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NBA sees hopeful numbers in first year of new TV deal

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In the first season of a massive new $24 billion television contract, the NBA saw its combined domestic ratings for all networks stay even when compared to last season.

For Bill Koenig, the league’s president of global media distribution, that qualifies as a victory.

Long immune to the ratings tumbles that have plagued other television shows in the era of DVRs and cord-cutting, some sports leagues saw their viewership numbers dip in part because of a bombastic presidential election cycle. The NBA opened its season going head-to-head with a historic World Series matchup between the Cubs and Indians, but has emerged with what Koenig considers encouraging signs as the playoffs begin next week.

The combined U.S. ratings held firm at 0.8 for the season while the league had a 3 percent rise in unique viewers and a 6 percent increase in the total hours of game action fans have watched in a season, according to the NBA. Also, 19 more games were broadcast nationally.

“I think our game is very attractive to the younger, more technologically savvy, multicultural fan. Those numbers are growing over time,” Koenig said in a phone interview. “I also think there is a real emphasis here of promoting our game through traditional means, buying advertising, but also through social media.”

Koenig was at the forefront of negotiations for the record-breaking contract with Turner and ESPN/ABC that flooded the league with revenue this season. If the sheer size of the deal put more pressure on the NBA to deliver big ratings, Koenig isn’t telling.

“We worked with our network partners to drive tune-in, to make a compelling schedule and to use our digital and social media in ways that are an advantage for us,” Koenig said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any more important this year than it was in years past, but as time goes on we have more in our arsenal to help drive viewership.”

The NBA leads all U.S. sports leagues with 1.3 billion combined followers on social media and is feeding the appetite for content.

With the 19 additional national television games, fans have watched 37 million more hours of game action, the league said. The Christmas Day game between Cleveland and Golden State was the most viewed early game in ABC’s history, opening night on TNT was up 8 percent and the most-viewed curtain-raiser since 2013 and the Warriors-Cavaliers rematch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the most-viewed regular season game since 2013.

That contrasts with the NFL, which saw its ratings decline by 8 percent last season, while marquee games on Sunday and Monday nights were down 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Compelling story lines including Russell Westbrook‘s pursuit of averaging a triple-double through an entire season, LeBron James‘ title defense in Cleveland, Kevin Durant‘s move to Golden State and James Harden‘s renaissance in Houston have helped drive interest.

In the second half of the season, the issue of resting star players has come to the forefront. Television partners have expressed concern when healthy stars sit out of nationally televised games. It will be a topic this week when the owners convene in New York for the Board of Governors meetings.

“I’ve been in touch with our national and regional telecasters on this issue. It’s something that’s very important,” Koenig said. “Obviously, the basketball people with our teams and our league are very involved in this process, too. We’re going to discuss it and try and come up with measures that we think will address the issue in a way that serves the various interests that we’re trying to serve.”

There will be discussions about streamlining replays and timeouts in an effort to make the game more “free-flowing” and enjoyable to watch, Koenig said. He did not anticipate any changes for next season, but the league has already installed clocks in arenas to try and keep timeouts from dragging too long. Broadcasters are starting to sprinkle advertising in during free throws and other slower times to try to avoid the full commercial breaks that can lead viewers to change the channel.

“We understand the importance of pure competition. We don’t want to do anything that will negatively impact that,” Koenig said. “I think that the basketball side understands the business reality and the importance of what we’re trying to do and we’re both working toward the same end.”

The television contract lasts another eight years, and Koenig’s work is hardly finished. The league is constantly experimenting with its presentation, exploring virtual reality, different camera angles for mobile viewers and other ways to appeal to a changing audience.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “We want to evolve. We want to create something that is more compelling for today’s viewer and tomorrow’s viewer.”

This story has been clarified to show that the Warriors-Cavaliers game on MLK Day was TNT’s highest-rated regular season game since 2013, not just its highest-rated MLK Day game.

Report: Rockets becoming “increasingly serious threat” to sign Chris Paul

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The Houston Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA with a legitimate ability to add a couple of key pieces and try to make a run at the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul would be that kind of piece, and the Rockets are ramping up efforts to land him.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets have emerged as an increasingly serious threat in the chase for soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, according to league sources.

The Rockets still have work to do in terms of clearing sufficient salary-cap space to make a representative offer for Paul, but sources told ESPN that Houston star James Harden has been advocating hard in favor of the Paul pursuit and has made his interest in teaming with the Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard known directly to Paul.

Sources say Houston also remains at the heart of the trade hunt to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, despite the fact George is only under contract through next season and is known to be angling to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The challenge in all of this is the Rockets have just about $10 million in cap space this summer, which is about a third of what it will take to land Chris Paul. That means they need to trade Ryan Anderson and his $19.6 million owed next season and take no salary back, and while there are a few teams in a position to be able to take on that salary — Philadephia, Brooklyn, Sacramento and others — they are going to want a young player or first-round pick as a sweetener. The Rockets also are considering moving Lou Williams and his $7 million salary, or Patrick Beverley and his $5.5 million. However, even moving both of the later two is not getting near the salary Paul will demand.

Chris Paul met with the Clippers front office on Tuesday to talk about the future, but he’s expected to meet with a number of teams in free agency, with the Rockets and Spurs being key suitors. The question is, will any of these teams bring him closer to toppling the Golden State Warriors, and is it worth it to take less money for that chance? Especially after he got the CBA changed so that as of July 1 the “over 36” rule becomes the “over 38 rule” so the Clippers can give him one more five-year max contract.

How much will Dion Waiters earn as a free agent?

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Dion Waiters had the best season of his career last year at age 25 in Miami. The Heat pushed Waiters to get in the best shape of his life (just check out his Instagram), and combine that with the fact that Justise Winslow went down Waiters got the ball in his hands more with a chance to create for himself, and you had a little rush of scoring. He’s still not the most efficient player ever (to be kind), but he’s close to average.

Waiters opted out of his $3.2 million he is owed next season, and he is now a free agent. How much is he will he get now on the open market? Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote this:

One scout said he would be surprised if the bidding for Waiters soars much above $10 million, if that, because of his small sample size of high-level play this past season. One prominent agent who does not represent Waiters predicted he would get $8 million to $10 million annually.

That number seems about right, if it’s a two-year deal (or a team option on the third year). The league average salary will be around $8.5 million, and that’s where Waiters should fall next year.

Whether Miami has that money to spend comes down to whether they land a big free agent such as Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (both max guys). If so, the Heat will not have the money, and what they do have would be more focused on keeping James Johnson. However, if the Heat strike out then Waiters could be back in Miami.

One way or another Waiters is going to get a raise. That doesn’t mean teams are not still leery.

Report: Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose

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Were they watching the games last year?

Derrick Rose put up decent numbers last year — 18 points per game, PER of 17, true shooting percentage of 53 — but was a mess defensively and does not fit in the triangle offense. He’s a decent point guard now, a replacement level player who can help in the right system.

Since the Knicks point guard rotation right now consists of rookie Frank Ntilikina plus whoever the team signs this summer, turns out Rose is not out of the picture, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

The New York Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose, league sources familiar with the matter said….

The Knicks’ interest in the point guard is dependent on several factors, including his health and his asking price. When asked last week about New York potentially re-signing Rose, team president Phil Jackson said “we’re listening.”

Money will be the key — it’s not going to be anywhere near the $21.3 million Rose made last season. No team is going to offer that.

Can the Knicks get him for less than $10 million? Will another team come in and offer $12 million or more for him? The market for point guards this summer is going to be interesting because after the big name on the free-agent market — Chris Paul (we’re not counting Stephen Curry, he’s not leaving) — there are some quality players out there that can help teams such as Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague and Shaun Livingston. There aren’t that many teams with money to really spend on free agent point guards, so while a couple (Holiday, maybe Lowry) re-sign with their old teams there are a number of guys who may find the market softer than they expected. Rose is among them.

And that’s where the Knicks come in. Rose is far from a perfect fit, but if the soft market drives his price down closer to the midlevel ($8.4 million) or just above, that may be worth it for the Knicks for a year while they try to develop the rookie.

Report: Russell Westbrook may sign “designated player” extension with Thunder on July 1

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Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP, coming off a historic season where he averaged a triple-double.

Westbrook also could see a massive pay raise this summer. Yes, you remember correctly that Westbrook signed one last summer after Kevin Durant left, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 grandfathered him (and James Harden, who also signed an extension last summer) in to get the “designated veteran” max contract. That would start at about $34.7 million (if the cap is at $99 million as expected) and go up from there.

Thunder management’s first call at midnight July 1 will be to Westbrook to offer the deal, and he may well take it reports Royce Young of ESPN.

Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.

He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.

If Westbrook signs this, the Thunder can get on with the business of improving this roster — which will be next to impossible. The Thunder are capped out and have to re-sign restricted free agent Andre Roberson. Sam Presti is a smart man, but his hands are mostly tied due to some of the big contracts on the roster (ones that would have been no issue if Kevin Durant had stayed). The Thunder will make moves around the edges, but it’s going to take time to do anything substantial.

If Westbrook doesn’t sign this, more than just red flags will go up in OKC — this will be sirens and flashing red lights. The Thunder will be forced to think about trading Westbrook, or finding a way to keep him happy and in house. They will basically be right back to where they were last summer.

If Westbrook signs it — and he likely will, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table — it at least gives the Thunder a clear direction. Which is about all they can hope for this summer.