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2014-15 Charlotte Hornets Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-15 NBA season with a look at the Charlotte Hornets of the Southeast Division.

Basketball Insiders

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The Charlotte Hornets essentially hit rock bottom during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns. How bad was it in the Queen City? The team combined for win just 28 games during this span and were relegated to laughingstock status around the league. However, things are different for Charlotte heading into training camp this season. The team pumped out 43 wins in 2014, en route to a playoff appearance and are poised to make another run at the postseason.

The Hornets have a steady mix of young talent, a capable coach and an All-NBA player leading the charge. The Hornets are no longer the league’s go to punchline. While they’re still quite a bit away from title contention, make no mistake, the buzz is back.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Charlotte Hornets.

Five Guys Think

Outside of Cleveland and Chicago, no Eastern Conference team improved themselves quite as much as the Charlotte Hornets did this past offseason. Obviously luring Lance Stephenson away from Indiana was a huge coup for them, and it definitely shores up their backcourt rotation.  Rookies P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh both were pretty incredible values where they were selected in the draft, and both could contribute on this roster right away. Steve Clifford has quickly become one of the better coaches in the conference, and Al Jefferson shouldn’t be any less effective than he was a year ago. Without question, this is a team on the rise, and while they’re only ranked third in the Southeast Division in these projections, they could just as easily win it their first year as the Hornets.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

-Joel Brigham

Can you feel it? The Charlotte Hornets will enter this season with more buzz than at any point in the franchise’s history. After years in the league’s cellar, the Hornets won 43 games last season and clinched a playoff berth. Even though the team was unceremoniously eliminated in the first round of the postseason, the future is bright in the Queen City. Two moves during the summer of 2013 put the team in this position. The signing of veteran center Al Jefferson was huge for the team in regards to respectability and Steve Clifford has finally put an end to the revolving door of head coaches in Charlotte. Add in emerging guard Kemba Walker’s development and you have a team who will be fully expected to make another playoff run in 2014-15.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

Charlotte made huge strides last season, surprising everyone and making the playoffs for the first time in years. This year, I think they’ll continue to get better. Not only will the players be more comfortable under head coach Steve Clifford (who was a first-time NBA head coach last year), they also had a terrific offseason. They added key contributors like Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston to an already-talented core that features Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, etc. Stephenson, in particular, should really help the team on both ends, especially if he performs at the near-All-Star level that he played at for the first half of the 2013-14 season. Charlotte ended their playoff drought last year, which was an enormous step in the right direction for the team. But now it’s time to go even further and actually make some noise in the East.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

With the combination of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, the Hornets turned in a respectable 43-39 season, giving the fans of Charlotte a rare treat of a winning basketball season. With Lance Stephenson added to their core which also includes newcomers Noah Vonleh, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts, the Hornets may be able to flirt with 50 wins this coming season. Doing so will be no easy task, though, as the Southeast Division will be no cakewalk. Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo are all still learning the NBA game and still have room for improvement. If even two of those four can become consistent contributors, the Hornets will soon be recapturing past glory and making routine trips to the second round out East. The biggest question is whether or not Al Jefferson sees himself as a Hornets for the long-term, especially since he may opt out of his current contract after this coming season.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Charlotte Hornets displayed the kind of self-awareness last year that we haven’t seen from them in quite some time. After coming off their second playoff appearance in franchise history, it would have been really easy to think that they’re further along in the rebuilding process than they truly were and just settle for staying relatively pat. Instead, they were one of the more aggressive teams of the offseason, signing Gordan Hayward to a max offer sheet, then signing Lance Stephenson after the Jazz matched their offer for Hayward. They were in desperate need of another explosive weapon out on the perimeter, and got Stephenson on a great, short-term deal. He’s really going to make a difference in helping push them closer towards serious contention in the Eastern Conference. With additional firepower, more depth and legitimate star power in the Stephenson, Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, the re-branded Hornets are headed towards their best season ever.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: In this day and age consisting of a weaker crop of centers roaming the paint, the Hornets have one of the league’s best in Al Jefferson. The 10 year veteran has always been known to put up a gaudy stat line, but last season he strapped the Hornets to his back on both sides of the floor and silenced critics who questioned his leadership. Jefferson is a 20 point and 10 rebound threat every time he laces up the high tops and was named to his first All-NBA (third) team last season. Known for his effectiveness in the low post, the next stop for Jefferson is the ever elusive All-Star selection which perennially has eluded his grasp. Charlotte also features emerging point guard Kemba Walker who is more than capable of putting up strong nights offensively. However, the overall success of the Hornets this season rests on the shoulders of Jefferson.

Top Defensive Player: The arrival of guard Lance Stephenson immediately strengthens the Hornets perimeter defense. Stephenson is an athletic force who can effectively guard multiple positions, but the Hornets’ best individual defender is none other than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The third year forward is routinely tasked with guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player, often times without weak side help. The biggest drawback for Kidd-Gilchrist at this point is the fact his offensive limitations often play a huge role in his nightly minute allocation. With Stephenson now by Kidd-Gilchrist’s side, Charlotte will be one of the most frustrating teams for opposing wings to matchup against.

Top Playmaker: The arrival of center Al Jefferson last season significantly reduced the offensive burden on point guard Kemba Walker. This allowed Walker to focus more on ball handling duties and getting his teammates involved rather than the Hornets living and dying by his offensive production. Walker is one of the fastest guards in the league with the rock and has a knack for getting into the lane and creating havoc. The addition of Lance Stephenson, who can also create and get into the lane, gives the Hornets an incredibly tough backcourt to defend.

Top Clutch Player: The go to options down the stretch in clutch situations for Charlotte is undoubtedly Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. But the nod goes to Jefferson who was more efficient on both sides of the ball with the game on the line and less than five minutes remaining. Over half of the Hornets’ games had a point differential of five points or less with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter last season. Jefferson will be counted on for producing points in these situations. It will be Walker’s primary job to properly set up his center for those buckets.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams was selected by the Atlanta Hawks before Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 NBA Draft and has spent his entire career trying to live up to those expectations. While Williams will likely never reach the heights of Paul and Williams, what’s missing is the fact the forward has become a very productive player throughout his career. The stats aren’t gaudy but Williams has averaged double-digits in scoring in six of his nine years in the league. Williams has also developed three-point range, evident by his 84 makes in 2014 (36 percent).  Williams can also defend multiple positions. Williams will never be like Paul and Williams in the sense of personally carrying a team to the postseason, but title contending teams always have a guy like Williams in the fold doing the work.

Best New Addition: The Hornets let it be known they were going to be active in free agency this summer and swung for the fences trying to lure Gordon Hayward into town. While the club didn’t get Hayward, the signing of Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal is potentially the better fit. Stephenson brings a scrappy toughness to the roster and is someone Charlotte fans will rally behind.

– Lang Greene

Who We Like

1. Al Jefferson: The veteran center has always been productive but battled injuries early in his career and spent time languishing on more than a few subpar rosters. Therefore, the note on Jefferson was one of being capable of stuffing the nightly box score, but unable to significantly elevate an inferior team. Jefferson silenced a large contingent of his doubters with his performance last season in Charlotte. Jefferson became the face of the franchise, led a cellar dwelling team to the playoffs and scooped up All-NBA honors. What will the veteran big man do for an encore in 2015?

2. Steve Clifford: The first part of establishing a solid program is finding consistency on the bench. Prior to hiring Clifford as head coach, Charlotte tried Larry Brown, Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap at the helm in failed attempts to jumpstart the franchise. Clifford, a longtime assistant, almost immediately gained his troops buy-in and also ushered in a sorely needed defensive philosophy which helped the Hornets stay competitive when their shots weren’t falling. Clifford is the Hornets’ guy and his hire is one of the reasons things have turned around for the franchise in short order.

3. Lance Stephenson: His antics get the mainstream headlines, but his game says future All-Star performer. Some guys approach the game with a business-like mentality, others wear their emotions on their sleeves. Such is the case of Stephenson who is considered this year’s high risk high reward free agency signing. Stephenson can play and the Hornets’ style fits his game. We’re leaning more toward All-Star level performer and don’t foresee an implosion.

4. Kemba Walker: The dynamic guard continues to improve as a floor general and playmaker. With less demands on him offensively, Walker has been able to focus on running the team more – which is a good thing. The arrival of Stephenson via free agency gives Walker another weapon at his disposal. Walker should shoot a career high from the field and also set a new career high in assists in 2014-15.

5. Rich Cho: The veteran league executive has pulled off some crafty moves as the Hornets’ general manager in the past year. The signing of Al Jefferson, Brian Roberts, Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams have increased Charlotte’s depth. The hiring of head coach Steve Clifford has added the needed stability. Cho’s job isn’t done, but the franchise is headed in the right direction after year’s in the basement.

– Lang Greene

Strengths

The Hornets are one of the few teams in the entire league with a dominating low post presence offensively. The presence of Al Jefferson on the interior gives Charlotte an edge in the paint on most nights. Kemba Walker also has a solid knack for getting into the lane and finishing in his own right. The arrival of Lance Stephenson will put even more pressure on teams trying to keep the Hornets from camping on the interior. The Hornets also improved significantly defensively by adding Stephenson. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will eventually become one of the league’s better perimeter defenders and while Jefferson isn’t a defensive juggernaut he has played extremely well in Steve Clifford’s system.

– Lang Greene

Weaknesses

While one of the Hornets’ biggest strengths is having guys adept at finishing in the paint, one of the team’s biggest weaknesses will be knocking down three-point shots – consistently. This will give their opponents an opportunity to sag off defensively and protect the paint. The pressure will be on Gary Neal, Gerald Henderson, Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson to consistently knock down these shots to make Al Jefferson’s job easy on the inside.

– Lang Greene

The Salary Cap

The Hornets dropped under the cap to make a significant offer to restricted free agent Gordon Hayward, but the Utah Jazz chose to match.  Instead, Charlotte signed unrestricted guard Lance Stephenson.  After adding Marvin Williams, Jannero Pargo and Brian Roberts, along with rookie first-rounders Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, Charlotte has hit the cap with 14 guaranteed players.  What’s left to spend is the $2.7 million Room Exception.  The Hornets also have until Halloween to negotiate contract extensions with Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, otherwise the pair will become restricted free agents next summer.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

It feels good to welcome the Charlotte Hornets back into the NBA after a regrettable 10 seasons for the Bobcats, just as they seem poised to have their most relevant season since their reincarnation.  But it seems like the optimism accompanying the name change and the signing of Lance Stephenson may be a bit overboard.  Some have talked about this team as a potential sleeper for the top half of the East playoff bracket, but I think they are more likely to miss the playoffs entirely than reach those heights.

Almost all of the cast is back this year, with an exchange of Josh McRoberts for Marvin Williams, Stephenson, and rookie Noah Vonleh.  On a pure talent-in/talent-out basis, this is an upgrade for the Hornets.  But basketball teams to not improve or decline solely on that basis, particularly teams with the weaknesses the Hornets project to have.

The Bobcats’ (past tense, still allowed to use that name) biggest weakness a season ago was the offense, in particular a lack of floor-spacing.  McRoberts was an essential part of what little offense this 24th-ranked squad could muster, as he amassed a ton of touches handling the ball out top and spaced the floor with his adequate shooting from the three-point line.  That was crucial to give Jefferson breathing room down low and open space for drives by Walker, especially when he shared the floor with total non-shooter Kidd-Gilchrist.

Stephenson is a better player than McRoberts, but he is also a below-average three-point shooter for a shooting guard when you consider the defensive attention he draws.  Although he shoots a competent percentage, he is not enough of a threat to really deter help off him.  And while Williams is a superior shooter to McRoberts, he was also a major reason Utah ranked a distant 30th on defense a year ago.  If he gets major time at the four, it would be hard to imagine the defense repeating last year’s performance with he and Al Jefferson manning the power positions.

Another issue for Charlotte was a lack of offensive rebounds, where they pulled down a mere 21.9% of their own misses, bad for 26th in the league.  This was by design, as coach Clifford emphasized getting back in transition as a large part of his miracle-working with the defense.  Nevertheless, the lack of second chances makes the job on offense a bit tougher.

This team had the point-differential of a .500 squad last year, and benefited from good health.  They may also fall victim to Bill James’ “Plexiglass Principle,” in which teams who improve a great deal one year, such as the Hornets (especially on defense) a year ago, tend to regress the following year.  If they are to improve, it will be advances from Stephenson, Walker, and Kidd-Gilchrist that power it, along with a minimal regression from Jefferson’s career year.  In particular, the perimeter trio must improve its shooting.

Best Case

49-33

Clifford continues to draw blood from a stone with the frontcourt defense, keeping it at the same level despite a big rotation of Jefferson, Williams, Cody Zeller, and rookie Vonleh.  The latter two provide semi-competent depth up front, and all of the perimeter players improve their shooting.

Worst Case

38-44

The Hornets have one of the smaller differentials between their best and worst case scenarios, as they are not relying on anyone injury-prone and have a good distribution of talent throughout their roster.  Much of this talent is young and figures to get better.  But in the bad scenario, the defense drops off for some of the reasons stated above.  Jefferson regresses offensively from his career year, both due to age and the lack of spacing, and nobody else can pick up the slack.  The defense slips out of the top-10 while the offense remains in the doldrums.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Can the Hornets take advantage of the Eastern Conference’s transition of power and rapidly rise in the standings?

The momentum is building in Charlotte. From top to bottom the Hornets have plenty of talented pieces, a capable head coach, a front office willing to spend and a fan base ready to explode with excitement. The Eastern Conference is in a state of transition which could provide an opening for the franchise to make some noise. Miami is no longer the power with LeBron James departing to Cleveland. The Cavaliers will need time to gel before they begin their reign of dominance. Chicago is still playing the wait-and-see game with Derrick Rose. Brooklyn has plenty of questions. New York, who should be competitive, is gearing up for the future. Washington is expected to emerge but is far from a dominant team. This could be a prime opportunity for the Hornets to stealthily make a move.

– Lang Greene

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Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid Are Trying To Run Into The Playoffs

The Sixers are going to get out and run. If they want to make the playoffs, Joel Embiid will have to start catching up.

Dennis Chambers

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“We were up on the NBA champions 19 to zero,” Brett Brown said as he recalled his first game as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach back in 2013.

Brown continued his recollection of the events that night, Oct. 30 to be exact, of how a ragtag roster upended LeBron James and the Miami Heat on opening night.

“We won three in a row,” Brown said. “I felt we surprised ourselves and the league. We were in great shape. We were in great cardio shape, we ran.”

Despite a three-game winning streak to start that season, Brown’s Sixers would end the year with just 19 victories. But the head coach kept his team in shape and running, all the way to being the fastest paced team in the league that season.

Present day, nearly four years after the events of Brown’s first night manning the sidelines for Philadelphia, and much has changed with the team. There are new faces, a new attitude, and certain expectations that are developing within the walls of the Sixers’ training facility.

But on the court, not much is changing.

“I feel like that part of it, and the base of it, this year is far superior because of the pieces,” Brown said referring to his offense. “We’ve had however many years to try to have our system in place and coach the coaches. I think from a ‘how do we do things’ perspective, we’re far advanced than that timeframe.”

As Brown kicked off his fifth season at the helm of the Sixers on Wednesday night in the nation’s capital against the Washington Wizards, his team’s play embodied the notion of being superior to years past.

Despite a 120-115 loss to arguably the second best team in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia flashed the promise of the new pieces the team’s head coach boasted about. Making his NBA debut as a 6-foot-10 point guard, Ben Simmons quickly asserted himself in the game and displayed his affinity for grabbing a rebound and beginning a fast break—just as his coach preached.

Against the Wizards, a team with a point guard in John Wall who is known for running himself, the Sixers outscored Washington in fast break points, handily. Although Philadelphia forced just 10 turnovers, they managed to score 23 points off of their opponent’s mistakes. On top of that, they pushed the paced and outscored Washington 19-4 in fast break points.

Things aren’t perfect for the team, however. Regardless of their superiority in comparison to the team and personnel four years ago, the Sixers still feature a rookie point guard in Simmons, as well as another in Markelle Fultz. Youth leads to mistakes. Whether directly caused by the newcomers or not, a bit of sloppiness led to 17 turnovers by Philadelphia on Wednesday night’s opener.

“I still want to have Ben play with a higher pace,” Brown said. “I want to act responsibly at the end of the break where we can be a little more organized, a little bit more disciplined at the end of a break. But putting up 115 points, and I don’t think we played that well offensively, 13 turnovers in the second half, four or five to start the third period. We have the answers to the test. When people say what’s it going to take for you to get into the playoffs, it’s Joel Embiid’s health and we gotta care way better for the ball.”

The biggest question mark for this Sixers team is obviously Embiid’s health. Starting the season on a minutes restriction, Embiid logged just 27 minutes. Still, that was more time than either Embiid for Brown expected.

During the early stages of this season, Embiid’s minutes will be dictated primarily on the big man’s conditioning. For a team that likes to get out and run the way the Sixers do, that could present a few bumps in the road from the get-go in getting Embiid adjusted to the pace of their game.

Monitoring Embiid’s minutes intelligently and effectively is always at the forefront of Brown’s mind, though. Just like the pace of his team’s play.

“I sat down with the sports science people this morning, and they’re very thoughtful with how they come up with this decision in relation to the loading,” Brown said in reference to Embiid’s minutes. “You can judge the loading scientifically in blocks. There was only one section of his loading, his chunk of minutes, that they deemed to be in the high area. It was torrid pace up and down. The other times he came in he played at a reasonable pace.”

Should the Sixers find themselves in a run-and-gun game, be it by their own doing or their opponent’s, Brown thinks Embiid’s minutes could see a drop off from the opening night number in those instances.

“We’ve done two things,” Brown said. “We still have his health at the forefront, and selfishly for me, and the team, and Jo, you’re able to get maybe eight more minutes than you thought you were gonna get from him.”

While the Sixers look to progress through the season, so will Embiid and his minutes total. Brown isn’t going to change the principles of his offense, with Simmons at the helm he’ll look to enhance the pace at an even higher rate. For the 7-foot-2 center, getting back into game shape so he can consistently run with his team is the most important thing for Philadelphia at the moment.

“It was all on me,” Embiid said about his minutes total. “The way I looked, if I wasn’t tired I was going to play. It’s just about the way I feel. If I look tired, they’re gonna take me out. If I don’t look tired, I’m gonna stay in and keep playing. I thought yesterday I was fine. There was a couple stretches that I was a little bit tired, but it’s all about pacing myself.”

As Brown mentioned, Embiid is Philadelphia’s answer to the playoff questions. For the 76ers, and Embiid himself, pacing will become the staple of their study guide over the course of this season.

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Sooner or Later, Everyone Will Realize LeBron Is Chasing Kareem

If LeBron continues at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before he surpasses Kobe, Karl and Kareem.

Moke Hamilton

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As he stood at half court, the shot clock ticked downward from 10.

His nimble center set a high screen for him, and he wisely utilized it.

With Al Horford guarding him, LeBron James sized up the big man before taking a step back three that had just too little muscle behind it.

With the Celtics trailing by three points, rookie Jayson Tatum grabbed the rebound and wisely handed the ball off to Kyrie Irving, who instinctively (and surprisingly) tossed it ahead to Jaylen Brown.

As Brown brought the ball up the floor, he noticed that he had the numbers—there were three Celtics and only one Cavalier.

LeBron, however, was the one Cavalier.

In a split second, Brown took inventory and wisely decided to take his chances with a pull-up, game-tying three pointer.

Brown’s three was a tad long and James, who was out of position, couldn’t stop Horford from tipping the ball out. As it caromed off the rim, it made a beeline toward the courtside seats. Poetically, magically, the ball ended up in Kyrie Irving’s hands.

Irving turned toward the basket to fire the shot his team needed, but, to nobody’s surprise, James was in his face.

Irving necessarily took one escape dribble to his right and forced an off-balance three-pointer that caught nothing but air.

In 41 minutes, James scored 29 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had nine assists and two blocks. During the game’s final 20 seconds, he was everywhere he needed to be and everywhere necessary to thwart everything the Celtics tried to do.

And to think, he had the nerve to call himself out of shape.

* * * * * *

Sure, the 102-99 victory that the Cavs earned over the Celtics on opening night is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it serves as a stark reminder as to just how truly dominant James can be. As he enters his 15th season, its beginning was quite appropriate.

As written about in this space before, as James attempts to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive year, the arguments over his place among the game’s greats persist. Some say he’s one of history’s top five players, while some say he’s the greatest ever.

Others don’t think he’s better than Kobe Bryant.

Regardless where you stand on LeBron, something that was written in this space last season warrants revisiting: if he continues to be as durable, as skilled and as talented as he has been over the course of his career, we may eventually be calling James’ name not alongside Kobe or M.J., but Kareem.

Entering his 15th NBA season, James had accrued 28,787 total points—seventh in history.

He trails only Dirk Nowitzki (30,270), Wilt Chamberlain (31,419), Michael Jordan (32, 292), Kobe Bryant (33,643), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), who rank sixth to first, respectively.

What has been most startling about James’ climbing through the ranks of the game’s best scorers, though, has been that he’s seemingly done it naturally.

All six of the greats ranking ahead of him were deemed “scorers” more than anything else. Meanwhile, James has always ranked behind the likes of someone—Kobe, Carmelo, Durant, Curry or Harden—when the deserver of that title was argued.

Meanwhile, slowly but surely, James entered his 15th season on Tuesday night trailing Kareem by 9,571 points. Most would deem him too far away from to be able to challenge for that top spot, but if LeBron stays healthy, he will have a serious shot.

Through 14 NBA seasons, James has played in 1,061 of a possible 1,132 games—93.7 percent. As the only other contemporary player to crash the top five, it is Bryant who remains his measuring stick.

Through his first 14 NBA seasons, Bryant played in 1,021 of a possible 1,116 games—91.5 percent. During those 14 seasons, Bryant scored a total of 25,790 points. James scored 28,787.

What made Bryant special was that he was able to continue to be an elite scorer right up until he tore his Achilles tendon at the age of 34. The miles eventually got the best of him, and during his last three seasons, he managed to score just 18.9 points per game.

Consider this about the top three scorers in NBA history, though: Kobe and Kareem each played 20 seasons. Malone played 19.

James’ first 14 seasons have resulted in more total points than Bryant, and only about 150 less than Malone’s (28,946).

Unsurprisingly, through 14 years, Kareem was far away from James, having scored about 1,100 more for a total of 29,810, but over the final six years of Kareem’s career, he averaged just 18.2 points per game.

Kareem turned 34 years old right as his 12th season ended. From there, he showed his age and began to slow down considerably.

To this point, LeBron has done no such thing.

* * * * * *

The discussion as to where James truly belongs in the eyes of history will persist.

Those that see the glass as half-full will reason that the mere fact that he’s been able to sustain his greatness for so long—much less the fact that he has made it to the NBA Finals eight times—will resonate.

Others will point to his record in those Finals (3-5) as evidence of his inferiority to the likes of Jordan (6-0) or Kobe (5-2).

Those are arguments for a different day.

What is fact is that seemingly without even trying, LeBron is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA. And if he manages to play 19 years like Malone or 20 years like Kobe or Kareem, at the end of the day, he’ll be the greatest one of them all.

Whether he continues to score the 27.1 points per game he has over the course of his career, scores 25 per night from here on out or, for some reason, becomes merely a 20 point per game scorer, it’s only a matter of time.

And as we saw on opening night, particularly in the game’s final 20 seconds, LeBron still has plenty of it.

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How NBA League Pass is Changing

Ben Dowsett dives deep into some of the technical improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

Ben Dowsett

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As the NBA continues to grow in popularity, demands for available programing rise in lockstep. A new mammoth TV rights deal that began last season promised increased visibility and advertising dollars, and was the primary factor in a sudden jump in the league’s salary cap figure. Between that and an exploding digital marketplace, there are a lot of eyes on the NBA as an entertainment product.

For the NBA fan interested in watching the entire league and not just their home market (or even for cord-cutters who only want to watch their local team), NBA League Pass is a familiar tool. Available for both single-team and league-wide subscriptions, League Pass is a multi-device platform that allows for both live and on-demand viewing of NBA games.

For many users of NBA League Pass, this is a relatively issue-free experience. For many others, though, League Pass has long lagged behind competitors in the digital sports sphere, with a number of glitches and absent features still present as recently as last season across multiple devices. These issues are a regular source of annoyance for NBA fans everywhere, particularly the most invested ones.

Basketball Insiders spent the summer investigating the causes of some of these issues, both with the NBA and with various extended providers of League Pass. Here’s what we found regarding previous issues, their fixes, and other developments to the service moving forward. (Also be sure to check out our broader report from earlier this week on some of the general new features being offered by League Pass.)

League Pass on TV

For several years at minimum, customers of most cable and satellite providers have been able to enjoy NBA League Pass with virtually no major issues. Companies like DirecTV, Dish, Uverse and others have all had solid programs for years, with full-HD channel lineups and a simple, straightforward purchasing and viewing process.

For customers of Comcast, however, things haven’t been so rosy.

Through the completion of the 2016-17 NBA season, Comcast XFINITY customers were not offered such a robust slate. Just a single high definition channel was available on League Pass via XFINITY last season, and even that one channel wasn’t dedicated only to NBA action.

Unless a game was being broadcast on a national station like ESPN or NBATV, you simply had to cross your fingers and hope that the game you wanted was the one that was showing in HD. Otherwise, you got to watch it in standard definition or not at all.

Before we discuss how this is slated to change moving forward, a necessary aside: This is crazy. Even before the new massive TV rights deal, the NBA was unquestionably one of the most popular sports in North America; for the largest broadcasting and cable television company in the world by revenue to enter the year 2017 without basic HD channels for the league – channels present in hundreds of other areas and on every other major provider, no less – is nothing short of asinine, and speaks to the limited alternatives available and the simple power of a conglomerate like Comcast.

Back to greener pastures: Changes are in motion, even if they’re still moving a little slower and more timidly than most customers would prefer.

Per sources familiar with the service, HD channel options will be in place for all games under Comcast XFINIFY’s offering of NBA League Pass during the 2017-18 season. These will be available under Comcast’s Beta program, one that’s been offered for both MLB and NHL programming over the last several years. A sample MLB Beta page can be found here.

Beta pages are a bit nebulous and tough to access if you aren’t already paying for one of these services, but our research suggests they function reasonably well. There are multiple ways to access Beta channels, either via a voice or keypad search or through the guide – though doing it through the guide won’t be quite as simple as just clicking a single channel (you have to click a Beta channel, then choose the team you want to watch and wait for blackout and subscription verification).

Blackouts are still present for local markets and nationally televised games, but this is to be expected for all such services.

Now the bad news: There are some pretty serious limitations to this Beta program. Firstly, as you’ll note if you click the link above, it’s considered a trial offering. Features like recording, pausing or rewinding games will not be available. For the busy basketball fan who can’t be present to watch his or her team right from tipoff every night, this is an obvious problem.

Additionally, sources say that this Beta program will only be available by the end of November. As the astute NBA fan will note, the season began on October 17 – what about the time in between? The previous version of League Pass will still be available during this period, sources say, but XFINITY customers who want all their games in HD will be out of luck for about a month and a half. Combine that with some apparent clunkiness in accessing the games themselves, and this new development still leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, it’s progress where previously there had been very little. Sources say that work is being done to move each of the NBA, MLB and NHL offerings away from the Beta package and into full-time circulation, which would ostensibly get rid of most or all of those functionality issues. No firm dates were given for this, however, and NBA fans are probably safest assuming this will be the program for the full season once it kicks in during November. Make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

League Pass Broadband

Understanding how NBA League Pass fits into the broadband landscape requires a look back at the history of streaming sports technology. In particular, we have to look at a competitor: Major League Baseball.

For years, MLB’s streaming service has been considered something of a gold standard within the digital world, with numerous parties contacted for this story gushing about their quality. Basketball Insiders’ research revealed this to be a total falsehood – those compliments simply weren’t going far enough. The degree to which MLB has outpaced the field when it comes to streaming is almost shocking.

(For those only looking for the nitty-gritty details of what will change with NBA League Pass Broadband moving forward, skip to that section by clicking here.)

In the year 2000, while most of us were still worried about Y2K bugs and voting machines in Florida, Major League Baseball was getting to work pioneering online streaming sports. That was the year that the league’s owners centralized all digital rights into a new, independent tech startup called MLB Advanced Media, per sources. The “independent” part was important: MLB was purposefully building a distinct, separate entity that operated in a different facility than league HQ, hired tech-savvy folks and was, truly, its own company.

On August 26, 2002, MLB Advanced Media broadcasted their first live Major League game. Roughly 30,000 people (!!) tuned in to watch a Yankees-Rangers tilt on a date nearly three years earlier than famed video site YouTube would even launch on the web.

Over the next several years, MLBAM (pronounced em-el-BAM by insiders – it’s fun to say!) paved the way for streaming sports technology. They sold a nine-game pennant race package later that season, then a full-season package in March of 2003. By 2005, they had installed a private fiber network dedicated to streaming in all 30 MLB ballparks.

By 2008, two representatives from MLB were on stage and demonstrating the product as Steve Jobs introduced the Apple App Store for the very first time – MLB’s At Bat App was the first sports app in the history of the store, and one of the first 500 ever created of any kind. By 2010, they were pioneering connected devices like PlayStation and Xbox.

All the while, MLB made a concerted effort to keep all these efforts completely in-house. No outsourcing, no reliance on a third party.

Their success quickly started drawing attention. As other similar entities looked to enter the streaming space, they were faced with their own decision: To outsource, or to attempt to build a ground-up technology sector like MLB had.

Some went the outsource route, and their first call was to MLB. Few outside the industry knew it at the time, but MLB was behind the first-ever streaming of March Madness games on CBS Sports back in 2006, per sources. They’d later help ESPN in their switch from ESPN360 to ESPN3 in 2010, and assist with the advent of HBO Now in 2014.

Also in 2014, they helped create a groundbreaking new sector of the streaming world – a full OTT (over-the-top of subscription) network dedicated to WWE wrestling. This wasn’t just live matches, it was a full network complete with archives and on-demand programming. This kind of service is now called direct-to-consumer programming.

By this point, outsourcing demands had grown so much that MLB took some new steps. In 2016, MLBAM was spun off into a new entity called BAMTECH, which was in charge of all outsourced efforts (MLBAM remained on the baseball-only side). One third of BAMTECH was sold to Disney for $1 billion – a $3 billion valuation for what was at one time nothing but a tech startup. In August 2017, Disney acquired additional shares to reach a 75 percent controlling stake in the company at an even larger total valuation, per sources familiar with the finances.

Today, MLBAM continues to manage baseball-related streaming services while BAMTECH, now primarily owned by Disney, works with several other large entities. These include ESPN, the NHL and Riot Games, a big player in the rapidly rising eSports sphere. They also stream their own MLB client to over 400 different devices.

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This is a high standard for any other sports or streaming entity to hold itself to, even one as successful as the NBA. Interestingly, though, MLB could end up serving as a perfect template for the path the NBA is now taking – just on a different timeline.

Just as the MLB decided years ago to prioritize their own in-house development of this technology, the NBA has recently done the same. About three years ago, Turner – which handles nearly all of the NBA’s entertainment assets – purchased a majority of a company called iStreamPlanet, a leader in the streaming technology sphere.

Founded in 2000, iStreamPlanet is perhaps best known in the industry for their recent work on the Olympic Games, which began in 2010 at the Vancouver Winter Games. Their coverage of Sochi in 2014 had over 9.1 million users in just 18 days of competition. They’ve also broadcast all the recent Super Bowls, starting in 2011.

Before the beginning of last season, the NBA and Turner migrated all of their League Pass technology over to iStreamPlanet, per sources familiar with the technology. This was in place of a previous internal solution that had managed League Pass streaming.

As one can imagine, the very first year under this new migration came with a few bumps in the road. The migration included a complete change of the infrastructure that processed video, from the way it’s taken to the way it’s encoded. New software was instituted, and then tech experts with Turner and iStreamPlanet meticulously went through each individual platform to diagnose issues and test functionality. Every platform has its own individual player and its own individual quirks, so this was no small project across a wide variety of platforms.

In essence, this was a test run for a product built from scratch. There’s really no other way to do this – for the NBA to truly build its own infrastructure here, they had to start from the ground up.

If last year’s inaugural season under the new technology was all about finding bugs and ensuring functionality across all platforms, the offseason has been all about fine-tuning the execution. The teams at Turner and iStreamPlanet analyzed every step of the video process, from when it left a given NBA arena to when it made its way to your device screen. They hardened the path of video from the venue to the fan, allowing it to arrive more quickly and in better quality.

A few specific changes, possible future changes, and notably similar areas to be aware of here:

  • Per sources, changes to video encoding and pathways have resulted in roughly a 50 percent reduction in lag time compared to a television broadcast across a majority of NBA League Pass platforms. No platform experienced worse than a 33 percent reduction in lag time, with most up around this 50 percent figure. Lag time versus standard TV broadcasts has long been a prominent issue among broadband users.
  • Down similar lines, extra steps have been taken to protect clients who want to watch games spoiler-free. A new “Hide Scores” button has been introduced at the top of users’ game menu – when clicked, it will remove the live scores from both completed and live games, allowing viewers to start watching a game late without having the score ruined for them in advance (though it appears users still have to manually rewind to the start of the game, so spoilers are still possible).
  • With Adobe preparing to soon begin phasing out the Flash player from their content offerings, sources say Turner and iStreamPlanet are working on an eventual transition of NBA League Pass from Flash technology over to HTML5. This transition is expected this season for both live and on-demand content.
  • While it won’t please some customers, blackout rules across all areas of League Pass appear to remain the same. These are issues of media rights, and unfortunately that’s just how things work.
  • Customers have access to numerous platforms, with up to five connected devices per customer.
  • Standard log time for games to enter the on-demand section of League Pass streaming is between 48 and 72 hours – once again, some of this is related to business rules with the NBA and regional television networks. For condensed games, the turnaround time is closer to an average of 24 hours.
  • The NBA is offering a free trial preview of League Pass services from now through October 24.

Once again, things won’t be perfect overnight. Lag issues still exist, and media rights considerations make certain bits of timing sub-optimal. Like any platform still in its earlier stages in a relative sense, there will be glitches here and there.

When you experience these issues, speak up. Turner has a full support team in place, with logging capabilities that allow them to identify issues that frequently come up among customers – this process is how some of their biggest changes have taken place over the last year.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for any updates or changes to NBA League Pass in the future.

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