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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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In nearly 3 years on job, Phil Jackson hasn’t fixed Knicks

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson watches from the stands during the second half of the Knicks' NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Madison Square Garden in New York, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  The Pelicans won 110-96. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony had a half-season of clues about what Phil Jackson thought of him, and now it was his turn to evaluate his boss.

Anthony had trumpeted his trust in Jackson when he re-signed in 2014 and reaffirmed it months later, even as Jackson continued trading away key players from the best team Anthony ever played on in New York.

Reminded of that recently and asked if he still trusted Jackson, Anthony stopped well short.

“I trust the process,” he said, mimicking Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The process isn’t going well for Jackson in New York.

The Knicks are 23-34, 12th in the Eastern Conference and on pace to miss the playoffs for the third time in Jackson’s three full seasons as president of basketball operations. He’s made his relationship with Anthony worse and hasn’t made the Knicks better, and a guy who could do little wrong as a coach just can’t get it right as an executive.

Maybe Jackson can swing a trade to fix things before Thursday’s deadline.

Or maybe he’ll just never fix the Knicks.

If Jackson is planning anything, it remains a mystery. He hasn’t spoken to reporters covering the Knicks since his preseason press conference in September – backtracking from his vow to be accessible when he took the job – and isn’t expected to before the deadline. He has made only three postings on Twitter all season.

Yet he’s still made plenty of noise.

He angered LeBron James by referring to his friends and business partners as a “posse” in an ESPN story. And he upset some of the league’s other power players with his actions toward Anthony – which could prove damaging when trying to lure free agents. Jackson has either appeared to endorse or refused to distance himself from articles criticizing his best player and has largely cut off communication between them – after saying when he was hired that he planned to focus on “how players are treated” and “the kind of culture that’s built.”

Hall of Fame finalist Tracy McGrady told reporters this weekend he couldn’t remain quiet the way Anthony has.

“I’m not going to let you disrespect (me) in the public’s eye like that,” McGrady said. “You’re not going to be sending subliminal messages about me like that and I don’t respond to that. I don’t operate like that. I’m just not going to do it. And then you hide and don’t do any media? You leave everything for me to talk about? Nah, that’s not cool.”

Jackson retains the support of Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan, who said in a recent ESPN Radio interview that he would not fire Jackson during the two-plus years that remain on his contract. (Both sides have an option to terminate the deal after this season).

Dolan didn’t even express much disappointment in the results, even though the Knicks had their worst season ever in Jackson’s first season and are 72-149 since the start of 2014-15.

“He was the best guy we thought we could find to run the New York Knicks,” Dolan said.

Maybe if he’d been hiring Jackson to coach, as Jackson’s 11 championships are a record for coaches. But there were questions about how he would do as an executive with no experience, and the answers haven’t been good.

He fired Mike Woodson and replaced him with first-time coach Derek Fisher, who lasted just 1 1/2 years. Starters Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton were traded in one deal, and J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert went in another early the next season. They were all mainstays on the Knicks team that won 54 games and reached the second round of the playoffs not even two years before Jackson was hired in March 2014.

Now all that’s left is Anthony, and it certainly seems Jackson wants him gone, too. He would have to find a workable deal, hard enough given the 32-year-old Anthony’s salary and age, then get him to waive the no-trade clause he gave Anthony when he re-signed him.

If not, maybe Jackson himself would leave this summer – though Dolan said he had no indication that was the 71-year-old Jackson’s plan. But he insists he can’t coach for health reasons and doesn’t appear to enjoy scouting and dealing with agents, essential parts of his job.

He must be disheartened that the work he put into this team hasn’t paid off. Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek to open up the offense after two years of his favored triangle, traded for Derrick Rose, and signed free agents Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings. None has sparked a turnaround, and drafting Kristaps Porzingis remains Jackson’s only inarguable success.

Jackson played on the last championship Knicks team in 1973 and said when he was hired what it would mean to build another winner here.

“It would be a capstone on the remarkable career that I’ve had,” Jackson said.

There’s still time for that.

But these days, Anthony probably isn’t the only one who no longer trusts in Jackson.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down DeMarcus Cousins trade with Dan Feldman

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 17:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings speaks with the media during media availability for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game at The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans on February 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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It happened very quickly and snuck up on the league. As of Friday night there was not even a whisper of the Kings shopping Cousins among the NBA media. By Sunday night it was done, and executives from a few other teams wished they had been contacted and could have gotten in on the bidding.

DeMarcus Cousins was traded from Sacramento to New Orleans. Who won? What do the Pelicans do now? Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it all down.

They also talk about a handful of other possible trades that could come before the deadline. (Note, this was recorded before the Lakers’ front office shakeup or Lou Williams trade.)

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Play vs. Rest: For many NBA teams, it’s still a real battle

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James #23  watch from the bench during the game against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) — There are 27 games remaining on Cleveland’s regular-season schedule, and perhaps only one person over that stretch will be able to stop LeBron James.

That would be Cavs coach Tyronn Lue.

He has to protect James from himself.

Finding the right time to rest players is a conundrum that many NBA coaches have wrestled with for years, even more so now given the ways teams have been able to apply technology to the formula and use personalized data to help their medical and athletic training staffs determine when someone simply needs a break. The rest topic seems to become more prevalent as the season winds down, particularly after the All-Star break, with teams in the playoff race trying to ensure top players are healthy for the postseason.

As James nears 50,000 minutes for his NBA career – a milestone that he’ll likely reach during the upcoming playoffs – he abhors the idea of taking nights off. Yet there will almost certainly be nights over the next few weeks where James’ uniform stays on its game-night hanger, and fans who plunked down big money to see him play will have to deal with disappointment.

“Me being a competitor, me loving the game that I’ve loved every single day, I don’t always have the right assessment of me playing a lot of minutes,” James said. “That’s why I have coach Lue and the coaching staff and the training staff to be like `Hey, LeBron … let’s take it easy today.’ Me, I don’t ever want to take a day off.”

Only seven players appeared in all 82 of their teams’ regular-season games in 2015-16. It is becoming more and more of a rarity; in 2005-06 there were 14 players who appeared in 82 games, in 1995-96 the number was 25.

“At times, it may be necessary for a guy to rest whether if it’s on the road or it’s at home,” Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s a thin line.”

Some coaches make no secret about their desire to rest players. Foremost among them, of course, is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, he who famously sat Tim Duncan for a game in 2012 citing “old” as the official reason, and who decided that Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili needed rest in the third game of this season – which just happened to be the Spurs’ home opener.

“It’s ridiculous,” Popovich said of the Spurs having to play four games in the season’s first six nights.

The schedule starting next season will have the 82 games played over a longer stretch of time, which NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hopes relieve some of the rest issues. When the Cavs sat James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for a game at Memphis earlier this season, even some Cavs fans in attendance expressed their disappointment .

“The science has gotten to the point where there is that direct correlation that we’re aware of between fatigue and injuries,” Silver said. “And as tough as it is on our fans to miss one of their favorite players for a game, it’s far better than having them get injured and be out for long periods of time. So we’re always still looking to strike that right balance.”

Memphis coach David Fizdale said he listens to the Grizzlies’ medical staff when deciding when the time is right to give one of his players a break. Unfortunately, if there are many Marc Gasol fans in Minnesota, his nights to sit included the ones that fell on both of Memphis’ trips to visit the Timberwolves this season.

“Fans pay their hard-earned money to see you play,” Golden State guard Klay Thompson said. “The young guys like me, I don’t need to rest, but the old guys, the old superstars, they need a game or two off here and there. . Yeah, you feel for the fans.”

The vast majority of players polled at All-Star weekend said if it were up to them and they weren’t dealing with an injury, they’d play every night. Houston’s James Harden, who last missed a game two years ago and that was because of suspension, said he takes pride in not only playing every game but playing particularly well on the second night of back-to-backs.

No one has played more games since the start of the 2010-11 season than James, in large part because he rarely sits and because each of his last six seasons have all gone until the NBA Finals.

He ranks No. 2 in average minutes per night this season – topped by only Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, by a mere 9 seconds.

“I’m comfortable with whatever coach wants me to do out on the floor,” James said. “Whatever he gives me to do, I can figure it out.”

Memphis has healthy roster for playoff push in stretch run

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates his three point basket for a lead over the LA Clippers with James Ennis #8 during the final seconds of the fourth quarter at Staples Center on November 16, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Grizzlies won 111-107.   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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Grizzlies’ latest injury reports need a second glance, they appear a bit suspect.

Nobody is listed as hurt or nursing an injury. If someone is out, it’s simply for rest.

No knee problems requiring forward Chandler Parsons to sit. No ankle issues for reserve forward Brandan Wright. No lingering problems from point guard Mike Conley‘s broken back earlier this season, and no more groin issues for defensive stalwart Tony Allen.

There’s not even foot problems for All-Star center Marc Gasol.

Having no injuries to report is a relief for a team that has been hit hard the last two years. The Grizzlies are 34-24 and sixth in the Western Conference heading down the stretch.

“I think our chemistry is starting to come,” forward Zach Randolph said. “Guys are starting to fill into their roles and starting to play a lot better, especially on the defensive end.”

It was just a year ago on Feb. 20, 2016, that Gasol had season-ending surgery to repair his broken right foot, sending the Grizzlies spiraling into a historical season for injuries that finished with Memphis using an NBA-record 28 players . Memphis limped into its sixth consecutive playoff appearance and was mercifully swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.

Memphis’ injury woes seemed to pick up where last season left off for the first three months of this season. Conley missed 11 games, nine with broken vertebrae in his lower back . Wright, hampered by knee issues after signing with Memphis in 2015, dealt with left ankle issues the first 49 games. Parsons, the Grizzlies’ major free agent acquisition last offseason, missed 17 games with knee problems and still doesn’t look completely healed.

That left Memphis with only nine players for a few games.

“It’s nice to have more bullets, definitely,” first-year coach David Fizdale said. “It was fun winning with the Nasty Nine, but it didn’t feel good going into every game with the Nasty Nine, I tell you that.”

Fizdale, hired away from Miami where he assistant head coach, has had players miss a combined 130 games forcing him to adjust lineups regularly while settling into his first head coaching role. As the Grizzlies prepare for the stretch run, Fizdale says he feels prepared for anything.

“I think that was the good part about everything that has happened to us this year,” Fizdale said. “It has prepared me for different things. Our team doesn’t panic when guys go down or when we have to rest a guy. I think that part of it was good for me from a learning standpoint.”

Gasol has recovered so well that he made his third All-Star appearance Sunday. He is averaging 20.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, along with 4.3 assists. At Fizdale’s urging, Gasol has added a new weapon to his post play and midrange jumpers. The 7-foot-1 Spaniard has converted 77 3-pointers this season – a stark improvement from the 12 combined over his previous eight seasons.

Conley also has improved, averaging 19.3 points and 6.2 assists shooting 41 percent from outside the arc. He says he doesn’t notice the back bones he broke Nov. 28 against Charlotte at all.

“I (don’t) think twice about going in the paint or anything,” Conley said. “I’m excited about that and looking forward to a healthy second half.”

With 24 games left, Memphis is only two games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage to start the playoffs. The Grizzlies, who visit Indiana on Friday night, also have an eight-game lead ahead of Denver for the final playoff spot, putting them on course for a seventh consecutive postseason appearance. Only San Antonio and Atlanta have longer active streaks in the NBA.

If the Grizzlies’ current run of good health continues.