Please save 'Inside the NBA'

On Monday’s “Inside the NBA,” Charles Barkley ate a plate of chicken nuggets, while using the opportunity, mid-bite, to lecture against the practice of double dipping into sauce. Later, he declared the Denver Nuggets would get swept by Minnesota, even though the series is only 2-0 Timberwolves.

Shaquille O'Neal tried to claim Barkley actually ate raccoon nuggets, made by “my boy” (whoever that may be), but no one believed him. At another point, the two argued over a block/charge call, with Barkley calling the referees “boneheads” and Shaq declaring that the defender needed to “man up.”

Kenny Smith went to the big screen to break down the hellacious Wolves defense, which the guys believed is some of the best ever played.

Later, everyone got excited when Cindy Crawford had a pallet of jalapeño tequila shipped to the studio. Shaq tried to claim ownership of the entire supply, while Kenny and Chuck argued over who Cindy liked more.

All along a bowtied Ernie Johnson tried to keep this middle-aged frathouse/barbershop of a television show on the rails. He, per usual, mostly succeeded.

Monday’s edition was memorable because it wasn’t particularly memorable; this is what the show is seemingly every night — entertaining, informative, opinionated, unpredictable, hysterical, authentic, smart and fun.

This was just another example, not an all-timer like when Barkley was challenged to a footrace by a 69-year-old ref he had declared too old, or when he caused an uproar by claiming there were no good looking women in San Antonio or even when the show would deftly delve into politics or social issues or pop culture.

No, what made Monday special is that it might be one of the last editions of the greatest sports show ever created and arguably one of the best television shows as well.

The NBA is lining up its next media rights deals and TNT’s parent company, Warner Bros., is at risk of losing the broadcast rights it’s held since 1989. TNT's deal runs out after next season, and NBC and a reported $2.5 billion might beat them out.

If so, the fate of “Inside the NBA,” at least in its current perfect form, is at risk of getting its own “Gone Fishin’” segment.

Basketball: NBA Playoffs: NBA on TNT broadcasters (L-R) Shaquille O'Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley before Houston Rockets vs Golden State Warriors at Toyota Center. Game 1. 
Houston, TX 5/14/2018
CREDIT: Greg Nelson (Photo by Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X161915 TK1 )
The current cast of 'Inside the NBA,' consisting of Shaquille O'Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley, has been together since Shaq joined the crew in 2011. (Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Barkley said he would be a free agent if TNT loses its NBA deal and could sign with any network. It's unknown the contract situation of Shaq and Smith, but Johnson has other duties with TNT and likely wouldn’t leave even if NBC tried to reassemble the cast. That alone would be a massive blow.

“I don’t know how it works without Ernie,” Barkley told "The Dan Patrick Show" last week. “And I can’t speak for NBC. I don’t know if they’d want all three of us. Our show won’t be the same without Ernie. Ernie is the most important person on our show.”

Every sports show on television attempts to copy what "Inside the NBA" has, and if you watch them you’d know none have truly succeeded. The juxtaposition of the casual, comfortable free flow of TNT against those stilted, crowded, rushed and overproduced NFL shows is jarring.

How many fake laughs and backslaps can we have?

It’s why any altering of this cocktail is fraught with risk and should depress any sports viewer. There has never been anything like this, at least since Barkley joined in 2000. There is reason to fear there never will be again.

It is possible that I watched more minutes of “Inside the NBA” this season than the actual NBA. Until the league’s midseason officiating shift that allowed actual defense to be played, the games could be a hard watch.

The show, however, never was. Maybe it’s bizarre to tune in to the postgame of a game that didn’t interest you in the first place, but that’s how good it is (and I suspect I am not the only one). The show is ostensibly about the NBA, but many of us find it far more entertaining than a late night talk show and more varied than most cable offerings.

In an era of media caution and control, you never knew what might be said — ridiculous, raunchy or politically incorrect. That was part of the charm. Even Barkley, indisputably a massive broadcasting talent, has never been as good on other shows or in other formats as he is with Smith, Shaq and Johnson pulling the best out of him.

So, now what? No one knows.

“It’s nerve wracking for everybody,” Barkley said of the uncertainty. “It’s very stressful.”

Perhaps NBC could get the three former players and try to replace Johnson, but again, something significant will be lost.

There are lots of other variables as well. There are producers, directors, researchers and more who contribute. Someone on the staff, for example, always picks out the best social media comments, usually making fun of Charles. Warner Brothers executives seemingly offer — if not encourage — significant creative leeway, and don’t blink when the crew spends a halftime discussing, say, gun violence or Met Gala fashions.

Maybe most notably, there is the freedom of a cable channel with few time constraints. Even if a game runs late via overtime, there is ample time afforded for the show to be done at the proper pace. "Impractical Jokers" can get pushed back. Your local news and "The Tonight Show" can’t.

The long-term future is unknown. The short term, however, isn’t. The show will be back Thursday.

Appreciate it while it's still here, because if this goes away, there may never be anything as good again.