Courtside seats you can afford: NBA ventures into world of virtual reality

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Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams is banging on Houston’s Clint Capela — elbows extended, using those arms, his strength, and his backside to seal off like it’s a box-out. It’s the kind of surprisingly physical off-the-ball pick (with a little hold) that only those wealthy enough to have courtside baseline seats usually get to appreciate up close.

Adams’ pick works, it keeps the lane open — and Russell Westbrook explodes into that space for the kind of slam you can feel in those courtside seats.

Except you’re not courtside. Not even close.

You’re sitting on your couch, wearing the virtual reality headset that transports you to the baseline to Oklahoma City, via a camera attached to the stanchion behind the basket.

It’s a new view, a new way to experience an NBA game that the league is embracing, and while it’s still a work in progress it’s also something that shows a lot of promise.

“A lot of people see the (NBA virtual reality) commercials and think it’s cool, which it is, but until you experience it you don’t know,” said Bruce Bowen, the retired NBA champion who is now part of the virtual reality broadcast team on NBA games. “You don’t get the opportunity to experience things like this, when it comes to basketball and the best players in the world utilizing their athleticism, utilizing their grace, and seeing it come to life quite as it does.

“It just so happens that we did a game in Dallas, and Michael Finley — a friend of mine as well as a teammate of mine in San Antonio (Ed. note: he’s now in the front office in Dallas) — he watched the rerun. So after his game, he went and watched it and he was raving about it, about how this is truly special, and that you don’t think it’s going to turn out the way it does but it’s truly remarkable.”

The NBA is embracing virtual reality — and we’re not just talking about training referees, or teaching point guards to make better decisions. The NBA has become the first major professional sports league to broadcast weekly games that can be watched in virtual reality from a headset in your home. They did the same thing at the All-Star Game with the All-Star Saturday night events.

“It’s an unreal experience where you can put the VR headset on and look around and feel like you’re there,” Stephen Curry told NBCSports.com of his experience with the NBA’s virtual reality. “I know that technology is only going to get better and more impactful in the game of basketball, and sports in general.”

“I think our sport has some innate advantages,” says Jeff Marsilio, the Vice President of Global Media Distribution for the NBA. “We sometimes joke around that if we were to start over and build a sport for virtual reality, it would end up looking a lot like what our sport does today. …

“We’ve got huge players who are so incredibly athletic and you can get close to them with virtual reality.”

The league has partnered with NextVR to bring that courtside experience to fans. NextVR is a company that has experience broadcasting live events in virtual reality (including The Masters, among many others). I got the chance to test the technology at All-Star weekend. Like a lot of virtual reality tech, it is a work in progress in terms of smoothy watching the game, but it also new perspective that few fans get to experience. It is immersive; you feel like you’re much closer to the action than with a traditional broadcast.

It works like all VR does — if Westbrook drives and kicks to the corner to Victor Oladipo, you can turn your head to follow the ball and the field of vision pans with you.

To watch requires a virtual-reality headset and a Samsung phone with the NextVR app downloaded, or Google’s Daydream (which has other features from the NBA we will get to soon). If you have League Pass you can jump right in. If not, the cost is $6.99 per game, and there is about one game available per week.

NextVR puts together that broadcast, which has its own announcers and graphics.

“The adaptation in the broadcast is ‘look left, look right,’ really having to direct your audience, whereas in a regular telecast somebody is watching the game, you don’t have to say ‘look left at this,’” Bowen said. “What you’re doing now is directing the viewer to certain things that catch your eye. ‘If you look right you’ll see there’s a dispute going on between two players,’ or ‘this guy is coming right at you.’ Just helping them in certain situations.”

“It’s very similar to a live broadcast. The signal is produced in a truck (on site),” said David Cole, co-founder and CEO of NextVR. “The difference is there’s outbound signal from all of the available cameras, and that gives us the ability to allow you to choose the camera position you want.”

Soon, if fans want to watch from the courtside camera in the middle of the court, you’ll be able to have that view all game (even if a player checking in blocks your view for a while, just like people in actual courtside seats deal with). There are eight cameras usually at each game, and a handful will be set up by the end of the year so that you can stay just with that camera. If you want to know what it’s like to sit in courtside baseline seats — and you don’t have five grand to blow on one game — this is almost like being there.

“When we started experimenting with David and NextVR, we thought the ultimate was just the pure courtside seat experience,” Marsilio said. “And what we discovered in this experimentation phase is that’s a great core to build upon, but you really need to pull in some of the more traditional elements from things like television.”

Things such as having the score easy to see, or having replays of a dunk or block.

However, this presents a challenge. If a graphic pops up on your television at home while watching a game, you don’t think twice about it. However, if you are in an immersive environment where the goal is to make it seem like you’re in a courtside seat, then a graphic starts to take over that field of vision, it can take you out of that experience.

Which leads to the next challenge for the VR experience — social media. For many fans watching an NBA game is a two-screen experience, one with the game on and one — a phone, tablet, or laptop — with Twitter or another social media platform open. That has become part of the NBA community, almost like watching a game at a bar 20 years ago (but smarter and funnier… usually).

“We’ve demonstrated a number of different social integrations into the experience … you can opt to receive messages right now, so you can opt to text and that kind of thing in the environment right now,” Cole said.

“But it’s something we’re being incredibly studied and measured about right now because we can blow your sense of presence, that covenant with the view that says ‘this is just like being there and this is real.’ If you choose to have that different kind of information inserted and knock yourself out of that, that’s one thing. But when it just happens because someone sends you a message or a Tweet pops up or something that blows you out of the experience, it’s very disrupting. And we may not get you back.”

It’s a fine line to walk, and with the NBA on the cutting edge, the league is treating these experiments as a learning experience.

“That sense of presence you’re in danger of disrupting, it also gives it the potential to be the most social platform, because if you can give people the experience of being present together, you can give them the sense of watching together,” Marsilio said.

The NBA also partnered with Google Daydream for another way to integrate VR into the sport. Daydream has set up several experiences where a famous NBA player — the one I watched had Robert Horry — was sitting in a comfortable leather chair with a comedian/host in another chair, both in a loft-like environment, and on the big screen behind them is a classic NBA game. Throughout the experience, Horry and the host joke and talk about the action, telling stories and giving insights on the game.

“The chief opportunity for us is our live game, no question, but a close second is just getting our fans closer to our players,” Marsilio said. “Letting them experience that sense of presence of these players they admire so much. And you can feel like you’re hanging out, kind of watching the game together.”

Of course, the NBA will eventually look to sell advertising through these broadcasts — never forget that this is a business first. The key is to make those ads immersive and part of the experience, not just something to be watched passively.

“There is a huge amount of potential,” Cole said. “Whether they are cutaways (during breaks in the action) or insertions in another way — sponsored instant replay, sponsored graphics — there are options. …

“The one difference between us and a traditional linear broadcast is we have a 360-degree world to sell ads into.”

The NBA seems well positioned to bet on VR as the NBA’s demographic skews younger than the other major American sports leagues and is filled with early adopters. According to NextVR, the addition of mobile capability has already broadened the platform’s audience by a wide margin, proving there is potentially a large group for the NBA to reach.

“NextVR does not disclose viewership numbers however, we have seen an increased amount of time spent in headsets immersed with NBA content since the beginning of our partnership,” Cole said. “We also continue to receive extremely positive feedback.”

That feedback has the league pushing to get more people to put on the headsets and sit courtside. At a much more affordable price than the actual seats.

Owner: Hawks will ‘make every effort imaginable’ to re-sign Paul Millsap

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Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox called re-signing Paul Millsap this summer the team’s “priority.”

Hawks owner Tony Ressler went a step further.

Ressler, via Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“We love Paul Millsap,” Ressler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “We are trying to re-sign him. We want him to stay here. We think he is a really special player and a special person that we want on our team and in our locker room and we are going to make every effort imaginable to keep him.”

There’s certainly one effort I can imagine: Offer Millsap a max contract, which projects to be worth $205 million over five years.

That’s not necessarily a wise investment. As excellent and underrated as Millsap is now, he’s 32. He’ll be hard-pressed to maintain anywhere near this level of production over the next five years. And what’s the upside for Atlanta enduring such risk, especially late in his contract? A chance at a playoff-series victory each of the next couple years? The trade-off would make more sense for a team that can accomplish something more meaningful now.

The Hawks seem conflicted about their direction. In the last year, they’ve traded Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver but also signed Dwight Howard. Atlanta’s starting lineup is split by a glaring age divider – Millsap (32) and Howard (31) on one side, Tim Hardaway Jr. (25), Dennis Schroder (23) and Taurean Prince (23) on the other.

Do the Hawks want to rebuild or win now? It almost depends when you ask, and by the offseason, there might be a different answer. But the owner so strongly endorsing re-signing Millsap speaks volumes. Everyone in the organization, including president/coach Mike Budenholzer, answers to Ressler.

Of course, Millsap will hold the cards as an unrestricted free agent. He might prefer to leave Atlanta for a team closer to title contention or any other reason.

But the Hawks can make offer that would be darned hard to refuse.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on LeBron James’ heavy workload: ‘Next, he might play 48 minutes’

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) Except for his backpedaling hairline, LeBron James shows no visible signs of age.

At 32, still in his prime, and still at the top of his game, he’s defying time.

“Benjamin Button,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue called him, referring to the fictional character who ages backward.

LeBenjamin?

Following a regular season in which he averaged more minutes per game (37.8) than any player, James logged 43.7 per game during Cleveland’s tougher-than-it-looked sweep over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. And as James and the defending champions await either Toronto or Milwaukee in the second round, James is taking advantage of the down time.

Not that he might need it.

Lue spent much of the season defending his use of James, who in all honesty is really the one in control of when he sits or doesn’t. At this point, Lue has given up worrying about resting the superstar.

“I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of his minutes,” Lue said Wednesday. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games and then he had a week off again. So next he might play 48 minutes. … Bron today just said he feels worse when he doesn’t play.”

James wasn’t available for interviews as the team gathered for the first time in two days at Cleveland Clinic Courts, and it’s likely that he won’t speak to the media until the Cavs have a second-round opponent.

But as has been the case for months, James’ playing time was one of the prime topics presented to Lue, who believes that the four-time MVP’s heavy workload during the regular season is what enables him to play at such high levels in the postseason.

Consider that James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists, shot 54 percent from the field, went 9 of 20 on 3-pointers and led the Cavaliers to the biggest second-half comeback in league history during the series against Indiana, and it’s easy to see why Lue wants to move past the minutes chatter.

“With him playing the minutes he played during the course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs,” Lue said. “Now he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes. Because he’s used to it. His body can take it, so, I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

Unlike the regular season, when brutal travel schedules, back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four nights can wear players down, the postseason allows for recovery. Lue also thinks too many teams are allowing outside pressures to influence how they use players.

“Teams are suffering,” he said, “because they listen to what the media is saying about guys playing minutes” and “some teams should play some guys more minutes, and it would’ve been different (playoff) series.”

James has ramped up his minutes nearly every postseason. Now in his 12th playoffs, he averaged 39.1 minutes last year and has only twice averaged less than 40 per game.

Lue trusts that the three-time champion knows how far to push himself without reaching his breaking point.

“He knows his body better than anyone,” Lue said. “He said he feels great and he feels worse when he doesn’t play, so we’ll see how that works out.”

As for the rest of the Cavaliers, Wednesday included some competition in the team’s weight room on an aerobic conditioning machine while the team’s in-house DJ from Quicken Loans Arena spun music. After the vigorous workouts, yoga mats were dragged onto the court and the facility’s lights were dimmed for some stretching and decompression.

Namaste, NBA-style.

The Cavs had a similar, one-week break between the first and second rounds last season. Kyrie Irving said it’s imperative to make the most of it.

“The mental preparation and physical preparation starts now and hasn’t stopped,” he said. “Took a brief day off or two and now just get back to work and get ready for whichever team we’re getting ready for. The work never stops.”

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

NBA fines Rockets owner Leslie Alexander $100,000 for confronting referee

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Rockets owner Leslie Alexander got up from his courtside seat, walked down the sideline and talked to referee Bill Kennedy during Houston’s Game 5 win over the Thunder.

It took less than a day for an investigation to yield the predictable result.

NBA release:

Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has been fined $100,000 for confronting a referee during live game action, it was announced today by Byron Spruell, President, NBA League Operations.

The interaction occurred with 0:13 remaining in the first quarter of the Rockets’ 105-99 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 25 at Toyota Center.

Per Patricia Bender’s database, this is the NBA’s largest fine in nearly two years. The NBA fined the Clippers $250,000 in 2015 for setting up DeAndre Jordan with an endorsement deal while trying to lure him back in free agency.

The NBA rightfully keeps owners on a tight leash. Unlike players, coaches and referees, who have their own unions, the league office represents the owners. So when one crosses the line – Alexander trampled over it – the hammer comes down hard. It’s an example to keep everyone else in line, and owners know they come out way ahead in this arrangement. Alexander might not like the punishment, but he benefits from owning a share of a league that so strongly dissuades such behavior.

David Stern: ‘Shame on the Brooklyn Nets’

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Brooklyn rested Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for its final game this season, which had huge playoff implications. Not for the Nets, of course. They were long eliminated from postseason contention.

But the Bulls beat Brooklyn to reach the playoffs over the Heat, who also won that night.

Miami fans were obviously ticked, and they have company in former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“I have no idea what was in the mind of the executives of the Brooklyn Nets — none — when they rested their starting players,” Stern, who still holds the title of Commissioner Emeritus, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday on the NBA A to Z podcast. “If you’re playing in a game of consequence, that has an impact, which is as good as it gets (you should play your players). Here we are, the Brooklyn Nets are out of the running. They have the lowest record in the sport. But they have an opportunity to weigh in on the final game with respect to Chicago. And they sit their starters? Really? It’s inexcusable in my view. I don’t think the Commissioner maybe can, or even should, do anything about it. But shame on the Brooklyn Nets. They broke the (pact with fans).”

The resting dilemma takes slightly different forms when it involves a team like Brooklyn rather than a certain playoff team, but the underlying conflict remains the same:

The team is better off resting its players.

The NBA is worse off, at least in the short term.

The league was robbed of an important competitive game that could’ve drawn higher ratings. The Nets had just beaten Chicago a days prior, but that was with major contributions from Lopez and Lin. Without them, Brooklyn had little chance and lost by 39.

The Nets weren’t playing for anything, not even a higher draft pick. They owe their first-rounder to the Celtics and already clinched the worst record anyway. Brooklyn was better off resting those veterans at the end of a long regular season.

There’s no easy answer. If the NBA bans resting, teams will sit players and assign to minor or made-up injuries. If the league shortens the season, it will lose revenue.

The best solution is to improve at the margins – provide more rest days (which the league will do next season) and schedule nationally televised games outside of grueling stretches of the schedule. That’s obviously no silver bullet, though. Bulls-Nets wasn’t nationally televised, and Brooklyn had the day off before and the entire offseason off after.

Another potential solution: Shaming teams into playing their top players. Stern is giving that one a go.