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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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Grizzlies healthy, excited for training camp with new coach

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33), of Spain, poses for a picture on NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Associated Press
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Marc Gasol‘s surgically repaired right foot is healthy, and the Memphis Grizzlies center insists he’s back – perhaps better than ever.

Point guard Mike Conley is healthy too, his aching Achilles a distant memory. Jarell Martin‘s own left foot is as healthy as it’s been in a long time.

Chandler Parsons, the Grizzlies’ big free agent signee this summer , is the only person still recovering from his own knee surgery as the Grizzlies held media day Monday. It’s a welcome change for a franchise that set a dubious NBA mark last season playing 28 different players due to injuries that ravaged the roster, giving new coach David Fizdale a healthy roster for the start of training camp Tuesday.

The Grizzlies still reached the playoffs only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

“Last year, man it was tough with all the injuries, especially the playoffs not having a full-strength team, so it was very tough,” forward Zach Randolph said Monday. “Now we all healthy, and now we looking at the big picture and that’s getting a championship and getting a ring.”

Losing Gasol was the biggest hit. Memphis was fifth in the Western Conference on Feb. 8 when Gasol last played and slipped to the No. 7 seed as the injuries mounted. He had surgery to repair a non-displaced fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot Feb. 20, starting a long rehabilitation process to return him to the court.

Recovery kept Gasol from playing for Spain during the Olympics, though the center wanted to play. He followed all the doctors’ orders and stuck with his rehabilitation. Gasol said he’s never felt any discomfort in his foot, which makes him confident the repair worked. He’s now ready to help lead the Grizzlies back to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2013 and even further to a place Memphis has never been: the NBA Finals.

“I’m confident that I have the capability of not just being the same player, but better,” Gasol said. “Better player, more productive, more consistent. Hopefully a better rebounder. … It’s going to be a challenge for me, but I’m up for it. I’m up for any challenge. I love challenges, and this year’s going to be another one.”

Guard Tony Allen said Gasol looks like he’s added to his game, noting the man nicknamed Big Spain knocked down six straight 3s in a pickup game recently.

Being healthy isn’t the only difference for Memphis from the end of last season. The Grizzlies start training camp Tuesday with a new coach in Fizdale , a long-time Miami Heat assistant who Memphis hired in late May after firing Dave Joerger who was then hired by Sacramento.

The Grizzlies also announced Monday they hired a new medical director in Allen Gruver, promoted Jim Scholler to head athletic trainer and added Eric Oetter as director of performance. Conley said the Grizzlies have bolstered the staff to help players, even adding massage therapists to help with recovery.

Fizdale also suggested to the Grizzlies that they show up a couple weeks early and play together to start building chemistry and conditioning. Fizdale said he couldn’t make them do it, and he liked how they listened. Managing Gasol’s minutes will be a big focus for Fizdale who plans to pull him early from some practices and keep him out of some games through the season.

“I’m definitely going to preserve him,” Fizdale said. “I don’t want to kill him throughout the year and don’t have him for the playoffs so it’ll be very mindful of how I attack him coming back from an injury.”

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Life without Tim Duncan begins for the new-look Spurs

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich addresses the media during an NBA basketball news conference, Tuesday, July 12, 2016, in San Antonio, the day after Tim Duncan announced his retirement. Popovich wore a T-shirt with the likeness of Duncan as he reflected on his relationship with the 19-year Spurs veteran and talked about his contributions to the team and to him personally. (Kin Man Hui/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Life without Tim Duncan has officially begun for the San Antonio Spurs, even if they aren’t quite ready to accept it.

For the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House and “Men In Black” was a box office hit, the Spurs will open training camp without Duncan.

During the team’s annual media day Monday, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich joked that Duncan is being fined daily – “$2,500 a day, every day that he does not show up.”

“I wasn’t here with him that long so it’s not as dramatic for me as it will be for everybody else, but it definitely feels like he should walk in any moment but he hasn’t yet,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said.

Duncan retired in July after 19 seasons as arguably the greatest power forward of all time. A two-time MVP, Duncan led San Antonio to five NBA titles and helped set a selfless, team-first standard that is the envy of many sports franchises.

The transition from the Spurs’ reliance on the Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili began in earnest last season with the addition of Aldridge and the continued growth of Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio continued the makeover in the offseason with the signing of Pau Gasol, but that doesn’t soften the blow of losing Duncan.

“I think it’s going to hit me more tomorrow when we get on the court,” Parker said. “We’re definitely going to miss him. You can’t replace a guy like that. He’s been the face of the franchise for the last two decades. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be weird without him, especially now that we have a lot of young guys, a lot of new faces and so it’s going to be a lot of teaching to do at the beginning of the season.”

Duncan will attend some practices to assist with coaching, but it will be up to Parker, Ginobili and the other veterans to acclimate the largest number of new faces in Popovich’s 20 seasons as Spurs coach.

San Antonio added 11 new players to its training camp roster, including rookies Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans and free agents like Gasol and David Lee.

“It’s a lot of fun just to think about new bodies and new blood in the gym,” Popovich said. “Not just the players, the staff. I don’t know half of the names of the new staff we hired in the film room, interns and management and all that kind of thing. A lot of people walking around, both players and staff. It will be exciting who comes up with what ideas, who plays well and who fits together.”

Gasol is the most critical addition. Entering his 17th season, the 7-foot center has won two NBA championships and made his sixth All-Star appearance last season while with the Chicago Bulls.

Stepping into Duncan’s place in the starting lineup will be one of the biggest challenges of his career.

“Tim has been so exceptional and unique,” Gasol said. “He is considered by most of us the best power forward that has ever played the game. So, I’m not coming here to fill his shoes and the spot that he left, but I’m here to make the best that I can to fit in as best as I can and to work with the guys that are here to win a title and work as hard as I can to do that. It’s an opportunity, it’s a privilege but at the same time, it’s a huge challenge.”

Gasol’s presence will help ease the burden on Leonard and Aldridge.

The All-Star forwards led San Antonio to a franchise-record 67 victories last season before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.

“I think everybody has to take on that burden,” Aldridge said. “It’s not a one-player’s job, no one can be Tim Duncan. It’s going to be everyone’s job.”

Jason Kidd plans to bring Greg Monroe off Bucks’ bench, which is news to Monroe

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 20:  Head coach Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks stands on the court during introductions to the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 20, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Bucks defeated the Suns 101-95. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Bucks spent most of the summer trying to trade Greg Monroe, and the asking price was rumored to be so low most of the buzz around the league was a deal would get done. Except to trade Monroe another team had to want Monroe, and therein lied the rub.

Monroe was at Bucks media day on Monday, and coach Jason Kidd announced he plans to bring Monroe in off the bench. That got interesting. From Gery Woelfel of the of the Racine Journal Times:

It shouldn’t be news, Kidd brought Monroe off the bench for part of last season, too.

If Monroe doesn’t start, it means John Henson or Miles Plumlee will start (unless Kidd wants to go crazy small and start Mirza Teletovic).

The real takeaway here: Don’t draft Monroe on your fantasy team. And expect him to get traded at some point this season.

Draymond Green says he will stand for anthem, criticism of Kaepernick “ridiculous”

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry conducts an interview during NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Associated Press
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I’ve said this before: while there will be national anthem protests once the NBA starts playing games in a couple of weeks, don’t expect it from the biggest names — the guys with the biggest international brands to promote. At the same time, expect all those guys to back Collin Kaepernick and others who have done these protests.

The latest example came from the Golden State Warriors media day and Draymond Green. Here is what he said in a passionate talk about the protests, via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

I respect Colin for that because he took a stand, that he knew would probably create some controversy. And he didn’t care. And I respect that because sometimes controversy is needed in order to get the point across. And I think he’s gotten his point across. But my question is like what’s next?…

And of course if everyone wants to talk about Colin, and he’s disrespecting America. No, we’re going to talk about what he’s doing and try to sweep what he’s really talking about under the rug. I think it’s quite ridiculous, to be quite frank. Am I going to kneel down and put my fist up, no I’m not. That’s no disrespect to Colin or anybody else that’s doing it. But they’ve gotten the point across. I don’t think I need to come out and do a National Anthem protest. Because it’s already been started. There’s already a conversation.

What Green is asking is what a lot of people — athletes, activists, people who care about this country — are asking: What kind of actions, what kinds of change can come out of the start of this conversation? Because the question isn’t about respect for the flag or lack thereof — that’s a side issue, a distraction from people who don’t want to talk about race in America and the challenges we still face as a nation in that area. Some of these police shootings are a brutal reminder of how far this nation has to go, but they are just part of a broader issue.

Stephen Curry — whose hometown of Charlotte has experienced rioting after a police shooting in recent days — also was asked about the protest issue and struck a similar tone. Here’s his answer via Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“I respect everybody’s voice, everybody’s platform, and their opportunity and right to protest what they feel in their heart is something they want changed. I’ve said that plenty of times about Colin. I respect what he’s doing. I respect the message that he’s fighting for, and I hope all the spotlight is on that particular message and the things we can do to make changes that are blatantly obvious we need change, so I hope going forward it’s not about who’s raising their fist, who’s kneeling, who’s standing, who’s doing this or that. It’s about what Colin and other guys – what the message is, and what we don’t want to stand for any more.”