A ‘Petty’ Fight Between Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley Shows Everything Wrong With ‘Inside the NBA’

If you’re a long-time basketball fan, you’re familiar with Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal playing their respective roles on Inside the NBA. While the two legends can (and, in fairness, do) share some insight and analysis, they’re also there to provide a bit of comic relief. They’ve been known to spar with each other, trade insults, and, at one point, their mothers even had to intervene.

While you could argue that’s part of what helps TNT’s coverage stand out from the crowd, the studio show airing on one of the Association’s main broadcasters needs to do better. Take Wednesday night’s “petty” fight between Shaq and Chuck as the perfect example of that. It garnered clicks on social media but accomplished that goal through personal arguments rather than any actual analysis.

Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley got into an argument over Jimmy Butler’s scoring ability

During Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Jimmy Butler stepped up to lead the Miami Heat to victory. The forward did more than just that, though. He also inspired an impassioned debate on the TNT set.

During Wednesday’s edition of Inside the NBA, Ernie Johnson asked what Boston can take from the opening exchange in Boston. Kenny Smith said that the answer was essentially nothing since they had to play without Al Horford and Marcus Smart. Charles Barkley agreed, saying that Butler probably wouldn’t score 40 points if Smart was in the lineup.

What that’s a perfectly logical assumption — Smart, of course, is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and Barkley couched his statement, only saying that Butler “probably don’t get 40” — Shaquille O’Neal still took issue with it.

“First of all, Jimmy can get 40 if he puts his mind to it,” Shaq responded while talking over Sir Charles. “With or without Marcus Smart, Jimmy Butler can 40. No, it’s not [harder with Smart present]. He’s at that level now where, at this point in the game, like D-Wade’s saying, ain’t nobody stopping him.”

At that point, Kenny Smith re-entered the fray, asking if O’Neal really thought that it wouldn’t be hard to score against the Defensive Player of the Year. Again, that’s a perfectly logical point, but it only pushed the Diesel further down the rabbit hole.

“You said last week, hold on, you said last week, ‘Don’t be bragging that you’re a great player if somebody can shut you out,'” he continued. “Marcus Smart ain’t shutting Jimmy Butler out. If Jimmy Butler wants to get 40, he’s going to get 40. Period. If he wants to get 40, he can get 40. He’s that type of player now.”

Then, Barkley seemed to have had enough. He interjected to remind Shaq that he wasn’t debating Butler’s greatness. Instead, Chuck was simply trying to say that “it’s harder to score on the Defensive Player of the Year.”

Unsurprisingly, though, Shaq wasn’t prepared to back down.

“No, it’s not,” he responded. “You better look at my Finals against Dikembe Mutombo. No, it ain’t. It is not. Jimmy Butler’s a great player. [If] he wants to get 40, he can get 40. I don’t want to hear that Defensive Player of the Year stuff. Check what I did to Dikembe Mutombo. Call him right now and ask him.”

Barkley once again punched back, saying, “Listen, Petty White. We ain’t talking about you. We talking about Jimmy Butler.” He also accused O’Neal of riding his teammate’s coattails to champions before Ernie Johnson finally intervened.

That argument may have provided entertainment value, but it highlighted the TNT crew’s biggest weaknesses

Charles Barkley (L) and Shaquille O'Neal (R)
NBA analysts Charles Barkley (L) and Shaquille O’Neal (R). | Mitchell Leff/Getty Images, ana Cruder / Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

From one perspective, you could contend that Charles and Shaq sparring is part of what makes Inside the NBA so special. You’re not going to get that level of candor on ESPN or ABC; even Stephen A. Smith, who’s known to uncork a rant or two, usually keeps things relatively in control. While that may be true for some fans, I’d contend that “fun” can’t be a catch-all for everything.

To get down to brass tacks, Inside the NBA is part of the basketball coverage on one of the league’s official broadcast partners. Through that lens, you can argue that the studio crew, including Barkley and O’Neal, have an obligation to help grow the game. That can be done in a variety of ways, ranging from informing to entertaining, but they should theoretically leave viewers feeling positive and ready to watch some basketball.

A fight does none of that. If anything, it tanks the team’s credibility by having one of the most famous members take a reasonable point personally. Again, you could contend that part of Shaq’s appeal is that he’s a real person rather than a buttoned-up talking head, but he does have a bad habit of being overly reliant on his own experiences at the expense of providing real analysis.

O’Neal, to his credit, was one of the most unique talents ever to hit the NBA hardwood. The fact that he could bully Dikembe Mutombo out of the way doesn’t exactly tell us anything about Jimmy Butler.

It would have been completely different if the big man backed up his personal experiences with some observations. “This is what Butler has been doing well in the postseason,” perhaps. Maybe we could have seen some clips of Smart’s defense and heard how the Heat star can counter that. That would have given a some value to the conversation and taught viewers something; instead, we got an argument.

The same can be said for segments like “Shaq’s First Name Game” or “Who He Play For,” which generally serve to highlight O’Neal and Barkley’s lack of current NBA knowledge. They may be superficially entertaining, but, again, it’s unclear how that fits into the larger dynamic. Shouldn’t these guys be able to know the names of players in the Association? Are we basically acknowledging they’re only on the panel for their personalities?

While it’s tough to design the perfect studio show — some want to be entertained, while others prefer to be informed — Wednesday night’s argument highlighted where TNT falls short. A perfectly innocuous claim spun off into a two-minute -long debate full of personal claims, baseless assertions, and verbal barbs. Nobody learned anything other than the fact that Shaq outplayed Mutombo more than 20 years ago, and, to be frank, the segment wasn’t even that entertaining. It was more like two men arguing at a sports bar than a piece of must-see TV.

With all of that being said, though, Inside the NBA is under no pressure to change; the viewership numbers, for better or worse, don’t lie. Success, however, doesn’t mean you can’t improve.

Maybe someone needs to tell Shaq and Charles that they can really embarrass each other by studying hard and providing some excellent analysis.

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