Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders and Brian Clark of CineSport discuss how the surging Hawks resemble the Spurs, and why Atlanta may continue to improve as the season continues.
Don’t Sleep On Magic’s Elfrid Payton
Dwight Howard may not know Elfrid Payton’s name, but he knows he’s damn good.
After the Houston Rockets’ Wednesday loss to the Magic – in which Payton had 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals while pushing the ball at a breakneck pace that led to Orlando scoring 120 points – Howard acknowledged that Payton was the Magic’s motor and played a huge role in the victory on both ends of the court.
“I just think it started with their point guard – the guy with the crazy hair,” Howard said. “He’s the one that started everything. He was all over us on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he pushed the pace and just made things happen. We couldn’t stop them from pushing the ball down the floor, and every time they did that they got easy buckets.”
Howard and the Rockets aren’t the first team to struggle against “the guy with the crazy hair.” Last Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers were beating up on the Magic late in the first quarter, and Payton had seen enough. The Magic couldn’t score (finishing with just 13 points in the opening quarter) or slow down the Blazers at all. Payton was upset, and he decided to take out his frustration on Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard.
The 20-year-old rookie started to fullcourt-press Lillard, disrupting the flow of Portland’s possessions. Then, on offense, he decided to push the pace and get Orlando some easy buckets in transition that gradually cut into the deficit. Before long, the Magic were back in the game and had a shot to win it near the end, only to lose by single digits.
Since that close loss to Portland, Orlando has continued to follow Payton’s lead – pressing and playing at a much faster pace. They have won consecutive games against the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, scoring 121 points and 120 points, respectively. This would be an impressive feat for any team considering those are two very good defenses, but it’s an even bigger deal for the Magic since they ranked second-to-last in points per 100 possessions prior to the two wins and had struggled offensively for much of the year. Just four games ago, they scored only 84 points in a loss to the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.
But now, things seem like they’re improving and the Magic players point to Payton for the turnaround and change in approach.
“Without a doubt, [Elfrid] is the key,” Magic power forward Channing Frye said. “You see him picking up guys fullcourt for 48 minutes. It’s unbelievable. I hope he stays consistent with that, because we need it. I think his defense is infectious. … In Portland, when he was picking up Lillard fullcourt, that got everyone hyped. I told him, ‘Hey, as fast as you want to run, I’m cool with that. I can run as fast as you want to run; I can do this all day.’ We started getting the ball out faster, getting down the court faster and you started to see guys getting easy lay-ups and easy shots.”
“I was just trying to change something,” Payton said of his adjustment. “We had been losing and you obviously can’t go into games doing the same thing and expecting different results. Picking up the ball and picking up the pace were some things that I thought could help us. All of the guys on the team thought it would be a good idea, and we’ve had some success. We have a lot of guys on this team with talent, who can put the ball in the hole. They just have to be put in the right position and if that’s by pushing the pace, that’s what we need to do.”
On offense, Payton is a traditional, pass-first point guard who sets up his teammates for easy opportunities. Until recently, Orlando was primarily running a halfcourt offense (ranking 22nd in the NBA in pace). But lately, Payton and his teammates decided to run more in order to play to the strength of their personnel. In transition, Payton throws some beautiful passes that are insanely accurate and lead to easy points. Some teammates have even said that Payton will realize they’re open before they do themselves. A big area of improvement for Payton recently has been limiting his turnovers, which has made the up-tempo approach more successful.
Running an up-tempo offense is tiring. Running an up-tempo offense and then fullcourt pressing is exhausting. But Payton seems to have a never-ending supply of energy, flying around the floor and making plays everywhere. It’s no surprise that opposing point guards hate playing against him.
Payton loves that reputation, as he takes pride in being one of the most annoying pests in the NBA. On defense, Payton will make the opposition work for everything by swarming the ball, denying the inbounds pass after makes and being extremely physical.
Playing intimidating defense is in his genes as his father Elfrid Payton, Sr. was a star defensive end in the Canadian Football League, playing from 1991 to 2004 and making seven All-Star appearances throughout his career. He was a two-time Grey Cup champion and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Payton, like his father, relies on his toughness and physicality to wear opponents down throughout a game.
“I love it,” Payton said of harassing point guards. “It helps me get into my rhythm and I think it helps my teammates get into a defensive mindset. When I’m getting my hand on the ball, it makes things easier for them so that’s definitely something that I focus on. It’s one of those things that I can do that helps the whole team.”
Fellow guard Victor Oladipo, who also likes to pester on defense and push the ball, loves playing alongside Payton. Without any prompting, he singled out Payton as the main reason for the Magic’s recent success.
“I credit the young fella; I don’t know about anybody else, but I credit Elfrid,” Oladipo said. “He sets the tone. He’s pushing the ball and getting us going. It’s all him. He’s pressuring the ball and pushing the ball, and he makes me want to do it even more because you know I can’t let him get more steals than me (smiles). So then I go out and pressure too. He just makes everybody else play the same way, so credit him for setting the tone.”
Upon hearing Oladipo’s praise, an embarrassed Payton looked away and downplayed his individual involvement. While that’s just Payton being Payton, it’s clear that the team believes his leadership and play have been the source of this turnaround. It’s rare for a 20-year-old rookie to step into that kind of role and win over a locker room (especially one with experienced veterans), but that’s exactly what Payton has done.
“It makes me feel good to hear that, but I’m just a piece,” Payton said, deflecting the attention. “I’m just a piece and I’m just trying to go out there and do my job. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help the team, so if that means getting a steal and kicking it ahead to my teammates, that’s what I’m going to do.
“[Hearing them say that] does a lot for my confidence, though, because it shows that my teammates trust me and like to play with me. And that’s all I want, to make my teammates better and help them.”
In Payton and Oladipo, the Magic have one of the more intriguing up-and-coming backcourts in the league. The Golden State Warriors have the NBA’s best shooting backcourt in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Chicago Bulls arguably have the league’s most athletic guard duo with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. This Magic backcourt may develop into the league’s best defensive backcourt and certainly one of the most annoying for opposing guards. Payton seems confident that he and Oladipo will be an elite tandem once they realize their full potential in several years.
“We most definitely [want to be the NBA’s best defensive backcourt],” Payton said. “It starts with defense, but we feel like we can get there offensively too. We want to be the best backcourt, period. That’s the goal and that’s what we’re working for. Obviously that’s something for down the line, but that’s what we’re working for… I think this could be the start of something. Rome wasn’t built in a day so we’ve had our struggles – and I think we’ll have even more struggles – but I think if we continue to make progress each and every day, we will be in a good position when all is said and done.”
“I’m looking forward to growing with him,” Oladipo added. “There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs, but we just have to keep lifting each other up, keep believing in each other and keep having each other’s back – on and off the court.”
Payton and Oladipo combined to put the dagger in the Rockets in the final minute of Wednesday’s win, when Payton got a steal and immediately flipped the ball down the court to Oladipo, who threw down a 360 dunk to seal the win.
They are often on the same page, and they believe part of the reason for this is because they spend a significant amount of time together off the court as well. They have developed a friendship, helped by the fact that they’re a little over a year apart in age and are going through many of the same things in life. They believe this bond has helped their chemistry and on-court production.
“We hang out a lot, talk a lot of basketball and watch a little bit of film [together],” Payton said of he and Oladipo. “We’re always talking and building that chemistry. When you like somebody, it’s easy to play with them. I think that’s important. Being friends off the court makes things so much easier on the court.”
It’s clear that Payton is getting more comfortable and confident with each game. He has appeared in all 42 of Orlando’s contests this season and has started in 23. Playing big minutes and being able to work through his mistakes has been excellent on-the-job training for him. On some teams, particularly a contender, Payton might have been buried on the depth chart. But that’s not the case in Orlando, where the team is currently 15-27 and seemingly focused on developing its young core.
“My confidence is coming from experience, just being out there, making mistakes and growing from them,” Payton said. “My confidence is definitely growing. I’m just staying humble though and trying to continue to do what I do for this team, which is trying to get guys easy shots and helping defensively.”
Despite being a top-10 pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft, Payton is far from a household name at this point. In fact, there are probably many people who have never seen him play since he gets little national exposure on the Magic, and he played collegiately at Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference. He’s also not a self-promoter, which is another reason he tends to fly under the radar. He’s a quiet guy who rarely shows emotion on the floor. He doesn’t score many points or fill the highlight reel, so many casual fans likely have no idea what he does well. But take an evening to watch him play and witness the enormous impact he has on the game with his defense, playmaking, leadership, intensity and drives. Pay attention to all of the plays he affects (and try not to get distracted by his hair).
He runs the Magic like a veteran floor general at times, which isn’t a surprise since he has always been mature beyond his years. Growing up in Louisiana, he played football, basketball, baseball, soccer and ran track, and his father says he typically competed against children two years older than him for the challenge. Initially, Payton wanted to be a professional football player like his father (hence the physicality). He would watch a video of his father’s sack highlights and pick up pointers from his dad. However, he shifted his focus to basketball full time in seventh grade when Hurricane Katrina hit, disbanded his football team and forced the Payton family to relocate Dallas for several months.
A three-year run at Louisiana-Lafayette culminated in him averaging 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals while leading the program to the NCAA Tournament. He decided to enter the draft following that successful campaign, but immediately there were questions about whether he could fare as well against tougher competition.
He entered the NBA pre-draft process projected as an early second-round pick for this reason, but quickly erased any doubt that he’d struggle against NBA-caliber athletes. He dominated individual workouts, sometimes flat out embarrassing the other top point guard prospects he faced off against by locking them down and not letting them score. At 6’4 (with a 6’8 wingspan), a large frame and his impressive toughness, he was a nightmare match-up for many point guards.
He climbed draft boards and ultimately was selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers (because they knew how badly the Magic wanted him at No. 12). To land Payton, Orlando gave up the draft rights to Dario Saric, a 2015 second-round pick and allowed Philadelphia to take back the future first-round pick the 76ers had dealt to the Magic from the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade in August of 2012.
The Magic – who have been collecting high-energy, defensive-oriented prospects in recent years – fell in love with Payton during the pre-draft process and believed he could be their point guard of the future. They also liked the idea of pairing Payton with Aaron Gordon, their No. 4 overall selection, since the two had played together for Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Championship and reportedly dominated when put on the same team in a number of pre-draft workouts.
This season, Payton has rewarded Orlando’s faith in him by becoming one of the most productive rookies in this class. Injuries have really limited this year’s NBA freshman (with Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker, Los Angeles’ Julius Randle and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid among others sidelined), but Payton still deserves credit for shining among his peers. Despite the hype for Boston’s Marcus Smart, Utah’s Dante Exum and Miami’s Shabazz Napier entering the season, Payton has been the best first-year floor general of the group. He leads all rookies in assists per game (5.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.35), assist ratio (33.7 percent) and steals (59), while ranking fourth in double-doubles and eighth in scoring.
Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins seems like the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, with Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic deserving consideration as well, but Payton’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. He likely won’t get the credit he deserves from voters since he’s not scoring the ball (and defense is often overlooked with these awards), but it’s possible that Payton could emerge as one of the better players from this class down the road.
His chances of doing so will greatly improve if he can fix his shot, which is by far his biggest weakness. He’s not a capable shooter right now, so his scoring opportunities are limited to plays at the basket and teams can back off of him without worrying that he’ll knock down a jumper. He’s also a poor free throw shooter, hitting just 53.1 percent from the charity stripe.
However, he’s such a good defender and facilitator that he’s playing nearly 30 minutes a night despite these weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses have earned him comparisons to Dallas Mavericks point guard Rajon Rondo, whom he studies often. Keep in mind, Payton is still just 20 years old, so he’s nowhere near reaching his ceiling and he still has plenty of time to fix the holes in his game. He’s someone who has displayed an above-average work ethic, so it won’t be a surprise to see him report to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas (where he does his training) shortly after the season ends to continue his development.
Payton has all of the tools to be a very special player who could stick around the NBA for many years. It’s only a matter of time until the NBA’s elite are looking past his unique hair and describing him as “the guy with the crazy talent.”
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.