Why did ESPN switch primetime game from Lakers-Clippers to Warriors-Suns?

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If you looked at Friday night’s NBA slate of games and wondered if you had lost your mind, the answer is no, the schedule is correct. A Lakers vs. Clippers game is not on national television.

ESPN announced Thursday afternoon that it would be flexing out the battle for Los Angeles in order to broadcast the Warriors vs. Suns game. It was a surprising move on the surface, but the switch does make a lot of sense.

Let’s break down the two factors that forced ESPN to re-evaluate its programming.

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Why did ESPN flex Warriors-Suns over Lakers-Clippers?

Warriors vs. Suns is a great matchup

The Suns own the best record in the NBA this season (19-3), and the Warriors are right behind them in the Western Conference standings (18-3). Phoenix is on an 18-game winning streak, and Golden State had won seven straight before losing to… the Suns.

Tuesday night’s contest between the title contenders was not only a highly competitive affair but also a ratings win for TNT. The network announced that the game averaged 2.4 million viewers, giving TNT its most-watched non-Opening Night regular season game since Dec. 19, 2019 (Lakers vs. Bucks).

You have big names like Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. You have a potential Western Conference finals preview. And you likely have an easy ratings win because the previous game is fresh in the minds of basketball fans.

It doesn’t take a veteran TV executive to figure out that Warriors vs. Suns should be put in front of a national audience. 

The LeBron James effect

Oh, and this part was kind of a big deal, too. When ESPN announced its decision, James was stuck in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. He was expected to miss multiple games after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19. A James-less (and Kawhi Leonard-less) matchup was just not that appealing.

However, the Lakers star was cleared to return to his team on Thursday night after registering multiple negative COVID-19 tests, per multiple reports. (The NBA mandates that a player who tests positive for COVID-19 must be away from his team for a minimum of 10 days or until he returns two negative PCR tests within a 24-hour period.)

Would ESPN have flexed out of Lakers vs. Clippers if the news had emerged earlier in the day? Maybe not, but the Lakers are scheduled to appear on ESPN nine more times this season. No one should complain about Los Angeles receiving a lack of screen time.

NBA schedule for Friday, Dec. 3

Game Time (ET) National TV
Heat vs. Pacers 7 p.m.
Cavaliers vs. Wizards 7 p.m.
76ers vs. Hawks 7:30 p.m. ESPN
Timberwolves vs. Nets 7:30 p.m.
Magic vs. Rockets 8 p.m.
Pelicans vs. Mavericks 8:30 p.m.
Celtics vs. Jazz 9 p.m.
Suns vs. Warriors 10 p.m. ESPN
Clippers vs. Lakers 10 p.m.

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