NBA legend and basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal never heard of Rui Hachimura before he was traded from the Washington Wizards to the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this week. But “casual Shaq” is shtick on TNT’s “Inside The NBA,” the popular NBA pregame and postgame show that he stars on. It’s funny for people that get the joke, but it’s dangerous for the league’s overall health and popularity.
“If you ain’t a top 10 player, I don’t know who you are,” Shaq said. “I’m not watching the Bullets or the Wizards.”
Shaq on not knowing who Rui Hachimura was prior to the Lakers trade:
"If you ain't a top 10 player, I don't know who you are… I'm not watching the Bullets or the Wizards."
(via @NBAonTNT) pic.twitter.com/Z3QUHvTLy6
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) January 26, 2023
Let’s be clear, “Inside The NBA” is the best studio sports show on television. The 17-and-counting Emmy Awards and great ratings say as much. Shaq, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Charles Barkley and Ernie Johnson engage in hilarity and high jinks before and after national NBA games.
They let the viewer in on the jokes they’re telling and the fun they’re having allegedly talking about the NBA. They run a segment called “Who he play for?” Hilarious if you get it.
Those who understand that get the joke and enjoy “Inside” for what it is. That this is not a show about basketball, or even a show that promotes how great the NBA is, despite its stars and their bona fides.
The problem is for those that don’t get what the show is, who see NBA legends, MVPs and champions downplaying the league and players they ostensibly cover. What is that “casual” fan to think?
The NBA has never been filled with more talent and good teams than it is right now.
17 of the league’s 30 teams are .500 or better. 25 of the league’s 30 teams boasts a legitimate All-Star candidate. Many have more than one candidate. The league is so deep that the four front-runners for Defensive Player of the Year (Jaren Jackson Jr., Nic Claxton, Bam Adebayo and Brook Lopez) likely will not make the All-Star team.
Not knowing the player who one of the league’s glamour franchises traded for helps support false narratives that are not beneficial to the league. Narratives like only the top 10 players matter, the regular season doesn’t matter, there are only a few good teams every year, etc.
The league is fun and many fan bases have something to be excited about.
Let’s assume Shaq uses points per game to decide who the top 10 players in the league are. We’ll remove players who casual fans don’t know, like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. So the top 10 in whatever order is: Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Donovan Mitchell, and Ja Morant.
Do casuals know Mitchell? If not, sub him out for the next highest scorer and you have Kyrie Irving. These are the most popular players in the league and household names for the most part.
If you don’t have any of these players, does your team stink? Is there nothing to enjoy in the NBA outside of these players?
Nikola Jokic isn’t on that list. He’s only the reigning two-time MVP and best player on the best team in the Western Conference.
Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings are also not on that list. The 27-20 Kings, third-best team in the West and about to break their 16-season playoff drought, thanks to these two.
Morant gets all the headlines for the 31-17 second-in-the-West Memphis Grizzlies. He’s their best player, so that makes sense, but Jackson Jr. is likely their most important player. That is to say, replacing Jackson Jr. with a league average player at his position would hurt the team more than replacing Morant with a league average player.
All of this is to say, enjoy Shaq and the “Inside” crew for the jokes. But don’t let them convince you this league isn’t incredible with a lot of talented players and interesting teams and stories.