A league-best 12-2 playoff record, a gaudy point differential and plenty of rest all mean next to nothing now – the Cleveland Cavaliers are sizable underdogs in the NBA Finals.
Staring Cleveland in the face isn’t just the most successful single-season team ever, fresh off their first true challenge in their two-year run of dominance, or even just a team that handily dispatched these Cavs a year ago on this same stage. It’s also a Golden State Warriors team that holds sizable and visibly apparent tactical advantages within the specific matchup, and we’ve yet to see these Cavs prove they have the skill and (especially) the discipline to combat these for a full 48 minutes four times in seven games.
What’s been working for Cleveland as they’ve walked through the East won’t work here, at least not in the same ways. The Cavaliers have yet to face an opponent capable of simultaneously neutering their aerial attack without sacrificing interior defense, a reality that’s about to change in swift fashion. They’ve been able to dry-erase mostly lukewarm defense by simply overwhelming teams on the other end of the floor, but the Warriors use permanent marker.
Cleveland has found a comfort zone over this last month and change; now they have to be willing to leave it. This series is only competitive if the Cavs are able to swing a number of minutiae in their favor and dominate in their few advantageous areas, and doing that will take a commitment and potential willingness to sacrifice that has never been asked of at least a couple primary cogs. They’ll be asked to combine some lessons they learned last time around with new (albeit flawed) personnel and a negative margin for error. Let’s examine a few of the most vital tipping points.
The Cavs go right from over-matched opponents incapable of punishing their occasional defensive laziness often enough to one of the most ruthless, exploitative teams in recent memory. The Warriors will find the tiniest scar tissue in your defense, rip it open and pour salt water in it repeatedly until you find a way to cover it – and NBA basketball offers limited Band-Aids.
If how to adequately defend lineups featuring Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson while either of Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving is on the floor is a quandary, how to do so while both play at the same time is a MENSA project. The Dubs will seek these two out regardless of the matchups Cleveland chooses to place them in.
Love has succeeded most in Cleveland when the Cavs have kept things simple for him and involved the entire five-man unit in covering his weaknesses, and that will be the name of the game here.
Pick-and-roll defense is the tipping point against this opponent, and the switch-everything approach the Thunder used so well last round isn’t an option for Love. He should guard Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli whenever one of them is on the court, and when the Warriors involve him in Curry’s pick-and-rolls in these situations, expect to see the Cavs aggressively trap Curry and force the ball out of his hands. Bogut and Ezeli aren’t the playmakers Draymond Green has proven to be in space, and the Cavs have shown the ability to recover quickly and fly around in passing lanes when they’re engaged. They often find a majority of their transition points following these sorts of possessions, an added benefit if they can get enough stops.
It’s not a perfect option, but it seems preferable to the alternatives: switching Love onto Curry repeatedly or allowing Steph his bread-and-butter looks off the bounce with more traditional pick-and-roll defense. This might leave Love as the last line of defense at the rim more often than Cleveland would prefer, but the Cavs know they need a team effort on the interior regardless. Things get dicey anytime Love finds himself checking Green or a Warriors wing, and Golden State will hunt out these opportunities both in transition and in screen action away from the ball in the halfcourt – the Cavaliers simply can’t afford to make many mistakes in these quick-decision areas.
Love’s success could also depend in large part on coach Ty Lue’s willingness to put aside any distractions like salary or previous role while deploying his stretch power forward in this series. Lue should be ready to alter Love’s rotations in the pursuit of keeping him on the floor for virtually every conceivable second the Warriors play a traditional center; he’ll drown against the Death Lineup or any iteration that forces him onto Green or a Warriors’ wing for any stretch of time. Whether Lue is prepared to potentially deviate in a big way here, including periods when Love just won’t be a viable option, is a big question.
Like with Love, the Cavs do have a few simple options for defending Curry with Irving on the ball – a place he’ll end up in enough to make it relevant given that the presumed starting lineups don’t really offer a reasonable hiding place for huge minutes.
The Cavs should trap anything that includes Love’s man as well as Irving’s, but look for a switch-heavy scheme otherwise. Outside Love and perhaps Channing Frye, the Cavs boast a roster full of guys at least moderately capable of jumping out to check Curry for a few seconds at a time. The Dubs diverting from their offense to try and punish Irving in the post on these switches would almost certainly be a welcome sight for Cleveland, especially later in the shot clock.
The larger problem for Irving and the Cavs as a whole is away from the ball, where the Warriors will look to destroy the few manageable defensive matchups available while simultaneously hunting their brand of quick, lethal shots.
This is where the approach has to diverge from the one Oklahoma City employed last round. No mismatch the Thunder could cede while switching everything off the ball was large enough to abandon the tactic and yield the sort of open looks that would result in letting their primary defenders fall behind Steph or Klay navigating the trees – the Cavs lack that luxury. Remember, the Warriors will exploit every little thing: Love ends up on Thompson rocketing around a pick? He’s about to be involved in a pick-and-roll, where no trap or switch is safe.
The Cavs will be openly looking to keep the likes of Irving and Love away from certain matchups, and this will be Golden State’s counter. Cleveland is going to get burned here now and then regardless, but staying focused and communicative enough to prevent it from becoming a rampant problem is paramount.
In a broad sense, defending the Warriors will be a war of attrition for Cleveland. They’re giving up clear deficits in obvious areas; can they plug just enough of the right holes to stay afloat? We saw them briefly narrow an even larger talent gap last year, but the puzzle is much more complex this time out.
The King (Needs To) Stay the King
LeBron James is better-rounded than his defensively challenged star teammates, but he’ll need to be similarly open to venturing outside his comfort zone to succeed in this series. He’ll look to strike a balance between last year’s Herculean solo effort and the five-man success the Cavs have enjoyed in the playoffs thus far.
Cleveland will need peak-energy LeBron on the defensive end for longer stretches than we’ve seen from him in the last couple years. He sets the tone for their activity level on back-end rotations, a theme that will become vital if the Cavs indeed choose to trap certain Curry pick-and-rolls. He can blow up a few plays a game if he stays engaged, and will often turn these into points the other way on easy buckets Cleveland will desperately need. On the other side of that coin, the results could be disastrous if James settles into the roaming, detached, “my presence scares you more than anything I’m actually doing” defense he often gets away with against lesser opponents. The Dubs are too smart for it.
Offensively, LeBron and the Cavs need to be prepared for a team that will practically beg him to do too much. The Warriors will disrespect his jumper more emphatically than anyone to this point, and will be content with an over-reliance on isolation play during the bulk of his minutes while he’s guarded by Andre Iguodala. They’ll shade his post-ups with well-timed strong-side overloads from guys like Bogut and Green, throw tons of pressure at his pick-and-rolls and generally make his life uncomfortable.
Like in every other area, the Cavs will have to out-ruthless the Warriors when the opportunities present themselves. On the rare occasions James finds anyone but Iguodala in front of him, he should attack the mismatch immediately – before the Dubs have a chance to slide back into their preferred alignment, something they’re the best in the league at doing. If there’s even a hint of a possible transition chance, LeBron has to push for it.
In the slower halfcourt, leveraging James’ strengths are vital. Any time he spends on the perimeter is time the Warriors can spend loading up on the paint and more dangerous shooters; Lue should do his best to limit LeBron pounding the rock unless a mismatch is imminent. Cleveland has used James as the roll man in pick-and-roll sets much more often this postseason, up to 8.2 percent of his finished plays compared with 3.6 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports; that number should be in the double digits this series, even assuming his gaudy 1.4 points scored per-possession in these sets to this point in the playoffs has no chance of maintaining.
Kevin Durant roundly outplayed and even marginalized Green in the Western Conference Finals, and it wasn’t enough. For Cleveland to have a chance, James will need to be the best player on the floor. He should spend chunks of time in Durant’s Green-stopper/Curry-switcher role that helped the Thunder neutralize that pick-and-roll combo, and others stifling Thompson if Klay gets hot. He’s as fresh as ever at this point in a postseason, and the Cavs will need every ounce he’s got left.
Frye With That?
Cleveland’s secret weapon throughout this postseason, Channing Frye is another piece yet to be tested under the crucible of a strong opponent capable of exploiting him as much as he exploits them.
The James-Frye frontcourt duo that’s opened most second and fourth quarters for Lue over the last month is one of the few legitimate matchup issues for Golden State if one assumes Steve Kerr’s rotational patterns stay the same – and it may very well force them to change up. Guys like Mo Speights won’t survive defensively against these lineups and can’t hurt the Cavs enough on the other end, meaning Kerr could be forced to sub Green out a hair earlier in the first and third quarters to bring him back against these units.
Lue should be willing to mix and match Frye’s minutes pending matchups and situations, and potentially to lean on him if he proves he can hold up defensively. Frye will struggle defensively while Curry plays, but the Cavs can do many of the same things mentioned above with Love to help mitigate the damage here. Frye isn’t the rebounder Love is (another team effort thing that will spring up while he’s on the court), but has more length and might be a tad more effective as a rim deterrent. It’s easy to see a world where these units do just as well defensively as their more common looks; in this scenario, these lineups could swing a game or two in this series.
Win the Margins
It’s been our entire theme here, but it bears even further reinforcement: This series will be over in a hurry if the Cavs aren’t able to maximize every tiny advantage available to them.
The potential applications are broad and nearly endless. Cleveland has to be ultra-smart crashing the offensive glass; they badly need those extra chances to score, but it won’t matter much if they over-pursue and get killed in defensive transition. They should aggressively attack any key Warrior on the precipice of foul trouble, both to find easier points and potentially muck up Kerr’s rotational versatility.
The Cavs have done a great job limiting turnovers to this point in the postseason, and must continue the practice – even a few extra live-ball opportunities that turn into transition points the other way each game would likely bury them. Lue should be ready to react quickly to changing circumstances, and to potentially step outside the box with lineup decisions. Don’t be shocked to see more of Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert, potentially even alongside the more traditional “starters” at their positions.
More than anything, Cleveland’s focus simply cannot wane. A group prone to letting their guard down at weird times needs to be able to convince themselves that a 10-point lead is actually closer to a tie game against this opponent (this nearly has some basis in fact at this point). A full 48 minutes every night just might be enough against this behemoth, but 45 simply won’t.
The Cavs get their shot for redemption, and the full crew is on hand. Can they leverage a flawed skill influx enough to level the playing field? We’ll find out starting Thursday.
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.