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The Extra Pass: Nike Elite series meets the performance demands of Kevin Durant and LeBron James

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NEW YORK — The folks at Nike Basketball have once again rolled out Elite versions of the signature shoes for LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, just as they’ve done in advance of every postseason since 2012.

But the team faced perhaps its greatest challenge this season.

Bryant’s shoes didn’t need any modifications, considering the high-top, Kobe 9 Elite was already in its final stage the moment it was released. James and Durant, however, each had specific requests in terms of the improvements they wanted to see made to their shoes before the playoffs began.

Getting LeBron back into his more high-profile model wasn’t necessarily a priority for the Nike design team, but providing a performance improvement that James would feel comfortable with was definitely the goal that was in place.

The LeBron 11 was a huge success in terms of overall design and fan interest, but James himself caused a mild commotion when he ditched them early on in favor of one of his other models, the Zoom Soldier VII. Charles Williams, Senior Product Director for Nike Basketball, explained exactly what the issues were that James was experiencing.

“Early on, it was less about the components of the shoe, and more about fit,” Williams told NBCSports.com. “We went to a double-lasting proposition on the 11 that was a little bit different, so it was just more about forefoot fit, and making sure that when he cut, he wasn’t bumping up against anything, that he had enough volume.”

The fact that this was the first time one of LeBron’s shoes had an insert in it may have messed with the overall feel when taking his orthotic into account, which is essentially an additional layer of medical protection.

“When you’ve got an athlete that’s putting an orthotic in the shoe, it changes everything,” Williams said. “It changes the actual internal shape, it changes the actual internal volume and things of that nature. Players like KD and Kobe, they come right out of the box. But LeBron puts an orthotic in there, so that started to change things a little bit, especially because we had a drop-in. We’ve never had a drop-in (insert) before (on a LeBron signature shoe). So when you have a drop-in, something that kind of comes in and out — not unlike his orthotic — I think for him, mentally it was just a little difficult to get around.”

Along with the fit of the orthotic, James wasn’t feeling the level of lockdown in the 11s that he requires, and when he made cuts, he felt his foot sliding around in the shoe — another area which was unacceptable for the style that he plays.

All of that has been addressed with the LeBron 11 Elite, and the early results have been positive, if LeBron’s on-court decision to wear the model multiple times earlier than usual are to be believed.

“That’s why you’ve seen him wear the Elite model probably four or five times, and he’s never done that during the years that we’ve had the Elite project,” Williams said. “He typically starts April 17 when the playoffs start.”

The Nike design team went to Kevlar to increase the lockdown, which reduced the stretch in the material from 30 percent down to about two percent. LeBron laces up his shoes as tightly as possible on the bench before tip-off, to the point where he’s been known to break shoelaces. The lockdown aspect has been the most consistently important feature to him over the years, and it seems as though the team was able to address those concerns with the adjustment in the Elite materials.

A slightly lower cut to the Elite model (LeBron prefers a mid- as opposed to a high-top), along with added support on the outside that the design team refers to as a “roll bar” all helped to keep him from moving around inside the shoe, while providing the ultimate support for when he cuts. That extra support on the outside was by far the Elite version’s biggest overall enhancement.

“We knew that once we put that “roll bar” on it he was going to be able to have that confidence that when he cuts, he was on the foot bag,” Williams said. “And that way, we would be able to give him more of a free range of motion.”

A lot seemingly went into LeBron’s concerns. With Durant, it was a little less complicated.

His biggest request was to increase the cushioning on his shoe to the maximum level possible, while keeping a low-to-the-floor profile that is a perfect match for the complexities of his game.

“One of the big things for KD is really about impact protection,” Williams said. “As his game has evolved and as he’s really catapulted himself to be the best player in the world on any given night, we wanted to make sure that we were providing him with those things that he’s always asked us for. And one of them was this notion of cushioning, to make sure that the underfoot cushioning was something that night in and night out, he got consistently. And on a lot of the previous models he did what we would call a hybrid cushioning, where we had a max bag in the heel which gives you that protection when you’re coming down six, eight times your body weight. And then we would put zoom air in the forefoot, (which) literally gives you that instant response, that instantaneous gratification. So with KD, we said we’re going to go to a bag that will provide him with consistency across the board. It was ultimately what he’s been asking us for — maybe not specifically for the bag, but for that level of performance.”

The players, obviously, have little to do with the execution. They simply know what they want, and it’s up to the design team to figure out how to make that happen.

“KD wanted that cushioning, but he also wanted to feel very low to the ground based on the game that he plays,” Williams said. “So we made the bag lower by removing a lot of the foam that we would typically have in between the bag and the shoe.”

The Elite series has traditionally featured mostly black and white models, but this year’s class has all kinds of colors added to the project. There are three sets of colorways currently in the works, with the Gold series being the one that most resembles the past projects, but just barely.

Still, the team is driven by the performance aspect of the shoes above all else, and that’s the message that they ultimately want to get across.

“As much as we want to be provocative, we just want consumers to know that there’s a performance benefit rooted in that,” Williams said. “If I could just have consumers not view these as aesthetic propositions, if they could truly understand the competitive advantage that we’re looking to give them every time we create one of these shoes, that would be my dream.”

“This is about making sure that the best players in the world go into battle for the most esteemed goal that they’re trying to reach,” Williams said. “We give them products that really measure up to that.”


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Heat center Willie Reed has bursitis, out for Monday

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MIAMI (AP) Willie Reed will not travel with the Miami Heat for Monday’s game in Dallas because of bursitis in his right ankle.

Reed was injured in the fourth quarter of Miami’s win over Indiana on Saturday. He limped around for several seconds, then went down in obvious pain and eventually was carted off the court.

The Heat originally called Reed’s injury a calf strain, and tests performed Sunday showed the bursitis.

Reed is being listed as day-to-day. He’s averaging 5.3 points on 57 percent shooting this season.

His injury means the Heat will have 11 players available Monday, with four forwards or centers all out. Chris Bosh has not played this season, Justise Winslow (shoulder) is expected to miss the rest of the season and Josh McRoberts (foot) remains sidelined.

Chris Webber eager for new ‘Players Only’ NBA programming

Chris Webber
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MIAMI (AP) Chris Webber’s first night as a television analyst ended with the former Michigan star getting teased about his infamous extra timeout that helped seal the Wolverines’ fate in the 1993 NCAA championship game against North Carolina.

He laughed it off.

It was, as Turner Sports colleague Ernie Johnson called it that night, an initiation. And not only did Webber pass, he has flourished – evolving into one of the game’s respected voices, a player-turned-broadcaster who tries to combine the emotion of what’s happening on the floor with a professionalism that he believes is required of those behind the microphone.

Webber will be one of the headliners when TNT unveils its new “Players Only” platform on Monday night, a five-week run of doubleheaders where all the commentators will be former pro men’s and women’s players.

“It’s a crazy opportunity as a player to be able to kind of take over the studio,” said Webber, a finalist for induction in this year’s Basketball Hall of Fame class. “Some of the guys and I have talked about what a crazy opportunity this is, and we’re going to make the most of it.”

Among the other players involved: Chris Bosh, Isiah Thomas, Baron Davis, Grant Hill, Kevin McHale and Lisa Leslie.

“I do think we can change the game with this opportunity,” Webber said.

In a time when television remarks have started feuds between current and former players – like the longstanding back-and-forth between Charles Barkley and stars like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, and in the last few days the dustup involving Shaquille O’Neal, JaVale McGee and Kevin Durant – Webber has prided himself on being fair with criticisms.

There are times when people within the game tease one another, like the night Johnson asked him how many timeouts are allowed in college games. Webber thinks that’s fair – but he avoids the banter that turns personal.

“As long as I don’t speak about guys’ character, then it really doesn’t matter,” Webber said. “There’s nothing that I can say about a player that hasn’t already been said about me. There’s no sensitivity there. Players, when certain commentators say something, he can say: `How can he say that? He’s never been in that position.’ Well, the player can’t look at me and say that.”

Webber retired averaging 20.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, numbers that will likely have him headed to the Hall of Fame – possibly this year. He’s among 14 finalists who will get word on their fate in April at the Final Four.

The induction in Springfield, Massachusetts, is in September.

“About time,” said Barkley, a Hall of Famer. “He should already be in there.”

Webber said hearing his name listed as a finalist was surreal.

“I’m just thankful that I was nominated,” Webber said. “I’m taking in the moment, being very thankful and that I’m here. But as far as thinking about more than that, nah, I don’t do that.”

Webber doesn’t play anymore – nearly losing to his 16-year-old nephew in a 1-on-1 game last summer was the last straw – and has enjoyed being around basketball in other capacities since retiring. He represented the Sacramento Kings at an NBA draft lottery, agreed to teach a class at Wake Forest in sports storytelling and is involved in a production company.

He said he sees broadcasting as a privilege, after working alongside the likes of Kevin Harlan, Dick Stockton and Marv Albert, which is why he’s taking “Players Only” especially seriously.

“If you’re around someone and you’re willing to learn, you can get better,” Webber said. “We’re going to take from their examples. You have to honor the game with professionalism, but I also think we give a unique perspective. And I think we have a validation that can’t be taught.”

Russell Westbrook dunks on DeMarcus Cousins, who fouls out (video)

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In one fell swoop, Russell Westbrook scored two points, eliminated the Pelicans’ second-best player and got the Thunder all the momentum.

This dunk on DeMarcus Cousins, who fouled out trying to contest it, helped Oklahoma City pull away for a 118-110 win.

 

Report: Knicks waiving Brandon Jennings

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 01:  Brandon Jennings #3 of the New York Knicks in action against the Brooklyn Nets during their game at the Barclays Center on February 1, 2017 in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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The Knicks made no deals prior to the trade deadline, causing Carmelo Anthony to question the team’s direction.

It’s as if Phil Jackson now just woke up and realized he could do something.

With the trade deadline passed, New York is waiving Brandon Jennings to sign Chasson Randle.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This is a good move executed in seemingly the most ham-handed way possible.

The Knicks couldn’t have traded Jennings for a second-rounder last week? He’s on a one-year contract worth just $5 million, which should have made it easy to line up salaries. He’s overrated, because his flashy moments and presence in a big market dwarf erratic play overall. Still, for teams ready to win now that needed a backup point guard, Jennings could have added value.

And even if potential Jennings trades wouldn’t have cleared a roster spot, the Knicks could have waived Sasha Vujacic instead. Vujacic is washed up, but he’s a Jackson favorite.

Still, the Knicks are better off now. They open playing time for promising rookie Ron Baker and add the 24-year-old Randle, who shined in limited minutes with the 76ers earlier this season. New York has circled Randle since went undrafted out of Standford in 2015. He played for the Knicks in summer league and the preseason, but they cut him once he got hurt.

For a team headed back to the lottery, better to emphasize youth — though it would have been even better to do so before the trade deadline.

Jennings is also better off, likely to join a better team. I wouldn’t rule out the Nuggets or Jazz claiming him on waivers, but he most likely clears waivers and picks his next destination.