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ESPN needs a LeBron James-sized reboot to its NBA Finals coverage

When ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro wanted to glam up “Monday Night Football,” he reached for the stars and Mickey Mouse’s wallet. Pitaro, a die-hard New York Yankees fan, channeled his inner George Steinbrenner by signing NFL TV’s white whale, Peyton Manning, and then luring Joe Buck and Troy Aikman over from Fox Sports.

They were boss moves for the Disney-owned ESPN.

Pitaro lavished Buck with a $75 million deal and Aikman with $90 million, both over five seasons, while Manning, with his Omaha Productions and his brother Eli in the fold, is making even more per year than either, though the exact figures are unknown. This offseason, Omaha called another audible by adding the legendary Bill Belichick to this fall’s MNF “ManningCast.”

The luster has been returned to “Monday Night Football” production.

Now, on the NBA Finals, Pitaro should tear a page out of his NFL playbook. He and his right-hand man, Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of content, should court LeBron James with a Tom Brady-like broadcasting deal that will begin whenever the 39-year-old James decides to hang up his sneakers.

James’ basketball IQ is off the charts. Like Brady — who begins in the Fox NFL booth in September on a 10-year, $375 million deal — there is no definitive way of telling how good James would be on games, but part of the point is to turn the broadcasts into events.

James would do that, standing next to play-by-play broadcaster Mike Breen. They should make it so he calls 20-25 games per season, like an NFL analyst, and elevate the broadcast level, especially this time of year, on the finals.

If Pitaro can’t have James, he should keep 36-year-old Stephen Curry in mind for when he is ready to stop draining 3s. In the meantime, of course, if TNT Sports does lose its NBA TV package, Charles Barkley should — and will be — at the top of ESPN’s list.

All this is to say, it is time for an ESPN NBA reboot because its finals coverage of the Boston Celtics against the Dallas Mavericks feels small.

For the first two games, ESPN added the New York Knicks’ Josh Hart as a guest analyst. Hart is someone to admire, with his work ethic and his good-guy reputation, but, as the kids like to say, it felt very mid.

If ESPN wanted to add another body for its half-hour pregame and its blink-of-an-eye halftime show, it should have rewarded analysts who got them there, like big personalities Kendrick Perkins or Richard Jefferson. Both are way better daily on “NBA Today” than the neophyte Hart showed in his guest spots. At least Hart added another NBA player voice to the finals festivities.

Before he was added, ESPN’s finals coverage included 15-year 3-point specialist JJ Redick as the only ex-player. Redick joined Doris Burke and Breen in the consistently underwhelming finals booth.

In studio, without Hart, there are no former players, as host Malika Andrews is joined by legendary opinionist Michael Wilbon, ex-Golden State general manager Bob Myers, and the face of ESPN, Stephen A. Smith. Well, when Smith has the time.

After Game 2 on ABC, ESPN had a postgame show, but Smith wasn’t on it. He was already jetting off from Boston to Miami to be in position for “First Take,” even though the program regularly emits from New York.

Smith is the undisputed No. 1 star of the network, but it is the games that make it run. Smith said earlier in the playoffs he hoped for a quick Eastern Conference finals so he could take some time off.

Smith is a workaholic and the center of sports media, but if appearing on the playoff studio shows is beneath his time, maybe, quite frankly, it is not the best fit to have him jam it in between his daily TV talk debates, his thrice-weekly YouTube show, his “General Hospital” role and every other platform known to mankind he appears on.

As the series moves to Dallas on Wednesday, nine-time All-Star Paul George is an upgrade in status over Hart as the guest analyst. Whether he is any good remains to be seen. During the conference finals, Chris Paul was the guest analyst, and he showed some signs of potential.

When the new TV deals are completed, ESPN is expected to have the rights to the finals for a dozen years, with its final season on the current contract and the next 11 on the new one. It has boxed out the competition with a deal that will pay the league $2.6 billion a year, just a shade less than the $2.7 billion it doles out to the NFL per season. It looks like a smart move, as TNT Sports hangs on for dear life for its NBA future.

Amazon Prime Video, which has a framework agreement with the league, already has Ian Eagle on its radar for play-by-play, according to sources briefed on their plans, and NBC, which also is on the doorstep of a completed deal, will likely name Mike Tirico its No. 1. Those are strong starts to match Breen.

Though the iconic “Inside the NBA” is potentially entering its final season with Warner Bros. Discovery, it is not like Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal won’t be employed, maybe even still with Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson. Amazon and NBC will be in play for the biggest names.

Beyond all this, ESPN should take a cue from other networks’ coverage of the Super Bowl and the World Series. The ESPN executive in charge of the NBA, David Roberts, should order up a new graphic package for the finals to further distinguish it from a game in November. The network with the Super Bowl does this every year, though it is actually even more necessary for ESPN on the NBA because of its overabundance of games that can make them all blend together.

Roberts should also look at Fox’s MLB October studio coverage, which features Derek Jeter, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. It is a prestige event, and Fox has brought in three of the biggest players of the last generation. You don’t have to do this, but if you fail to have the names, the content has to be superior. It hasn’t been on these finals.

Next, ESPN should be pursuing James, as it did Manning. And Barkley, as it did Buck and Aikman. Pitaro and company should play like the boss again.


Where will Charles Barkley go? What if ESPN loses JJ Redick? Thoughts on NBA media issues

(Top photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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