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NBA PM: Is That Kobe Bryant’s Fault Too?

The Lakers have been held back by many things recently, some that have nothing to do with Kobe.

Yannis Koutroupis

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By now, you’ve probably read the ESPN article on Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, where he is portrayed as the overwhelming reason behind the franchise’s recent struggles. Citing multiple sources, the article claims that marquee free agents no longer want to play with Bryant, that ownership is resigned to the fact that they cannot build a contender as long as he is on the roster and that he’s just flat out hurting them more than he’s helping them at this late stage of his career.

Like all controversial things involving Bryant and the Lakers, it has quickly become the talk of the league.

There’s no denying that there’s a lot of truth in the article. Bryant has cost the Lakers in several aspects. He is not the easiest guy to play with; he’s demanding and downright overbearing at times. However, the chief complaint, especially from the West Coast has been the article’s singular perspective. It was written with the intent to place the majority of the blame for the Lakers’ downfall on Bryant, ignoring the multitude of things that could have changed the Lakers’ fortune, but didn’t go their way. In today’s NBA PM, we try to spread the blame around a little bit more evenly in order to more accurately depict why the Lakers are in their current state, because not everything is Bryant’s fault.

David Stern liked the Los Angeles Clippers’ offer for Chris Paul more than the Lakers’ – and rightfully so.

Some wounds never heal and this is still a very tough one for Laker fans to accept. For a couple of hours back in 2011, Paul (arguably the league’s premier point guard) was set to become a Laker in exchange for Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. The Lakers knew they needed to make some changes and they put together a package that Pelicans (then Hornets) GM Dell Demps agreed to, but because the franchise was under the ownership of the league at the time in order to keep them in New Orleans, commissioner David Stern had the final say. And, Stern, with selling the team in mind, vetoed that trade because he preferred what the Clippers had to offer.

Wanting to market the franchise as a promising one with young talent and financial flexibility, not one that is a year or two away from a massive rebuild, Stern sent Paul to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al Farouq-Aminu and an unprotected 2012 first round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gordon has been plagued with injuries, Kaman was gone in a hurry, Farouq-Aminu never developed and that draft pick turned into Austin Rivers, who has yet to truly establish himself as an NBA player, but it was still the right deal to do at the time. Stern was able to sell the franchise shortly after, and they now have a team that could be formidable for several years, not just a couple like they would have if they made the Lakers trade.

This set the Lakers back in a major way. Even if you want to say that Paul shouldn’t have been traded there in the first place, it sent shock waves through the locker room that the team was never able to recover from. Odom was so furious he demanded a trade and the Lakers were forced to trade one of the league’s best and most versatile reserves for a first-round pick because they had no leverage. Gasol’s value took a hit also; his stock was never as high as it was at that moment, and the Lakers were never able to find another favorable offer for him that they were willing to accept.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement was created with evening the playing field in mind and taking away some of the advantages a preeminent franchise like the Lakers had.

If you’re looking for a Lakers guard to blame this issue on – it’s former starting point guard Derek Fisher, not Bryant. Fisher was at the head of the 2011 labor negotiations as the players union representative, while Bryant was a quiet participant in negotiations. He voiced his opinion and supported the players, but wasn’t directly involved in the institution of stiffer luxury tax penalties, downsizing of the players’ share of the Basketball Related Income or restrictions put on sign-and-trades – all things that have worked against the Lakers’ recent rebuilding efforts.

Max-level free agents are less likely to leave their teams than ever based on the fact that the team with their Bird rights can offer up to $20 million more than any competitor. And, unfortunately for the Lakers, they’re one of the few teams to lose a top star in this new CBA, but we’ll get more into the reasoning behind that later.

Lakers ownership and management, not Bryant, wanted to move on from Phil Jackson.

While Bryant and the Zen Master had their conflicts in the past, Bryant made no secret about his desire to have Jackson return when the Lakers decided to fire Mike Brown early in the 2012-13 season. Bryant, of course, was open to the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, who he grew up idolizing and had a good friendship with. However, Jackson was his first choice, but the Lakers decided to go with D’Antoni because they wanted to play a quicker pace and potentially have a long-term solution at head coach, not a short-term fix. Jackson was looking at the job as a one-year gig, while the Lakers wanted to find a permanent answer.

Prior to accepting the Knicks’ president of basketball operations position, there were calls for the Lakers to add Jackson to their front office as well. The two sides talked again, but ultimately with the proven Kupchak at GM and Jim Buss tapped by his late father to take over basketball ops, there was no room for someone of Jackson’s stature.

The Lakers were never going to choose Dwight Howard over Bryant, which may have been a necessity in order for him to stay on long-term with D’Antoni in place. But, it’s hard not to believe that Jackson, who was willing to help the Lakers recruit Howard to stay despite being shunned twice over the course of just a few months, wouldn’t have found a way to sway Howard and keep Bryant from clashing with him in the manner he did.

Lakers management rubbed Howard the wrong way also, not just Bryant.

It’s well documented that Bryant and Howard did not see eye-to-eye or have a great relationship. It was an infamous call from Bryant telling Howard how he could be his Tyson Chandler that initially rubbed the big man the wrong way, as he felt disrespected.

Hardly one to coddle anyone who doesn’t have the same, cutthroat approach to winning that he does, Bryant and Howard never became best of friends. The ESPN article went into detail over how Bryant’s “let me teach you how to win” spiel during the Lakers’ free agency meeting rubbed Howard the wrong way, but that was more the straw that broke the camel’s back than the overwhelming decisive factor in Howard’s decision. Remember, just weeks before that, Howard went to Bryant’s house personally to check in on him as he was recovering from a torn Achilles.

Howard’s problems weren’t just with Bryant, though. Howard and Kupchak had a much better relationship than he and Bryant did, but Howard was upset with Kupchak on three different occasions during his single season with the team. The first came with the hiring of D’Antoni. Howard did not share Steve Nash and Bryant’s excitement over his hiring. He wanted Jackson. In his opening press conference, D’Antoni voiced his disdain for true post ups, stating that he wanted Howard getting the ball on the move and working more as a screener than primary low-post option like he would have in the triangle offense. That never sat well with Howard, who was frustrated with the way he was used offensively all season long, although Bryant’s ball dominance did play a big part in that aspect. After signing with the Houston Rockets, Howard told Basketball Insiders that he had asked the Lakers to hire Jackson instead of D’Antoni during the season.

The second time came when Howard hurt his shoulder. He was shocked that after coming back months earlier than he was projected to from back surgery, the team was quick to question his threshold for pain and stated that when he can come back iss up to him and how much pain he can tolerate because their doctors cleared him. That put a lot of pressure, and negativity, on Howard, that remained fresh in his mind when choosing the Rockets over the Lakers two summers ago.

The third, and perhaps most devastating blow, was when the Lakers committed to D’Antoni before meeting with Howard. The coach who he had clashed with all season long and was uncertain about being the right coach for him was going to remain in place for at least another year. And, with Bryant stating that he’ll be playing for at least another three seasons, Howard didn’t see enough changes on the horizon to pick the Lakers over a Rockets team that provided him with everything he wanted right away.

The last big free agent Kobe helped recruit has been a colossal disappointment.

While the Lakers’ plan was to pair Chris Paul and Dwight Howard alongside Bryant as he heads toward retirement, they settled for Nash in place of Paul when that option was nixed. It’s easy to forget just how good Nash was before joining the Lakers. This wasn’t the case of the Lakers banking on an aging veteran being able to squeeze a few more miles out of the tank. Nash appeared to be at the top of his game, averaging 12.5 points and 10.7 assists with the Suns during the previous year. The Suns were very hesitant to let him go, but it was at the insistence of Nash that they helped facilitate the deal to the Lakers. At the time there wasn’t even a whisper of there being some reluctance from Bryant to buy into adding Nash, as ESPN reported. Nash was quoted as saying that Bryant was an integral part of the recruiting process, as he’s been throughout his time with the Lakers.

The Lakers have been over the cap for the majority of Bryant’s career, but he’s been a key recruiter for them, someone who has been able to help convince role players to take less to sign on with the Lakers and compete for a championship. The Lakers didn’t hide him in fear of him rubbing guys the wrong way. He was at the forefront of their recruiting pitch and he often helped deliver. Vladimir Radmanovic, Ron Artest, Gary Payton and Karl Malone are just a few of the veterans along with Nash who took less to sign with the Lakers. He was also key in helping re-sign key free agents like Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Devean George and Andrew Bynum when they were negotiating new contracts.

If Nash was able to fulfill the expectations that followed him to Hollywood, or even managed to be a serviceable role player, the Lakers would be a lot more attractive of a destination. Nash is regarded as one of the best teammates of the last decade and a half. His track record for making guys better and being enjoyable to play with is impeccable, but because of injuries that lust and appeal disappeared. When healthy, the prospect of playing with Nash was as great as the negatives that come with playing with Bryant. The Lakers were never able to capitalize on that and to this day continue to be set back by Nash’s inability to stay healthy. Bryant’s injuries worked against him while recruiting free agents the last two years as much, if not more, than his brash personality.

Pipe dream free agent signings weren’t any more likely without Bryant.

Let’s imagine for a minute that Bryant was unable to recover from his torn Achilles, never signed a two-year maximum extension last season and decided to retire this offseason. The Lakers would have had ample cap space to go after multiple top-tier free agents, but to think that the cream of the crop – LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony – were going to come take his place is farfetched at best.

James has made it clear that he wasn’t interested in hearing any team’s pitch other than the Miami HEAT’s and Cleveland Cavaliers’. Anthony, meanwhile, only entertained the Lakers’ offer because of Bryant. He wasn’t going to meet with them at all, but it was because of his close friendship with Bryant that he took the meeting and seriously considered signing with them. At one point shortly after the meeting, Anthony admitted he was actually leaning toward signing with the Lakers. In the end, Anthony opted to stay in New York, his home, and take the extra, extremely lucrative fifth year that they could offer but the Lakers couldn’t. Hard to recruit with all that working against you, but thanks at least partially to Bryant, the Lakers were nearly able to steal him away.

In today’s NBA, you cannot win with a singular superstar and you cannot recruit other superstars without one in place. As much as clean books seemed like an attractive option for the Lakers, the odds are greater that they would have ended up worse in the end than they are now than they would have become overnight contenders.

All franchises go through down periods.

Long before the Lakers were cursed by the presence of Bryant, as ESPN would have you believe, there was a clear precedence for even the most valuable, tradition rich franchises going through highs and lows.

The Lakers experienced it themselves in between the Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal/Bryant era, saw their longtime rivals the Boston Celtics flounder in mediocrity for the better part of a decade and knew that without a lot of luck and good fortune, they would probably have to go through it again in the post-Bryant era.

Despite their best attempts, that indeed looks like it’s going to be the case, but there’s a long list of things that went wrong, things completely out of Bryant’s hands, that have gotten them to this point. All of those things going wrong magnify Bryant’s hard-headedness and shortcomings, but ask around the league how many teams would prefer to be dealing with this trouble now in order to have the success the Lakers have experienced since trading for him on draft night 1996. You’ll be hard pressed to find a team that would pass on him, even with all his flaws and the benefit of hindsight being 20-20.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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