After the Shocking Decision to Let Jeff Van Gundy Go

It was jarring last summer when ESPN fired NBA Finals game analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. It was part of the network layoffs that Disney seems to be subjected to every couple of years, much like an NFL team pruning its books to make room for future multimillion-dollar expenses.

Van Gundy’s pay cut in particular didn’t make sense, given that he was perhaps the best game analyst in sports with his gym rat mentality and “Inside the NBA” weirdness.

In the wake of these moves, ESPN is no longer as good as it once was. With venerable play-by-player Mike Breen, Hall of Famer Doris Burke and a rising JJ Redick, in theory, ESPN should provide excellent listening, but it takes time to develop NBA Finals-level chemistry.

Breen, Burke and Redick don’t have it. With just four months under their belt, they don’t look like a team that can advance beyond the second round. But they will.

On Tuesday night, Breen, Burke and Redick will be in Boston to call the Eastern Conference Finals before next month’s main event, the NBA Finals. Suddenly, the future of what was a strong and stable position for ESPN is once again in doubt, as the current group lacks humor and flow. Let’s hope they recognize the Indiana Pacers in this series.

From start to finish on Sunday, ESPN transformed its production of Game 7 of the Pacers-New York Knicks series into a Knicks home broadcast, showing “First Take” host Stephen A. Smith entering the arena as if he were a player and then has him give the Knicks a pre-game pep talk. During the game, Breen and company focused too much on the Knicks and not enough on the Pacers’ all-time shooting performance. After ESPN went all out on Friday with its coverage of Scottie Scheffler’s arrest, the contrast with Sunday’s NBA performance was embarrassing.

How ESPN got here and where it goes next is an intriguing question. Especially with a framework agreement on a new television deal with the NBA that is expected to keep the league’s biggest event on ESPN’s stage for the next twelve years.

Breen, who turns 63 on Wednesday, remains the point of reference. However, in the playoffs, he is too often left trying to do everything on his own, without fully trusting his new teammates.

With his familiar voice, Breen may be able to bring the trio into close encounters, but he doesn’t raise the bar for his partners. Evaluating what he has, he presents himself more as a shoot-first point guard, providing not only play-by-play but often analysis as well.

After Van Gundy and Jackson, ESPN had a seemingly workable plan. Breen’s good friend, Doc Rivers, was available after being fired as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Between Breen and Rivers, one would imagine there is a strong inherent chemistry.

With the incumbent Burke set to become the first female television analyst in one of the traditional four major league leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), top ESPN executives Jimmy Pitaro, Burke Magnus and David Roberts had anticipated an outside succession . Roberts also named the heirs apparent, as Ryan Ruocco, Richard Jefferson and Redick were anointed the No. 2 team with the goal of calling the finals one day.

While the NBA didn’t like Van Gundy’s criticism of his officiating — and complained about it to ESPN — there’s no evidence the league ordered his exile. One concern ESPN had, according to executives briefed on their decision-making, was Van Gundy returning to coaching, which he had flirted with for years.

Van Gundy, however, never left during his 16 seasons with the network, while Rivers’ tenure at ESPN was almost as brief as Bill Belichick’s run as the “HC of NYJ.”

While working as a reporter for ESPN, Rivers began consulting with the Milwaukee Bucks in December, then left to become the team’s head coach in January, embarrassing ESPN after giving him a three-year commitment.

During the All-Star break, Redick, who turns 40 in June, moved on. He has had an incredible broadcast experience, earning many millions as a podcaster and gambling spokesperson and through his ESPN gaming and studio work.

But as evidenced by his latest venture, an in-game podcast with LeBron James, Redick’s postgame passion may mirror Rivers’. His analysis of the game is more coaching than conversational.

After a brief flirtation with the Charlotte Hornets coaching job, he is one of the top candidates to join James’ Los Angeles Lakers. After Van Gundy’s departure, ESPN has a second analyst who could carry out the televised crime that Van Gundy was accused of but never committed. Until, if and when, Redick leaves, he will be on the phone with Breen and Burke.

It doesn’t appear that Breen, Burke, and Redick despise each other; they just don’t finish each other’s sentences. Hell, half the time it seems like Burke and Redick barely start many of them. This is a lot for Breen.

Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson have called 15 NBA Finals, which has allowed them to develop a comfort level with each other and with the public. “Explosion!” gets the shine – and it’s a strong signature call – but it’s the pace of the action and its well-timed inflection across 48 minutes, denoting every time something special happens, that stand out.

If you close your eyes and listen to Breen’s emotion in his calls, you can tell where a show is in terms of excitement on a scale of 1 to 10. That’s why, in tough times, ESPN should still do well.

It’s when the stand needs to shine in moments of light or flashes that Van Gundy and Jackson are missing.

Jackson was far from perfect — last year, he inexplicably left Nikola Jokić off his All-Star ballot — but he had his talents, particularly the line “Mom, there’s that man!” He could get some 3s from Breen and Van Gundy.

Van Gundy’s firing, however, was a head-scratcher. With the headphones on, he was always in a triple threat position: sharp analysis, fluency in saying anything, and humor.

Van Gundy moved on and is now a senior consultant for the Boston Celtics. ESPN is still paying him. Maybe he could ask him to come back for a series or two.