Damian Lillard’s series-clinching three-point shot put the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. However, in the Conference Semifinals, they received a stiff reminder about how far they still have to go from the San Antonio Spurs on their way to a championship.
With a young core and an improved second unit, the Trail Blazers hope to be better prepared to take on the West’s elite.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers.
Five Guys Think
Two years ago, LaMarcus Aldridge was intimating that he’d do precisely what Kevin Love just did and leave what was then a pretty uninteresting Blazers team for greener pastures somewhere else. Now, however, the grass is plenty green right where Aldridge is, thanks to an exciting first-round win in last year’s postseason and a roster that’s pretty flush with talent. Damian Lillard is an All-Star now, and with good role players like Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, Steve Blake, Chris Kaman and C.J. McCollum, they’re deeper than they’ve been in years. The Western Conference is a tough place to live, but these young Blazers are champing at the bit to get back out there and give their title hopes another go.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the league’s surprising teams in 2014 and should once again flirt with 50 victories and a playoff berth. At the top of the lineup are All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge driving the success. Aldridge was nearly out of the door a year ago, but the team’s direction has the veteran forward saying he’d like to retire with the organization. The 2014-15 campaign will be a big one for the franchise in regards to its future makeup. Aldridge, center Robin Lopez and guard Wesley Matthews will all be unrestricted free agents next summer. Forward Nicolas Batum will be a free agent in 2016. So while the club is basking in its recent success, if the team struggles you have to keep in mind their front office might have to pull off some moves to prevent a mass exodus.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
The newly acquired Chris Kaman will add something to a Trail Blazers team that has been capably led by stalwart Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The major concern for the Blazers will be one that often affects overachieving young teams—the want of more. Often, after young players experience some level of success, they tend to want more: shots, money and recognition. With Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez each entering the final year of their contracts, Blazers fans should only hope that the group collectively continues to be as cohesive and unified as they were last season. C.J. McCollum opened eyes up during Summer League play in Las Vegas, so whether he gets more minutes and opportunity—and whether he thrives—is a storyline worth keeping an eye on out in Rip City. Out in the Northwest Division, though, as long as Aldridge and Lillard remain healthy, it will be the Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder battling for the division crown while the other three teams are left fighting for scraps.
2nd place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
I jumped on the Portland bandwagon when they drafted Damian Lillard, as I was a big fan when he was at Weber State. However, he has exceeded all expectations in his first two seasons in the NBA, mine included. He’s already an All-Star and All-NBA player, which is incredible. The Blazers went from being a rebuilding lottery team to having one of the better one-two punches in the league in Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and they should remain a playoff squad as long as those two players are there. We saw what Portland could be when these players are clicking last year in the postseason when they upset the Houston Rockets in the first round. Portland didn’t make any drastic moves this offseason, but they really didn’t need to. Bringing back the same pieces was smart, as their chemistry will be good and they clearly have the talent to be an elite team in the Western Conference.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
For the second straight summer the Trail Blazers had a quiet, but very efficient summer. This team’s starting five is set, but last year they were exposed for their lack of a bench in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs. By adding Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, they solidified one of their two most important bench positions with guys who are proven to be capable starters. With their most pertinent needs addressed and a young core that is poised to improve off of the great experience they gained last year, few teams in the West should be feared the way they Trail Blazers are. As long as they stay healthy, it’s not out of the question that they could top the Oklahoma City Thunder and win the Northwest Division.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge. While point guard Damian Lillard has received a lot of the headlines, it is forward LaMarcus Aldridge who is the unquestioned top offensive producer for the Blazers. Aldridge was criticized early in his career for his lack of toughness, commitment to rebounding and ability to bang in the post. In his eighth year with three straight All-Star appearances, Aldridge has shredded those critiques to become one of the top power forwards in the NBA (if not the best). Aldridge is a mismatch nightmare against nearly every opponent he faces. His offensive versatility includes the ability to stretch defenses with his silky-smooth mid-range jumper, a variety of polished post moves and the strength and athleticism to overpower opponents. This unique skill set helped Aldridge continue improving his offensive production every year of his career once again with career-high averages of 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds per game and a team-leading PER of 21.8. Although Lillard and forward Nicolas Batum figure to become more involved on offense this year, the Blazers will still run the offense heavily through Aldridge as their go-to scorer.
Top Defensive Player: Nicolas Batum. Head coach Terry Stotts has made a commitment to including Batum more often in the offense since coming to Portland thanks to his unique skill set. The one skill Batum has been relied upon since coming to the Blazers as a 20-year-old rookie is his ability to play lock-down defense. Batum is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA thanks to his 6’8′ frame, 7’1′ wingspan and great lateral foot movement. Since his rookie season, Batum has been tasked with guarding the best player on the opposing team whether it’s bigger forwards like LeBron James or Kevin Durant or even some of the elite point guards such as Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker. Batum has effectively limited the stars of the NBA to earn his best defensive rating of his career last season at 106. Batum has the ability to stuff the stat sheet on a nightly basis thanks to his defensive versatility, averaging .7 blocks, .9 steals and a career-high 7.5 rebounds per game. While Batum’s role on offense is expected to grow this season, fans can expect Batum to step up against the best player on the opposing team and pepper the stat sheet on both offense and defense.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard. Since coming to the Blazers as a rookie out of Weber State, Lillard has been given the keys to run this team and create plays on offense. Lillard was selected to his first All-Star game last year in just his second season by averaging 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and .8 steals per game. With his career-high scoring and electric offensive play last year, Lillard announced himself as one of the elite guards in the NBA. Not only has Lillard increased his offensive production, he has also developed a more complete grasp of the Blazers’ offense. Lillard is the spearhead to Stotts’ offensive game plan, creating opportunities with his incredible speed and athleticism. In an offense that requires hitting open shots when available, Lillard is in a great situation with shooters like Wesley Matthews and Batum surrounding him as well as Lillard being unafraid to take the open shot himself. To go with his elite speed and athleticism, Lillard has also improved his three-point jumper to 39.4 percent on nearly seven attempts per game. Lillard’s threat as a three-point shooter makes him nearly unguardable at moments and opens up offensive opportunities for his teammates drastically with his ability to drive, shoot, draw fouls or pull up for a mid-range shot. Lillard will be counted on along with Aldridge to be the top offensive producers this season, but also will be in charge of keeping his teammates involved and the offense balanced.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard. Not only is Lillard the top playmaker for the Blazers, he has also displayed the ability to hit the clutch shot repeatedly in his short career. Everybody remembers his amazing series-winning, last-second three against the Rockets last year in the playoffs to push the Blazers past the first round for the first time in 14 years. However, Lillard really has been clutch since coming into the NBA and the stats show it. According to NBA.com, of the top 25 players in clutch field goal attempts for the regular season last year, Lillard finished with the second highest FG percentage at 47.3 percent, trailing only LeBron James (48.4 percent). Lillard was equally clutch when it came to hitting shots from afar; 44.2 percent of them came from three-point range, which ranks second among players in the top 25 of clutch three-point attempts last season. It’s safe to say Lillard is unafraid of the big moment and has proven to be the best option in late game situations. Expect Lillard to continue having the ball in his hands at the last second and don’t be surprised if he continues to hit game-winning shots.
The Unheralded Player: Robin Lopez. With Aldridge and Lillard getting all the attention, even some of the most attentive Blazers fans forget what a huge presence Robin Lopez has been since coming to the team last year. The 7’0 center was brought on with limited expectations. However, Lopez immediately stepped up as the starting center and became a defensive force for the Blazers. After being limited in his career by injuries, Lopez managed to remain healthy throughout the season and averaged career-highs 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as well as 11.1 points per game. Lopez has also brought toughness to the front court with his defensive presence and focus on controlling rebounds. More importantly, Lopez’s presence allows Aldridge to move back to his natural position of power forward and gives him more options to attack offensively. In the past, Aldridge was forced to play center due to injuries and personnel, which limited his ability on offense and matched him up against bigger players. Lopez is definitely under-the-radar in terms of his production and his important role on both offense and defense. While Lopez may not be the center of the future that fans hope for, he’s the perfect fit for the team right now.
Best New Addition: Steve Blake. In what will be his third stint with the Blazers, the team signed point guard Steve Blake to add depth and a veteran presence to the Blazers’ backcourt. With limited cap space, the Blazers were not able to make a big free agent splash, so they managed to get a player they are comfortable with and knows the organization in Blake. Blake will assume the back-up point guard role from Mo Williams, who left in free agency, as well as run the offense for a young Blazers bench. While Blake may not have the offensive potency that Williams showed, he is a calming veteran presence who can run the offense effectively, play pressure defense, not turn the ball over and hit the three-point shot. Blake will be a huge influence on the young Blazers’ guards like C.J. McCollum and Will Barton as well as bring toughness off the bench that will be needed in late-game situations and in the postseason. For his price and potential impact, Blake is the best addition to the Blazers this offseason.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
Who We Like
Neil Olshey: Blazers GM Neil Olshey came to an organization starved for the playoffs and a team that was decimated by injuries to their young stars. Olshey quickly rebuilt the Blazers to a playoff team with the help of established players like Aldridge, Batum and Matthews while adding a star in Lillard through the draft. After a series of fired GMs, it seems apparent the Blazers found their man to manage the roster. Expect Olshey to continue to develop and add to the core going forward, even though he has already assembled a talented contender.
Terry Stotts: Stotts was hired as the head coach three years ago and has completely revamped the team’s offense from the Nate McMillan era. Going from one of the slowest paces and low-scoring offenses run by McMillan, Stotts has evolved the offense into one of best. Averaging 106.7 points per game, which ranked fourth in the NBA, and an incredible offensive rating of 111.5, which ranked second in the NBA, Stotts has shown he’s one of the best offensive coaches in the NBA. Stotts has made this offensive transformation by allowing freedom to his stars Aldridge and Lillard as well as giving opportunities to players like Matthews and Batum thanks to an emphasis on moving the ball, feeding the post and shooting open three-point shots. Stotts appears to be the ideal coach for the Blazers this season and moving forward.
Wesley Matthews: While Batum may be the best and most versatile defender on the Blazers, Matthews is definitely the heart of the team on defense. Matthews has developed great defensive chemistry with Batum to create one of the best perimeter defensive duos in the West. Matthews’ toughness fires up the entire team and he’s always willing to take the big shot to electrify the team. Matthews has grown into a regular scoring threat as he enters his sixth season by posting a career-high 16.4 points per game on .441 percent shooting from the field. A true, blue collar player, Matthews does all the little things including playing solid defesnse, mentoring young players as a leader and stepping up to hit big shots that the Blazers will need this upcoming season.
Will Barton: Third-year guard Will Barton emerged as a spark plug of offensive energy last season from a bench that was heavily criticized for its lack of production. Barton uses his electrifying athleticism and shooting stroke to put up points in a hurry. While Barton has struggled with consistency since entering the NBA, the Blazers hope another year of seasoning and focus on development will push Barton to become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who is an offensive threat off the bench.
C.J. McCollum: Second-year guard C.J. McCollum was hampered by a foot injury that caused him to miss 44 games last season as well as losing minutes to veteran Mo Williams off the bench. However, with Williams’ departure and McCollum being fully healthy, expect his role to increase this year as the team searches to find an offensive spark off the bench. McCollum’s ability to create his own shot and his strong shooting stroke along with increased minutes should prove that he can be the answer to the Blazers’ troubling bench production.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
The Blazers’ strengths have definitely shown through the last two seasons under Coach Stotts on offense. The Blazers’ incredibly effective offense relies on their great three-point shooting and offensive versatility. Thanks to the team’s stars in Lillard and Aldridge, they have two go-to players on offense who can take over a game. However, the Blazers stay balanced by running the offense through the post, moving the ball, attacking the hoop and hitting open shots. Another key strength for the Blazers is their match-up ability on defense. Led by Batum and Matthews, the Blazers can match up with some of the best perimeter attacks in the NBA. Meanwhile, the size and presence of Lopez allows him to match up with some of the elite big men while Aldridge can hold his own on defense with this great size, athleticism and length. The Blazers will continue to rely on hot shooting and riding their stars in Aldridge and Lillard to get the Blazers back to the playoffs and try to become an elite team in the West.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
While the Blazers are attempting to address their depth issues by putting faith in the development of their young players, the Blazers still have major issues once their starters take a rest. As their bench relies on young players who are still struggling with consistency, the Blazers routinely lost leads and were forced to over-play their starters last year. Veterans like Kaman and Blake may help, but it’s still a concern. With Stotts being forced to ride his starters to win games, it could also create another problem that Blazers’ fans know all too well: injuries. If the Blazers lose any of their starters, it could be a major blow to the team and with so little room for slippage in the West. The Blazers could go from battling for home court to fighting to even make the playoffs. Another weakness that hurt the Blazers last season was being too predictable on offense. Too often, the Blazers fell into a habit of jacking up three-point shots or trying to force feed Aldridge. The Blazers will need to be injury free this year, remain in a consistent, balanced offense attack and hope their young players develop into quality production off the bench to keep them from dropping off in a loaded Western Conference.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
The Salary Cap
The Trail Blazers are hard-capped at $80.8 million after using most of their $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception on Chris Kaman and their $2.1 Bi-Annual Exception on Steve Blake. With 15 guaranteed players, the Blazers aren’t near the hard cap, or even the $76.8 million tax threshold. Diante Garrett has a contract guaranteed for just $30k while Darius Morris and James Southerland have no guarantees. Barring a trade or a buyout with another player, the trio aren’t likely to make the team but may represent the Blazers in the NBA D-League once cut. The Blazers still have $505k of their MLE remaining, but given that’s less than the $507,336 rookie minimum contract – it isn’t enough to sign a player before the season. Joel Freeland and Victor Claver are both eligible for extensions (until Halloween), otherwise they’ll be restricted free agents next summer.
– Eric Pincus
I consider the Blazers more likely to regress because so many of their players had career years, but some are still young enough to improve, especially on defense. That is where all the slack is for the 16th-ranked team on that end, and improvement there will likely be needed to offset regression on offense for a squad that benefited from a lot of career years a season ago. In this scenario, Lillard improves significantly on defense (which happens for a lot of third-year players), while Batum also gets even better on that end, building on his all-tournament performance at the World Cup. Batum has the length and athleticism to be an All-NBA caliber defender, but his upright stance and wavering intensity have prevented it. Lillard also improves his distribution and finishing at the basket. Aldridge and Matthews prove that their shooting a year ago was no fluke, and Coach Stotts is able to cobble together an effective bench rotation from Kaman and the young bigs. Blake plays well enough to avoid the wrath of Portland basketball Twitter, which has reviled seemingly every Blazers’ backup point. Most importantly, the Blazers continue to have near-perfect health.
But even if everything goes as well as it can, this was a 52-win team a year ago by point-differential, so 57 wins seems like the ceiling.
The crazy good health run ends, as the Blazers regress to the mean. If Lillard or Aldridge miss significant time, they really have no adequate replacement for either who has proven capable of playing big minutes at this point. The squad goes a little colder from three-point range, and a great offensive squad regresses to merely good even when healthy. Coach Stotts proves unable to improve the defense (he has never presided over a great defense in his head-coaching career), which regresses slightly. Teams below Portland like Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix, Dallas, and New Orleans all improve, and the Blazers end up with a winning record but out of the playoffs.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Can the Blazers stay healthy enough to reach elite status in the West?
While the Blazers were able to remain largely healthy for most of last year (and more importantly, the end of the year), the Blazers have a sad history of seasons being derailed by injury. With their lack of depth, any major injury to not only their stars Lillard and Aldridge, but any of their starters could be catastrophic to their playoff chances. The Blazers proved to be one of the best teams in the West when healthy and confident last year. But with no room for error in the West, Stotts will need to manage his starter’s minutes and hope the young player are ready to contribute consistently to the team in order for them to reach the next level of the playoffs.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
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.
“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.
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.
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.
How NBA League Pass is Changing
Ben Dowsett dives deep into some of the technical improvements being made to NBA League Pass.
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.
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.