The Golden State Warriors were the darlings of the first two playoff rounds in 2013 before finally succumbing to the San Antonio Spurs in six games. After a blockbuster offseason brought swingman Andre Iguodala from the vanquished Denver Nuggets, the Warriors looked poised to move into the league’s elite. At times the team has looked that way, especially when their dominating starting unit plays together. Other times, the team has played .500 ball. As the season moves towards the All-Star break, here are six things you need to know about the Golden State Warriors.
David Lee’s Defense Isn’t So Bad Anymore
The 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference saw Lee became the poster child for terrible interior defense courtesy of research by Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, which showed that teams made an inordinate number of shots when Lee was defending near the rim. Shortly thereafter, Lee essentially missed the Warriors’ surprise 2013 playoff run after tearing a hip flexor in Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets. After this success sans Lee, many posited that the Warriors would be better off playing a four-out style with a three-point shooter like Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green at power forward.
Lee apparently took the criticism of his defense to heart, losing five percent body fat in the offseason and getting into better cardiovascular shape. This was sorely needed; Lee’s biggest problem in recent years had been sustaining multiple efforts and getting into the right position on defense. His hard work has paid off, as the Warriors allow only 98.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.* This year, Lee has allowed 49.1 percent shooting while defending the rim, a massive decrease from last year’s 61 percent as noted by Goldsberry. Indeed, that number ranks a very respectable 21st in the league out of 61 players who defend four or more shots per game at the rim. Subjectively, his pick and roll defense and rotations have improved mightily over past years. Lee has even displayed stout post defense of late, forcing LaMarcus Aldridge into a miserable 2-14 shooting night and even doing well against the powerful Blake Griffin during the times they were matched up on Thursday.
*In fairness, most of the credit for this solid number should go to defensive stalwarts Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, with whom Lee shares most of his minutes. But at the very least it can be said that Lee is not preventing the Warriors from defending well, which could not be said in past years.
Lee will never possess the imposing physical gifts of the best interior defenders. He remains a liability at times due to his below average weight, length, and two foot jumping ability compared to many power forwards. He is still prone to getting bludgeoned in the post at times, his defensive rebounding has been below average,* and he has blocked 16 shots all year. These problems are compounded when he is forced to play center with some of Golden State’s bench units, or when coach Mark Jackson has benched Andrew Bogut late in games.
*Especially at the end of games or when he has to box out centers on free throws.
But despite these warts, Lee’s failings are now largely the result of his physical limitations instead of a lack of effort, awareness or conditioning. In 2013-14, Lee competes as hard as he needs to and is now close to maximizing his limited defensive potential.
The Warriors Are Most Likely to Be the Sixth Seed
Predicting a Warriors playoff berth does not exactly go against the grain of conventional wisdom, but after a recent spate of home losses to the Nuggets, Pacers, Timberwolves and Wizards took the shine off a franchise-best East Coast road trip it suddenly appeared as if their assumed playoff position might be vulnerable. But recent events have bolstered the Dubs’ chances to a near certainty. The Warriors righted the ship with back to back wins against the Clippers and Jazz. But perhaps more importantly, the surging Grizzlies (Mike Conley) and Wolves (Nikola Pekovic) suffered ankle injuries to one of their top two players that should have them both out a week and potentially longer. Meanwhile, Dallas does not appear to have the personnel on defense to make a significant move. All of the aforementioned competition is at least 2 games back in the standings.
The Warriors are in seventh position in the conference, in a virtual tie with Phoenix for sixth. Mark Jackson’s squad has a better point differential than the Suns, and Eric Bledsoe should still be out for a while. The Warriors seem likely to pass the Suns, pending any potential trades by Phoenix.
At 3.5 games behind the Clippers for the fourth seed, Golden State is unlikely to seize homecourt advantage in the first round. But getting at least the sixth seed is paramount for the Warriors. This would allow them to avoid a first round matchup as a heavy underdog against likely one and two seeds Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Instead, the likely opponent would be Portland or the Clippers, both of which the Warriors would stand a decent chance of beating. In fact, with little difference between those two potential opponents (at least at this juncture), the sixth seed might serve the Warriors better than the fifth seed, currently held by the Rockets. This would allow them to avoid a matchup against first-seeded Oklahoma City until the conference finals. As proven in last year’s playoffs before Bogut and Stephen Curry were injured, the Warriors matchup reasonably well with projected second seed San Antonio, though they would still be an underdog in a series against a healthy Spurs team.
The Warriors Need Klay Thompson to Diversify His Game
The 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft is a great three-point shooter and solid defender. Those two things alone make him a valuable player. The problem is that those two things are alone—he does virtually nothing else well. The Washington State product is 30th among shooting guards in PER due to his lack of rebounds, assists, steals and free throws. The Warriors rank a disappointing 16th offensively by points per possession, a very poor result for a team featuring the Mark Jackson-christened best shooting backcourt in NBA history.
Part of the problem is how one-dimensional Thompson is on offense. Passing is a particularly neglected aspect of his game. Thompson is one of the worst and least frequent passers among the league’s guards. His assists per 36 minutes ranks 50th among the 54 guards who have qualified for the minutes leaderboard and have a usage rate above the league average of 20 percent. Moreover, he averages a mere 20 passes per game in his 38 minutes per game. How bad is that? Among the 116 players at all positions who play 30 minutes per game or more, Thompson ranks 116th in passes per game.
This is not to imply that Thompson is selfish or takes an inordinate number of bad shots. His role is to shoot the ball. At 41 percent from deep, pretty much any shot he takes out there is a good one. And while his True Shooting Percentage is disappointingly near the league’s average due to his propensity to take long twos and inability to get to the line,* he is not mindlessly gunning away. But, the only way Thompson helps the Warriors’ offense is by shooting from the outside. That certainly has value outside of the box score statistics, as his man must remain glued to him at all times. Unfortunately, his offensive impact is limited because he is not a passing threat when he does try to create on his own, whether off a close out or postups.
*Thompson might be well-served to watch tape of guys like Reggie Miller and Richard Hamilton, two players who got to the line at solid rates despite their jumpshot-based games. However, emulating them may not be possible since Thompson lacks the athleticism of even those players.
As a third year player, Thompson will be eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this offseason. The negotiations will be fascinating, as there are many conflicting indicators on his value.
The Warriors Cannot Create Without Curry
A season-long problem for the Dubs has been their putrid offense without Curry on the floor. With him, they score 108.8 points/100; without him that drops to 89.7. The former rate would nearly lead the league, the latter is far below the worst team in the league. Why are they so bad without Curry? He is their only real offensive creator. He ranks in the 84th percentile in points per possession out of the pick and roll. Thompson ranks second on the team at the 40th percentile, but as discussed he cannot create for others. The rest of their perimeter players, namely Harrison Barnes (22nd percentile), Andre Iguodala (6th) and Jordan Crawford (3rd), are even worse.* Until the Warriors can find someone else to create offense out of basketball’s most basic play, they will continue to struggle without Curry on the floor.
*Crawford was brought in to upgrade the shot creation on the second unit, and he has—departed point guard Toney Douglas was only in the 2nd percentile out of the pick and roll.
Andre Iguodala is Essential to the Defense
Andrew Bogut has gotten the most buzz as the key to the Warriors’ defense, and his rim protection and defensive rebounding have been fantastic in his first healthy season in several years. Nonetheless, Andre Iguodala has the most impressive on/off court numbers on that end. With Iguodala in the game, the Warriors allow a mere 95.8 points/100, which would rank second in the league. Without him, the D falls to below league average at 103.7 points/100. Subjectively, Iguodala has not appeared to be the individual stopper he once was, especially upon returning from his hamstring injury. However, his team defense is still outstanding, especially against teams without a dominant wing. He was all over the floor in recent home victories when the Dubs shut down the elite Portland and Clippers offenses.
Get Used to This Team
For better or for worse, this Warriors starting five will likely be in town for quite a while. Curry is in the first year of a 4-year, $44 million contract extension that may be the best value non-rookie contract in the league. Bogut just signed a 3-year, $36 million extension that kicks in next season. Iguodala is in the first year of a 4-year, $48 million deal he signed as a free agent over the summer. And Lee still has 2 years and $30.5 million remaining after this year on the 6-year, $79.5 million contract signed in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, Thompson is under team control for at least another year, and the Warriors can match any offer to him as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015 if they fail to agree on an extension this offseason. Finally, the Warriors gave up 2014 and 2017 first round picks to Utah to help clear salary for the Iguodala signing, so they are prohibited from trading any first rounders aside from their 2019 selection.
In my recent interview with him, General Manager Bob Myers intimated that the Warriors still have flexibility to add to the roster. I must respectfully disagree. The Warriors really have no major trade chips left aside from Thompson and Harrison Barnes, who has fallen short of the high expectations many (though not your writer) had for him in his second year. Dealing Thompson would leave the Warriors with a giant hole at shooting guard, so that seems unlikely. That would leave a potential trade of Barnes’ perceived upside for a legitimate third big man or a more established wing scorer. It is unclear how much value Barnes still has around the league, but one would imagine the Warriors will simply hold onto him and hope he can evolve into the fourth scorer this team desperately needs right now.
With no salary cap space, few tradeable assets, no 2014 first-rounder and big long-term contracts for their key players, this is likely the Warriors’ team for at least the next two seasons.
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.