Ranking The Five Best Commentators in the NBA

Apr 26, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; ESPN broadcasters Mark Jackson (left) and Jeff Van Gundy (center) and Mike Breen during game six of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs between the Golden State Warriors and the LA Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is about entertainment. While the on-court product comes first, commentators make up a crucial part of the viewing experience. Without them, something just seems off. A smooth commentator (or crew) can blend play-by-play with anecdotes and energy for highlights. The best commentators can not only help relay the game but enhance it. 

A Few Notes on The Methodology

May 22, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James is interviewed by journalist Rachel Nichols after game two of the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. Cavaliers won 94-82. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

We rank everything in the NBA: players, defenders, coaches, and teams. So naturally, commentators come next. The criteria are simple. An aesthetically pleasing voice can blend into the flow of the game. A signature catchphrase is essential for an iconic highlight. And the ability to call the game in an exciting way helps. Individuality is a must. We factor all of this in as we consider who the best commentators in the game are.

May 10, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; TNT broadcasters Reggie Miller (left) and Kevin Harlan during game four of the second round of the NBA playoffs between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This list is subjective by nature, and personal preference plays a big role. Many might have personal preferences at the top of the list, though the top three are in a tier of their own. Many might feel as if their local broadcaster surpasses some on this list. This list excluded local commentators because they do not have the opportunity to display their talents for a national audience. That is not to say that they are not equally gifted compared with those listed. In fact, many would rank first in their local fans’ hearts because of the personal attachment.

February 24, 2012; Orlando FL, USA; TNT anchor Kenny Smith introduces Team Shaq general manager Shaquille O'Neal and Team Chuck general manager Charles Barkley before the BBVA rising stars challenge at the Amway Center in Orlando. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To be abundantly clear, this list focuses on in-game commentators. “Inside the NBA,” featuring Sir Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, and Ernie Johnson, is the best basketball show of all time. But that is a sports talk show, not commentating. It just felt that no discussion about NBA entertainment and analysis could exclude those four.

Before we begin the rankings, we need to appreciate two honorable mentions. They fail to crack the top five because they are limited to local broadcasts. But their abilities are well-known thanks to social media. And their commentating abilities rival the best of this list, at least in some regards.

Honorable Mentions: The Best Commentators Locally

The Polarizing Hornets Commentator: Eric Collins

Love him or hate him, he makes the Hornets relevant, and that alone warrants recognition. Some of his calls are the stuff of legend. Who can forget, after Miles Bridges posterized Clint Capela, “Oh my goodness!!! Miles Bridges!!! Hum diddly dee!!” Or after a slick Terry Rozier layup, “Oh, Terry! You’re kidding me!!!” He brings a genuine love for his team, which makes for a great local broadcaster.

The Rhyming and Priming Specialist: Clyde Frazier

Mar 3, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; New York Knicks legend and broadcaster Clyde Frazier talks with Los Angeles Clippers executive board member Jerry West before the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

His fashion sense is unrivaled. He speaks with eloquence bordering on gibberish. While he sometimes sacrifices clarity of thought for poetic language, he certainly brings something different to a broadcast. He loves to speak in rhymes. Some of his favorite phrases include “Swishing and Dishing,” “Wheeling and Dealing,” “Rising and Surprising,” and “Bounding and Astounding.” Paired with Mike Breen, the two are likely the best local broadcast team.

The Top 5 Best Commentators

5. A Controversial Pick: Reggie Miller

May 26, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; TNT broadcaster Reggie Miller during the fourth quarter in game six of the Western conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Rockets 115-86 for a 3-3 tie in the series. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

His attempts to incorporate “Welcome to Your Kodak Moment” into broadcasting vernacular rub some fans the wrong way. Nonetheless, Miller and Kevin Harlan are one of the best duos in the game, as both skillfully bring insight to NBA games while nailing their play-by-play calls. He also had one of the best careers out of any NBA broadcaster as a sharpshooter for the Indiana Pacers. He deserves a place on this list but is certainly a tier below the top four.

4. Mama There Goes That Man: Mark Jackson

Apr 9, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; ESPN broadcaster Mark Jackson reacts during an NBA basketball game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the LA Clippersat Staples Center. The Pelicans defeated the Clippers 113-100. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

He just barely misses the cut for the top three. He has popularized a few of his catchphrases, including “Mama, there goes that man,” and “Hand down, man down.” His basketball knowledge is immense thanks to his 17-year playing career and three-year stint as the Warriors’ coach. However, some find his voice and commentating style a little more grating than the top three, and so he slots in at number four.

3. Smooth and Classic: Kevin Harlan

May 10, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; TNT broadcaster Kevin Harlan during game four of the second round of the NBA playoffs between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

His smooth narration earned him the honor of commentating for the NBA 2K videogame franchise. He and Reggie Miller have plenty of basketball knowledge and form one of the best broadcasting duos in the NBA. He also has plenty of panache and always knows just how to bring comedy into the game. The lack of creativity of his catchphrases prevents him from rising higher on this list. His two go-to calls for big shots are “Yes!” and “Good!” We need a little more flair.

2. The Soundtrack of Basketball: Marv Albert

Nov 29, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; TNT announcer Marv Albert works before the start of the Toronto Raptors game against the Golden State Warriors at Scotiabank Arena. The Raptors beat the Warriors 131-128 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The lead announcer for TNT, often referred to as “the voice of basketball,” has worked in the booth since 1962. Even if they don’t know the name, almost every basketball fan would recognize the voice. His signature line often follows a big dunk, describing it as “a facial” with some drama. He always strikes just the right tone for the moment, and his longevity and experience place him just above Harlan.

1. Bang! The Best of the Best Commentators: Mike Breen

Jan 18, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Mike Breen before a game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This might upset some fans. Perhaps he doesn’t quite match the pedigree of the two commentators below him on this list. However, one cannot find any fault in his commentating throughout the course of a game. What pushes Breen over the edge is his signature line: “Bang!” It is the soundtrack to the great shots of recent memory. 

Aug 23, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with teammates after making a game-winning 3-point basket against the Los Angeles Clippers during overtime of an NBA basketball first round playoff game at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ashley Landis/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Ashley Landis/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Picture Ray Allen’s game-tying three in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Can you see it without hearing Breen’s voice in the background? The two are inextricably linked. The same goes for Steph Curry’s deep three in 2016 to beat OKC in overtime. Or Luka Doncic’s step-back game-winning three against the Clippers in the 2020 playoffs. Those plays are two of the three times Breen rewarded a play with an elusive “Bang! Bang!” Is there any higher honor?

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