ESPN’s NBA programming is extremely lacking. That is a pretty sad statement for a key partner for the league — one of its national broadcast partners — and the network that airs the NBA Finals.
And that is where Bill Simmons’ Grantland Basketball Hour comes in.
Whereas the NFL remains king with multiple shows devoted to breaking down the game and showing highlights and even MLB has the nightly Baseball Tonight. The NBA’s similar show is usually relegated to ESPN2 at some ungodly hour. It always feels like the same attention these sports gets is not given to the NBA. Fans seeking that deeper understanding of the game or a quick run through the nightly highlights usually turn to NBATV (which not everyone gets).
The Grantland Basketball Hour was not promising anything too in depth. It was not going to explain how that staggered screen freed up the offense or forced too much of a rotation. Few are searching for that kind of detail.
But it did promise to provide an entertaining and insightful look into the league for the die hards frustrated with ESPN and its lack of attention to basketball or its sometimes dumbed down approach to the NBA — more complaints about broadcast teams and analysts come ESPN’s way.
What the Grantland Basketball Hour delivered in its first hour was an entertaining, irreverent look at the NBA and its culture with a conversational-style discussion. It looked and felt like the kind of conversation you would have in your basement with friends — including someone picking up something random and holding it the entire time . . . why Jalen Rose was holding that bat the entire episode made zero sense.
Love him or hate him, this is exactly the kind of conversational, homey, fanboy kind of conversation everyone has in their basement (which is intentionally what the set looks like). Except, you know, Simmons can get Doc Rivers and Zach Lowe onto his show.
The show was still rough around the edges for sure. Simmons would halt conversations to cue up an animation that would take maybe a bit too long (although I got a good laugh at a few of them as surely hardcore NBA fans immersed in this culture would):
This is a show that seems to fill a void missing in ESPN’s NBA lineup. And it is really unlike any show on ESPN for the four major sports.
Simmons is the driver and it is clear this show is his completely his baby. He is the one pulling the strings and completely comfortable in his place with a friend to help drive basketball knowledge in Rose.
Differen is clearly what ESPN is going for here. This reminded our Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing of the successes of the Last Call show during World Cup coverage and of Men in Blazers and their personable, non-sequitur nature of covering their sports world.
It’s clear that ESPN is targeting a younger audience with the Grantland Basketball Hour and trying to offer a clear alternative to the more established Countdown offering. The more free-flowing and relaxed nature is a nice change of pace on television from the rest of ESPN’s very weighty and very serious talking head content. It’s reminiscent of ESPN’s terrific Last Call set at their World Cup coverage in Brazil this summer.
In this environment, Simmons thrives. He looked 1,000 times more comfortable on his Grantland set than he ever did on Countdown. He gets to play the host/pundit/grand poobah role without having to pout over Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon cutting into his airtime. You can almost see it as a viewer – there’s a massive weight off Simmons’ shoulders
In the end, this was just a really fun and enjoyable show. That part seems the most important.
You figure it will get better and better and give NBA fans something that is much needed and missing on the basic cable lineup (NBATV still provides a lot of great coverage of the league, including their fantastic roundtable show, Open Court).
The periodic nature of the show — the first episode aired October 23, the second episode will air . . . actually, it has not scheduled a second episode yet — could both help and hurt it. The word of mouth and hunger for this show’s return could make it appointment viewing (or DVR’ing) or it could make it completely irrelevant and forgotten in the crowded television marketplace.
The bet here is that it is unique enough that it will find viewers.