Good vibes from ESPN’s NBA panel show ‘The Jump’

In Chad Finn's eyes, “The Jump’’ is the best of the best when it comes to NBA programming.

Rachel Nichols ESPN
Rachel Nichols hosts "The Jump" weekdays at 3 p.m. on ESPN2. –Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Paul Pierce had to respect the game.

The former Celtic and sometime panelist on ESPN’s superb daily NBA show “The Jump’’ was talking about Damian Lillard’s 37-foot 3-point dagger that gave the Blazers a series victory over the Thunder Tuesday night and became instant NBA lore.

But Pierce wasn’t talking only about Lillard’s bold performance on the court.

Lillard’s contentious battles with Thunder star Russell Westbrook were a juicy subplot of the series. The Blazers star got the last word off the court, too, with a tweet that host Rachel Nichols read aloud on Wednesday’s show.

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Tweeted Lillard, quoting “The Art of War’’ by Sun Tzu: “It is the unemotional, reserved, calm, detached warrior who wins, not the hothead seeking vengeance and not the ambitious seeker of fortune.’’

It was clearly a shot at Westbrook, and Lillard buried it.

Pierce, an expert trash-talker during his years with the Celtics who has become the rare amusing hot-take artist as an ESPN analyst, could not have been more impressed.

I was awesome at trollin’,’’ said Pierce as Nichols and fellow panelist Amin Elhassan laughed, “but this guy is trollll-LING.’’

Pierce’s response to Lillard — and Nichols and Elhassan’s response to Pierce — was the kind of enjoyable vignette that occurs on “The Jump’’ not daily but a couple of times per show.

Fans are fortunate to have an abundance of quality NBA programming nowadays, but in my estimation as a media columnist but more so a lifelong NBA junkie, “The Jump’’ belongs at the top of that list.

The show, which airs weekdays for an hour starting at 3 p.m. on ESPN and averages approximately 340,000 viewers, works more than anything else because of the camaraderie Nichols has with a cast of cohosts/panelists, which include former players such as Pierce, Tracy McGrady, and Scottie Pippen and plugged-in reporters such as Brian Windhorst and Zach Lowe.

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The casual conversation (and ribbing) and good-natured vibe among the panelists never seems less than authentic. But that is the precise tone and style Nichols desired when she returned to ESPN from Turner in February 2014.

“My elevator pitch for the show when I was going around ESPN talking to various executives was that it was, what if you were just sitting around talking about basketball with one of your friends, but one of your friends was Tracy McGrady?’’ said Nichols, who had previously been at ESPN from 2004-13 and has more than 20 years of experience covering the NBA.

“We’re an afternoon show. We’re not a pregame show or a postgame show, so we’re kind of freed up by not having to set up a particular game that night. We’ll talk about games that are happening, but it’s not like we’re tied to talking about whatever game is running on our network that night. And we’re not a postgame show, so we don’t have to run highlights.

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“One of my things was, when I sit around talking about basketball with my friends, there are no giant monitors in my living room. No one is telestrating anything. Of course we use video on the show, but we do it in a way that complements what we’re talking about. We’re not making anything feel like a power-point presentation.’’

Nichols’s journalism bona fides — she’s a former Washington Post reporter — come into play on certain timely occasions. She consistently produces thoughtful monologues on the league’s various issues and had the first interview with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after the release of a Sports Illustrated investigation last September about the franchise’s toxic workplace culture. She did not throw him alley-oops.

The structure of the show typically features Nichols with two cohosts. Sometimes it will be a pair of players, but more often it’s a player and a reporter. Nichols likes the dynamic that all of the combinations provide.

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“When you’re asking what LeBron [James] should do, or what [Kevin] Durant should do, it kind of needs to be someone who has been in some semblance of that position,’’ she said, noting that McGrady was her de facto No. 1 pick when she was asked by her bosses whom she would like to have on for former players.

“I really wanted the other person on the panel to often be a reporter,’’ she said. “I do like days when we have multiple players on and guys tell stories about each other and have shared experiences. But 70 percent of the time we’ll have a reporter in that chair, and it’s a current, active, in-the-field, plugged-in reporter, who can bring to the show, ‘Oh, I just talked to so-and-so, and this is what’s going on.’ ’’

“The Jump’’ is geared to the educated NBA fan, with recurring inside jokes, references to the quirks of NBA Twitter, and players mentioned by first name upon first reference.

“I understand not everyone flipping through will understand what we’re talking about,’’ she said. “But my personal experience is that I’d rather catch up with something I see on TV then be told something I already know.’’

Not coincidentally, it also happens to be the show that the NBA watches.

“We really will get texts from people around the league all the time,’’ said Nichols, “even over the course of the show. Players, former players, teammates, agents, we’ll hear from them, and they will say, ‘We were just talking about this.’

“That’s a compliment, because it confirms we do have our finger on the pulse of the league while having a good time talking about what fans want us to talk about.’’