. As a player, when you’re young and successful and you’ve done everything except win a Championship, and you bring a guy in who has a Championship on his resume, what will happen is the players will be wide eyed and will listen. I was in a similar position to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and Phil was a guy who I knew had six rings when he came in so whatever he said, I listened.
I expect the Clippers to go pretty far and I think DeAndre is a young, talented player and I hope he gets more offensive looks. I still have problems with Chris Paul dribbling the ball too much but I think Doc will handle that. Doc is very big on moving the ball to the open man and will have a great impact on Chris Paul.
On Kobe Bryant’s injury and subsequent return…
Shaq: In this day and time it’s different technology, I had a two-inch mesh put in my achilles so I could return quicker. I heard that he didn’t get the mesh, he got the traditional surgery where you pull it back up and they stitch you up. He’s a workhorse and hopefully he doesn’t have to work too hard when he comes back. If he has to work too hard or do too much when he comes back, there’s a chance the injury can reoccur. Hopefully they get off to a fast start and can maintain a good pace.
He’s a tough kid and will try to prove each and every one of you guys wrong. Chuck always says that father time catches up to everyone. [When I tore my achilles] I was running and it felt like someone shot me in the back of the leg. I wasn’t practicing, I was riding the bike every day, doing yoga, was in pretty good shape and it just popped. Kobe is a very tough kid and he works tirelessly in the gym. I remember at 18 years old, he was going through shoot around and shooting 200 jumpers without the ball. That’s the type of kid he is. He always wanted to be recognized as one of the best and always talked about passing up Mike. I think that’s his next goal, I think he’s about 1,500 points (675—Ed.) behind Mike. He has to be careful, he’s probably going to shoot a lot more jumpers instead of going to the hole.
On Carmelo Anthony, free agency, the Knicks and the Nets…
Shaq: Carmelo to me has to stop being satisfied with being mentioned after LeBron. Him and LeBron are similar players, they’re both strong, both physical but it seems to be that he’s satisfied with being mentioned after him. I would love to see him take the attitude and say he’s better than LeBron. I loved when Durant said in his article with Sports Illustrated that he was tired of being number two. When you’re the man and you’re the leader, it’s all on you. I remember one time I was averaging 35 and I read an article that said that I had to do more, I met with Phil and he said I had to do more. If Carmelo wants to get past Miami, he needs to do more.
Kenny: What happened to the law of attraction? If you’re good enough, you should be able to attract guys who want to play with you and I think that’s what’s missing with Carmelo and the Knicks. There aren’t a lot of guys out there who are saying they want to come and play with this guy. When he gets to that point where people will sacrifice to come play with him because he’s that good and he’ll make them better. That’s what’s missing from Carmelo Anthony’s game…Who doesn’t want to be in this city?
Chuck: When I heard that he was going to enter free agency, I was very disappointed because he wanted to come [to New York]. All of a sudden he wants to leave and test free agency, that really pissed me off to be honest with you. As Kenny said about these new age guys, he owns this city, he should be trying to get guys to come here not thinking, “I’ll stay here a few years…and now I want to leave.” That’s not cool at all.
Kenny: I remember when I was playing and guys were saying, “I gotta get to Utah, that will be really good for my career.” Has anybody in here ever had a friend call them and say, “I gotta get to Utah to help my career?” [Laughs] You’d never want to go there but when Malone and Stockton were there you thought, Man that would be a nice place to fit in.
With Carmelo I just think that he has the ability to use the law of attraction and get any player that’s a good player, a marginal player, or a fringe player to come and play in this city with him for less. If I was a point guard and I had the chance to play with Shaquille O’Neal or another big guy, I would want to play with Shaq because when a double team comes he’s going to kick it to you pretty much every time he gets double teamed. All he has to say is, “If the Knicks give me the max, I’ll stay in New York.” The Knicks can’t not give him a max deal. How could they not give him a max deal? There’s no negotiation.
Chuck: The Knicks have a good team, they’re solid. To me, he’s the best scorer in the NBA. What’s going to be interesting is Meta World Peace and JR Smith. If things start going bad, that team could implode. They can be good, really good, or they can implode and it will depend on how the season is going.
Kenny: Being a New Yorker, I didn’t view the Nets as a New York team last year. Through what they’ve done in the community, they’re fighting to say, “We are the team in New York. Not just Brooklyn, all of New York.” That to me is a big accomplishment because I live in L.A. now and I watch how the Clippers struggled to get that name as L.A. because of what the Lakers have done. If I’m a New Yorker, I’m going to watch more Brooklyn and Knicks games because of the way they are structured right now. The Miami Heat are the best team, but Dwyane Wade is going to guard Joe Johnson and LeBron James is going to guard Paul Pierce. That gives Deron Williams a lot of free reign and if you switch off, the guys that the Heat have can’t guard them. Then you have Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett down low. The one thing that the Heat struggle with is size inside, and the Nets have big guys who are mobile.
Chuck: Brooklyn is going for it. You have to give Billy King and Mr. Prokhorov credit because they are going for it. It all depends on health and Jason Kidd. If they mesh, we could have a Clippers-Brooklyn Final! That would be amazing.
On potential breakout players…
Kenny: I think you make jumps when you go far in the Playoffs. Look at a guy like Kyrie Irving, who had a great season but now he’s gotta do it on the bigger stage. Once they take their game to the Playoffs and play better teams, that’s when they make the jump. Paul George had a great regular season the year before but wasn’t on the stage to show it.
Chuck: I picked Bradley Beal to be the Rookie of the Year last year. If you go back and look at the last couple months of the season when he finally got John Wall back, he played like he could have been Rookie of the Year. If you look at the preseason, I think he’s averaging 23 points per game and I think Bradley Beal is going to be an All-Star the next three years. I thought the Wizards were missing one guy and going out and getting Marcin Gortat really is going to make them a much better team, I think they’re going to make the Playoffs.
Shaq: I’m anxious to see if Roy Hibbert can play at the same level he played at in the Playoffs. We had a conversation when he got his new contract and thought maybe he was fat, his mindset was different but I think he’s a really solid, traditional big man. I’m anxious to see if this is his character and if he can play all season consistently.
Shaq on the state of the big man in the NBA…
Shaq: As a big man I don’t want to see a European big man step in and take over the center position, they already did it with Dirk Nowitzki at the 4. Kenny made a good point earlier that these players are a product of what they have seen. Growing up I saw mean ass Patrick Ewing, I saw Rony Seikaly at Syracuse dunking and getting his legs up, I saw David Robinson running the floor, I saw a lot of guys playing inside. As I killed them all off, I saw more and more guys shooting jumpers. Even if you look at Dwight—Chuck thinks he’s the best big man—I don’t see him in the post a lot, I see him as a pick and roll big man, I don’t like that. I like Brook because he can hit a jump hook, or a turnaround jumper.
I didn’t rebound well because my job was to score, score, score. I was the focal point, if a rebound was there I was getting it but I wasn’t trying to be like Rodman and chase after every fuckin’ rebound. [Brook Lopez is] 7-foot, he should be getting two rebounds a quarter and between 8 and 10 per game. Chuck and them jump on his rebounding but I know what he’s going through. You want him to score, defend on the pick and roll, and rebound…That’s too tiring. I want him to score, score, score, let Reggie Evans and KG rebound. But to be in respectable big man status, he needs to get 10. I like him because he plays with his back to the basket and if you disrespect him he can shoot that elbow jumper. He’s a true big man and that’s why I’ve always said he’s better than Dwight. I would go Brook, Roy, Dwight, then I guess Marc Gasol and DeAndre as the top-five centers.