It’s not very often that a team vaunts itself from having earned the No. 1 pick in one season to instant championship contender in one offseason, but that’s what has happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers thanks entirely to the summer signing of LeBron James and subsequent trade for former Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love.
Whether or not the Cavaliers win the ring this year, they’re definitely the league’s most intriguing team heading into the 2014-2015 NBA season.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Five Guys Think
LeBron James is coming home. There isn’t much else to write. That fact alone immediately puts them in the conversation for this year’s championship, but the addition of Kevin Love makes it even more inevitable that this team will delve deeply into the 2015 postseason when the time does ultimately come. Concerns about Love and Kyrie Irving never having played an NBA playoff game are kind of overblown, mostly because James has been to four straight NBA Finals and has won two of them. James Jones and Mile Miller won rings with the King in Miami, and Varejao has experience going deep into the playoffs, as well. In other words, this isn’t a locker room devoid of championship experience, so two major stars (one of whom has an Olympic gold medal) shouldn’t have much problem adapting. Except for maybe the Chicago Bulls, it’s hard to envision any other team representing the East in this year’s Finals.
2nd Place – Central Division
In the Summer of 2007, Danny Ainge had Paul Pierce, the fifth overall pick in the draft and a platoon of youngsters that he had hoped would amount to something worthwhile. Seemingly overnight, he built the eventual 2008 NBA Champion by managing to put Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett beside his rock, Pierce. In July 2010, Pat Riley pulled off one of this generation’s most talked about heists in pairing LeBron James and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade. After four consecutive Eastern Conference titles, those days in Miami appear to be over. LeBron James’ decision to return home to Cleveland all but assures it. And now, with the impressive summer that the Cavaliers have turned in, their Summer of 2014, at least at this point, can be compared with the 2007 and 2010 summers of the Celtics and HEAT, respectively. Whether it will eventually lead to championship glory is another question, all together. But today, it is one that can be seriously pondered in Cleveland. With James deciding to return home, the Cavs were blessed with winning the first overall pick in June’s draft and eventually used Andrew Wiggins to acquire Kevin Love. James and Love joining a team with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters yields a team that is arguably as talented as an Cavaliers team that has taken the court since Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty were contending in the Eastern Conference in the early 1990s. With Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones joining, the Cavs have a great balance of young studs and seasoned veterans, and if the underrated Anderson Varejao can stay healthy, he could help put them over the top out East, even if they are undersized. The major concern for the Cavs will certainly be their ability to get important stops and defend. They are not nearly as athletic or defensively gifted as James’ HEAT team was, but talent-wise, they are near the top. The Cavs may have trouble battling some of the league’s bigger teams, but fortunately for Team LeBron, there is a dearth of those in the Eastern Conference. Out East, so long as the Chicago Bulls remain relatively healthy, it should be a two-horse race for the conference crown. In the end, James may lead his team to a fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. With Love and Irving by his side, anything is possible, even if they will have obstacles to overcome. One thing that has been completely overlooked is David Blatt and the challenge he will face in his first NBA head coaching gig. The Cavs are not a sure thing, but until we see the Derrick Rose of old, it would be foolish to bet against them.
1st Place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Cleveland Cavaliers have resided in the league’s basement ever since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach during the summer of 2010. So it comes as no surprise the Cavaliers are now one of the favorites to compete for a title with James back in the fold, seemingly for the long haul. Not only did Cleveland manage to secure James’ autograph in free agency this past summer, the franchise also swung a deal to acquire All-Star forward Kevin Love to pair alongside emerging guard Kyrie Irving. If the chemistry is tight from day one, Cleveland would undoubtedly be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference with only two or three true threats in the West. However, games aren’t played on paper so we’ll see how this plays out over the full 82.
1st Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
What the Cavaliers did in the last few months was downright incredible. Remember, entering the summer, Cleveland was without a permanent general manager and head coach, they were back in the lottery and Kyrie Irving was reportedly disgruntled. Then, in the course of a few weeks, they removed David Griffin’s interim tag and hired David Blatt (two guys who are very respected around the NBA), won the lottery to select Andrew Wiggins, signed Irving to a max extension, signed LeBron James, traded Wiggins and Anthony Bennett for Kevin Love and filled out their roster with quality veterans like Mike Miller, James Jones, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood (with more possibly to come). It doesn’t get much better than that. Cleveland went from being a lottery team with issues to arguably the best team in the league. All eyes will now be on the Cavs to see if they can live up to that label (but that James guy, who is pretty good, will certainly make that easier).
1st Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
This offseason simply could not have gone better for the Cavaliers, who went from the team drafting No. 1 overall to now fielding a team with the best trio in the league in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. There seemed to be some reluctance to let go of Andrew Wiggins, who does have a lot of potential, but Love is beyond great return for him. And, most importantly, he’s ready to help the Cavaliers win now. From top to bottom, this year’s Cavaliers team has the potential to be better than any team James won a championship with in Miami. Plus, there’s enough youth and depth on the team to where he won’t have to carry the same kind of load that he had to in Miami. Growing concerns about how the overwhelming burden he was carrying was going to affect him long-term had to play a big part in driving him back to Cleveland, where the work load is much less significant. Aside from a first-year NBA coach in David Blatt and Love and Irving being unproven in the playoffs, there’s really not much to nitpick this Cavaliers team about. They’re absolutely loaded and definitely capable of winning it all this season.
1st Place – Central Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Most teams have one, perhaps two dominant scorers that are responsible for carrying their teams offensively on any given night, but the new Cleveland Cavaliers are a completely different animal altogether. Obviously LeBron James, who finished third in the league in scoring last year, is one of the most versatile and efficient scorers in the NBA, having scored 27.1 PPG last year on a blazing .567 field goal percentage, comfortably the highest of any player among the top 25 scorers last season. But Kevin Love finished fourth in the league in PPG last year with 26.1 PPG, and Kyrie Irving finished 14th at 20.8 PPG. Obviously all three of those guys won’t post numbers quite that high since they’ll be splitting the load, but that’s as many as 74 points a night from just three players. These three guys will be the most potent scoring trio the league has seen in quite some time.
Top Defensive Player: Back in 2013, when LeBron James was narrowly edged out by Marc Gasol for Defensive Player of the Year, he really wasn’t happy about it, lambasting the vote and making a strong point that he had been robbed. “I mean, I guard everybody on the floor,” he said back in April of 2013. “I don’t know if there’s one player NBA history who’s guarded one through five (positions).” Of course, James also didn’t make the All-Defensive First Team last year for the first time since 2008, and his defensive statistics did drop a bit. However, he’s still a tenacious defender that really can guard anybody on the floor, and that’s something he’ll need to be even better at this year considering the defensive deficiencies of his high-profile teammates.
Top Playmaker: If you watched the All-Star game last winter, you know that Kyrie Irving can do pretty much anything he wants to with a basketball in his hand, and with the additions of James and Love this season, the floor should be more spaced out than ever before, allowing Irving to do his thing and cut through traffic at will. LeBron can handle the ball, too, but in the last four years in Miami he never came close to playing with a point guard this good. Irving being as creative as he is with the ball takes a lot of pressure off of James to do all those other things that make him the most gifted all-around basketball player alive.
Top Clutch Player: According to Michael Beuoy’s Win Probability Added metric, LeBron James put up an effective field goal percentage of 72.6 percent in clutch situations in last year’s playoffs, obviously better than any other player in the league. He has long since put away any questions about his ability to score big baskets when it matters, and when games matter this year in Cleveland, it will be LeBron who decides what to do with the ball.
The Unheralded Player: When James put out his “I’m Coming Home” letter in Sports Illustrated, he specifically mentioned Anderson Varejao, the only player remaining from his previous stint with the Cavaliers, and actually Varejao should be a pretty good fit alongside the current batch of superstars heading to Ohio. He’s an apt scorer but doesn’t need the ball, and he certainly is big enough and tough enough to clean up the boards when his high-volume shooting teammates are having bad nights. He is coming off a foot injury that cost him the bulk of last season, but once he’s healthy (and if he stays that way), he’s going to be a big help for Cleveland. He’d better be, at least, as the Cavs don’t have much behind him at the center position.
Best New Addition: It’s not every offseason that a team acquires two of the league’s top-ten players in a single summer, but James and Love, for the myriad reasons outlined above, have made this team a title contender just by showing up.
– Joel Brigham
Who We Like
1. David Blatt: With all the hubbub surrounding LeBron James and Kevin Love this summer, the signing of new head coach David Blatt really hasn’t received the attention it deserves. A championship head coach at essentially every level short of the NBA, Blatt is a really brilliant guy and would have been a terrific find for the Cavaliers even if James and Love hadn’t have ended up in Ohio. While he’s new to the NBA head coaching ranks and a lot of the players on this team haven’t played together yet, the kinks will eventually work themselves out, and by year’s end we may be talking about Blatt the same way we did Tom Thibodeau after his first full year coaching the Chicago Bulls.
2. Shawn Marion: All offseason, one of the biggest questions about the Cavaliers has been how they’ll fare defensively, but the addition of Marion—still a strong defender even at 36 years old—should help keep opposing second units from running rampant over Cleveland’s middling bench. He was a great bargain for them in free agency and should fit in nicely with this star-studded lineup.
3. Tristan Thompson: As a sure-fire reserve this year, the pressure is off of Thompson, who now can just focus on using his athleticism to grab rebounds and hit easy shots around the rim. While it’s possible he’ll be traded at some point this season, the reality is that this former No. 4 overall pick never has quite lived up to his draft spot, but he should fill a nice role on the second unit this season.
4. Mike Miller: This team is going to shoot the lights out from deep, in part because of Miller. Having both him and James Jones aboard provides some measure of continuity for James, who is very familiar with both having played with them at various times over the course of the last four years, but it also puts guys in that locker room who understand what it means to make the NBA Finals and win a championship ring. Irving and Love have never even played an NBA playoff game. Having that veteran experience in the locker room could go a long way, and the fact that Miller can shoot the way he does is definitely an added bonus.
5. LeBron James: He’s the most physically gifted player alive, and he’s made the decision to go back home. There isn’t a single thing not to love about that.
– Joel Brigham
Obviously, the Cavaliers are going to score a ton of points, as spelled out in glorious detail above, and with so many strong shooters they’ll probably be among the league leaders in three-pointers attempted next season. To call offense a strength for these guys actually feels like underselling it, and that combined with the star power in the starting lineup will be enough to intimidate a lot of NBA teams. It worked for the Miami HEAT the last four years, so there’s no reason that a better, deeper Cavaliers team shouldn’t also get some wins through intimidation alone.
– Joel Brigham
While James is a perennial guest of honor at the All-Defensive Team voting party, and role players like Anderson Varejao and Shawn Marion both have earned reputations as solid defenders, the reality is that this could be a rough year for Cleveland defensively, thanks in large part to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, two guys that will be on the floor a lot yet often fail to properly defend people. Love simply cannot protect the rim, and last season, Tristan Thompson was even worse. This team is mostly comprised of players that haven’t historically put much effort into the defensive end of the basketball court, and that, if anything, could be Cleveland’s undoing.
– Joel Brigham
The Salary Cap
The Cavaliers have certainly transformed from an Eastern Conference also ran to a potential NBA Finals contender. The team dropped under the salary cap to sign All-Star LeBron James. The team also acquired Kevin Love via trade and made Kyrie Irving their designated player, inking the point guard to a five-year extension (player option on the final year). Cleveland used their Room Exception on Mike Miller. Anderson Varejao’s $9.7 million deal is only $4 million guaranteed, but the team is committed to keeping the veteran. That leaves two spots for the team’s four non/partially-guaranteed players (John Lucas, Malcolm Thomas, Erik Murphy and Alex Kirk).
– Eric Pincus
The normal MO in these previews has been to examine the team’s 2013-14 performance and attempt to determine what might be better or worse the next year. For the Cavs, this is of course a useless exercise. With the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love alongside Kyrie Irving, Cleveland has the talent to be one of the best offenses of all-time.
Perhaps a more interesting exercise is trying to figure out how to stop this team. Pick and pops involving with Love as the screener for James or Irving should be a staple of this offense, although coach David Blatt will no doubt have some inventive sets that will get the ball moving side-to-side as well. I think the best option for all but the best defensive teams will be to switch a lot of actions and force Cleveland to score one-on-one while helping off Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, or Shawn Marion. While the Cavs certainly have the talent to score individually, they will be at their toughest when moving the ball and scoring off an advantage created on the other side of the court. I think we will especially see a lot of switches off Love, inviting the Cavs to waste time moving him from the perimeter to the post and then engaging in a deliberate postup. Love is certainly capable on the block, but he has never been amazingly efficient down there. However, Cleveland could also become one of the rare great offenses in recent years to feature great offensive rebounding with Varejao, Thompson, and of course Love. Too much switching could open up the offensive glass with a guard trying to box out someone like Love. Nonetheless, I think a lot of coaches will pick their poison with that instead of getting beat by threes created by conventional help schemes.
Everyone knows the Cavs’ weakness right now will be defense, as only James and Anderson Varejao among the starters is a plus defender, and the latter will likely be limited to around 25 minutes per night during the regular year. It remains to be seen how much James has left in the tank defensively, as he was unable to assert his will on that end last year in Miami and he is reaching the point where his otherworldly energy and athleticism has begun to decline. Thus, it will fall to Blatt to install solid schemes and obtain greater effort from the young players on the roster to offset the lack of a shot-blocker on the back line. Cleveland’s championship hopes will likely depend on it.
The offense is as good as everyone expects, and then some, combining a historically unmatched combination of spacing, dribble drives, postups, and offensive rebounding. James has a bounce-back year defensively, while players like Irving, Dion Waiters, and Love are more engaged playing for a contender. Varejao stays healthy all year, and the Cavs make a trade mid-season (perhaps using the protected first-rounder they own from Memphis) for another rim-protector on the backline. They cruise to the number one seed.
Cleveland ends up with the same record as Miami a year ago. This Cavs team, on the surface, would appear to be more talented. But that Miami team was probably a better defensive squad on paper with the presence of Chris Bosh, a year-younger Lebron, and an effective scheme the players had been running for years. Bosh also could play center defensively, creating a true five-out style that Cleveland will likely be loathe to play with Love at center due to his athletic limitations. The Cavs end up third in offense.
Under this scenario, Varejao can’t stay healthy, James plays only about 34 minutes per game, and Irving misses time with his yearly injury. Blatt cannot get the young guys to improve their effort and recognition, while veterans like Marion and Mike Miller fall off a cliff. The Cavs fail to add another big man, and are only slightly above league-average defensively.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Does the lack of playoff experience for Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving really matter?
Depending on who one talks to, the Cavaliers are either set to be the best team in the Eastern Conference or the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Those choosing Chicago over Cleveland site continuity and defense and, perhaps most importantly, several shared playoff experiences by the team’s core players. The Cavaliers, obviously, have none of those things, but citing a lack of playoff experience as the reason why they’ll fall short of the Finals is pretty silly considering both have been playing in high-profile games their whole careers. Both went to huge colleges with respected hoops programs, and both have international experience that have put them against tough competition on a pretty huge stage. The Bulls may ultimately be the better team, but it won’t be because of Cleveland’s lack of postseason experience.
– Joel Brigham
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.