Charles Barkley, left, and Shaquille O'Neal wrap up an interview...

Charles Barkley, left, and Shaquille O'Neal wrap up an interview at TNT studios after O'Neal joined the cast of the network's "Inside the NBA" for a live media call-in show on Thursday. (Dec. 15, 2011) Credit: AP

When people discuss the musical chairs on the set of ESPN’s “NBA Countdown,’’ they often frame the matter in terms of the show's so-far futile quest to match the success of TNT’s “Inside the NBA.’’

But Charles Barkley, the star of “Inside the NBA,’’ does not see it that way.

“I don’t look at us as in competition with those guys,’’ the TNT analyst said Monday during a luncheon to preview the 2013-14 season. “Those guys are our friends. We want their show to be successful. It’s not a competition. We’re not on on the same night, so it’s not like we’re up against them.

“We want their show to be successful, and I watch their show all the time. I’m going to watch the games they have on. It’s interesting. I don’t look at that show to critique their talent. I just want to watch the game.’’

Barkley did say that one difference between TNT’s version of an NBA studio show and its counterparts is the “fun’’ factor.

“Hopefully we have a good game, but I think one of the things that separates us is if we have a ---- game the guys behind the scenes, we come up with some funny stuff,’’ Barkley said.

“Me and Shaq are born liking to make people have fun. I think that’s probably the difference between our shows, to be honest with you. I think we really make people have fun . . . We’re on from 8 to 2:30 in the morning. Nobody wants to sit there and X and O people to death. That’s just stupid. You can’t hold people’s attention for that long a period of time if you’re just Xs and Os.’’

Ernie Johnson, the longtime host of the show, said, “I don’t think any of us ever really thinks about what anyone else is doing. We have enough stuff to deal with to do it on a nightly basis. There is no way to predict what’s going to work. There never is a way to predict.

“We didn’t know it would happen with the three of us. I thought Charles would get tired of it after about six shows and say, What else am I going to do? I thought let’s see what Charles is like when the novelty wears off . . . To his credit he still comes in and says the same thing every night. He walks in the studio and says, Let’s have some fun tonight.’’

Johnson remembered Barkley’s first show, when he asked Kenny Smith just before halftime what Smith planned to say about a certain topic. Said Smith: “You’ll find out.’’

Johnson said the analysts are not even invited to production meetings. “We want everything to be fresh and new to these guys so it’s not rehearsed,’’ he said. “Anything you see on the show is just a genuine reaction. We all genuinely like each other and like hanging out and nobody is concerned about face time.’’

Smith said he has watched ESPN’s studio perhaps 16 times in 16 years, in part to avoid hearing others’ opinions that might influence his own.

“Like Ernie says, if you were watching the game with three or four of your friends, you wouldn’t figure out what you’re going to say before it happens,’’ Smith said. “The game is on and you’re going to talk. If all of a sudden Martha Stewart goes to jail, we’re going to talk about Martha Stewart going to jail.

“The only difference is you’ve got guys who played the game and nothing is going to happen that we haven’t seen, done or been a part of that happens in a basketball game.’’

Shaquille O’Neal, the new kid on the block, is entering his third season on the show.

“Obviously we want our show to be fun, and you couldn’t bring in a more fun person,’’ Barkley said.

Smith said O’Neal initially was too cautious, but his colleagues encouraged him to say the sorts of things on the air that had generated laughs in the green room before the show.

“Once he realized he could be himself and didn’t have to read the teleprompter like Ted Koppel, it was probably about two weeks in, I thought, man this is going to work,’’ Smith said.

O’Neal said he had been a fan of the show, one reason he chose TNT over ESPN for his TV career, in part because of the free-wheeling vibe.

“I’m still fairly new here, but I’m getting integrated in the show,’’ he said. “Sometimes when I get home at 3:30 and I’m flipping through the channels I’m like, did we really say that?’’

Despite the popularity of “Inside the NBA’’ and TNT’s three-decade relationship with the league, no one is quite sure what will happen when the current TV contracts with ESPN and TNT expire after the 2015-16 season – the biggest sports rights property that will be up for grabs between now and the end of the decade.

“It’s going to be a bidding war,’’ Barkley said. “It always comes down to cash. I’m hoping that they stay with us. But I’m not naïve. It’s going to come down to cash. Fox is going to be a player. Remember when Fox paid outrageous money for the NFL and made themselves a major network?

“Those owners want more cash; players want more cash. Hopefully they have some loyalty. Thirty years, that’s a long time to be in a relationship with somebody.’’

All that is three seasons away, and for now the TNT analyst are focused on what they called the most wide-open championship race in years.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited for a season,’’ Barkley said.

One reason is that the presumptive favorites, the two-time defending champion Heat, are far from a lock.

“They went seven games with the Pacers and they should have lost to the Spurs; it ain’t like you guys are talking like they’re Michael Jordan’s Bulls,’’ Barkley said.

“Congratulations, they’ve had a fantastic run. But anybody who doesn’t think the Spurs didn’t blow that [Finals] series doesn’t know anything about basketball.’’

One problem for the Heat is lack of size, a reason the analysts predicted huge matchup problems against the Nets, with Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett.

“If Brooklyn stays healthy, Brooklyn can give them a run for their money,’’ O’Neal said. “Their starting five is very, very impressive . . . They have a great team. If they can stay healthy I think they’re going to give Miami a run for their money . . . If they come together and come together quickly I think they can take Miami.’’

Barkley said Lopez “should have a field day’’ against the Heat, unless Greg Oden stays healthy and productive.

Barkley, a longtime skeptic when it comes to the Knicks, placed them behind the Heat, Nets, Pacers and Bulls in the East, not because they are not a good team but because their competition got tougher.

Of Carmelo Anthony, he said, “Listen, I think he’s the best offensive player in the NBA, but he has to do a better job of playing defense and rebounding the ball. I think that’s a fair criticism.’’

Smith, who grew up in New York and now lives in the Los Angeles area, said the Nets are following a path similar to that of the Clippers in becoming relevant in a town long dominated by another team. “If I’m a New Yorker I’m going to watch more Brooklyn games than Knicks games the way the teams are constructed right now,’’ he said.

Barkley said he hopes this season to finally accomplish his goal of calling an NCAA Tournament game with ESPN’s Dick Vitale despite the fact ESPN does not have rights to the event.

“I’d love to do a college game with Dick,’’ he said. “I’ve tried to make it happen but it hasn’t happened. C’mon, man, it would be great for the sport. It’s someone I really respect. He loves college basketball. I would love to do a game with him, plain and simple.’’

Barkley suggested they work one of the low-profile first-round games that trim the field to 64. “Nobody cares about those first four games,’’ he said.

In other Barkley news, he plans to work more NBA games in person again this year, freeing him from the sameness of studio work and getting him out among the players and fans.

After Monday’s luncheon, Barkley sat for additional questions in a two-on-one interview with Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch and me. Deitsch asked whether he has LeBron James in his all-time top 10. Barkley said he is on that list, but can never crack his top five.

Deitsch’s transcript of Barkley’s answer:

“I have him there. But he can't get any higher than where he is. I have Michael [Jordan] at No. 1. Oscar [Robertson] at No. 2. Then Wilt [Chamberlain], Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and [Bill] Russell. I have Kobe [Bryant], LeBron, Tim Duncan, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor after that. Those are my top 10.

“Those second five fluctuate, but who do I take off my top five? LeBron can get to No. 6 on my list, but here's the thing that bothers me about the whole LeBron debate: I want to know why y'all killed Kobe Bryant! Y'all don't even compare him to LeBron anymore. You are skipping him for LeBron and going right to Michael.

“I'm still going to take five [titles] over two. It makes me laugh with my friends -- the media just kills Kobe Bryant. Like he's dead! Five still is a lot more than two!’’

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