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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Michael Porter Jr. compares himself to Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo

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It has been rumored that Michael Porter Jr could be the player the Sacramento Kings draft at No. 2 overall on Thursday night in the 2018 NBA Draft. Meanwhile, according to Porter himself, there is good reason for his sudden leap up the draft boards.

Speaking on CBS Sports Radio on Monday, Porter said that he thought the players he most compared to right now were Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Tracy McGrady.

Of course, the context here is that Porter was prompted to give a current NBA comparison, and as a shooter and physical player, he was unlikely to compare himself to a role player. Still, it’s a bold statement from Porter to say that he is akin to the second best player in the league at this moment. Durant has a skill set that hasn’t been replicated or really seen in the NBA, so it’s tough for anyone to really compare themselves to him.

Here is the quote, transcribed thanks to Deadspin:

Right now, I’m a little, I’m a mix of Giannis and KD. You know, I like going to the hole a little more than KD does, I like bumping into people a little more physical than KD. But I also, you know I like to shoot the ball more than Giannis. So that’s what I like to compare myself to. Then also Tracy McGrady. I get compared to him a lot and I like that one a lot too. You know, those are three amazing players. So it doesn’t feel bad to be in the same conversation as them.

In a recent interview with Dime Magazine, Porter said that he thinks Durant is the best player in the league, particularly when he plays against LeBron James. So really, Porder compared himself to the best player in the league.

The Missouri product has a litany of both character and injury questions. Rumors are abound about how well he will fit into an NBA locker room, and he famously decamped to Missouri Lorenzo Romar was fired in Washington.

Porder sat out most of the year with a nagging back injury, and had to call off some of his draft workouts because of a hip issue. Porter has tried to downplay his injury concerns, and has said that former Portland Trail Blazers star Brandon Roy told him to remain patient through injury.

The draft is less than 48 hours away, and most believe that taking Porter at No. 2 is a huge risk for the Kings. We will see just how confident Sacramento is about Porter’s ability to become an NBA teammate and stay healthy here soon enough.

Michael Jordan will still have input on Hornets draft day decisions

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan hired proven general manager Mitch Kupchak this offseason to help turn around a franchise mired in mediocrity since he became the Charlotte Hornets’ majority owner eight years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the highly competitive Jordan won’t have input on personnel decisions, beginning with the NBA draft on Thursday night.

Kupchak said in a pre-draft news conference Tuesday that he’ll have final say in who the Hornets select before quickly adding, “well, with the exception of one person – and obviously that’s ownership.”

Kupchak has won 10 NBA championships, including seven as an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers – so he knows a thing or two about building a winning roster. But he’s quickly learning that Jordan, who many consider the best NBA player ever, is still very much a hands-on owner when it comes to the players he employs.

And Kupchak understands that.

“There is a huge business component to our relationship,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak said he has communicated with Jordan on the phone and via text throughout the draft evaluation process. The 55-year-old Jordan arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina on Monday and the two have been studying tape on potential draft picks since.

The Hornets, who have failed to make the playoffs three of the past four seasons, have the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Kupchak has known Jordan since he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

However, Kupchak said that while they both are former Tar Heels, he never had considered Jordan a friend prior to being hired this past offseason to replace Rich Cho as Hornets general manager.

Since then they have had dinner together and gotten to know each other a little more.

He said the relationship has changed for the better.

“Hopefully when all is said and done, our other relationship, which is our friend relationship continues to grow and is not altered in any way,” Kupchak said. “There are no favors being done here. We’re friends and I think we’ll remain friends, but the bottom line in this business is success and winning games.”

Kupchak was rather forthcoming in the team’s pre-draft press conference Tuesday, saying the does not expect to trade the 11th overall pick.

He also said he expects that the handful of top-notch big men will be off the board by the time the Hornets make their selection.

“Right now I think the best player on the board is the player we are going to go after – and I’d expect that player to be a guard or a wing,” Kupchak said. “… I think we expect that we will be looking at guards and wings, but we will see.”

 

Can Lakers form LeBron-Kawhi-George superteam?

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Two weeks ago the cry from some corners of the Internet and a lot of talk radio hosts was that superteams were ruining the NBA…

Until they got the chance to talk about a new one being formed.

Last Friday, when Kawhi Leonard’s people leaked that he wanted out of San Antonio (without telling the Spurs first face-to-face, something that still has not happened… real classy), it came with the news his preferred destination was the Lakers. Add that to the fact both LeBron James and Paul George had already been rumored to want to go to Los Angeles and… suddenly the NBA speculation machine was in high gear. People could envision another threat in the West to the Warriors.

The rumors started flying. This is why Magic Johnson was given the reins of Lakers’ basketball, to bring back the days where Lakers’ exceptionalism seemed justified, and if he can pull off getting these three he could bring back the glory days with this one swoop.

Can the Lakers pull this off?

Technically, yes. In fact, you can be sure that people from teams LeBron/Leonard/George are at least discussing how to make it work (through back channels, of course, there is never any tampering in the NBA…).

Is it likely? No. But in a world where Mexico can beat Germany in the World Cup anything is possible. Just don’t bet the rent money on the Lakers here, this is a longshot.

• How the Lakers can pull it off

The Lakers put themselves in position to land two max contract superstars this season with just minimal moves (waiving and stretching Luol Deng and the $36.8 million he is owed over the next two years is a big part of that). That flexibility can be put to use to bring the three stars together.

First, the Lakers trade for Leonard, sending the Spurs some combination of Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball/Kyle Kuzma plus some picks and Deng and his contract. I have heard from sources (and others have reported) the Spurs are not particularly interested in Ball as part of this deal, and as a rebuilding team they would not want Deng either. Ingram, Kuzma, Deng and picks (maybe this year’s No. 25, more likely future picks) can work for Leonard and Bryn Forbes. That’s not likely to go down before this Thursday’s Draft, however.

More likely this trade would ultimately involve a third team that would take on Deng (probably and Ball) and send some players/picks back to the Spurs that they find more interesting. There are scenarios where this works out.

Bottom line: The Lakers have the assets and cap space to pull this off — it will gut the roster and leave the Lakers trying to fill out the team around their stars with the taxpayer midlevel ($4.4 million) and minimum contracts, but we know LeBron James can attract veterans to chase a ring with him for less.

What’s more, expect the Lakers to go all in on this — this will not be a half measure. They will exhaust their efforts to see this come about.

• The Biggest Roadblock: The San Antonio Spurs

For this to work, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have to play along.

That could happen, but first the Kawhi Leonard is going to have to sit down across from Popovich and say he wants out. That hasn’t happened, it has just been through social media. (The Spurs think the people around Leonard are trying to get him to a bigger market for branding reasons, that this isn’t fully driven by Leonard himself.) Until it does, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers.

Also, there are reports that it’s not the Spurs preference to play ball with the Lakers, which is also what I have heard around the league. All things being equal, San Antonio would rather send Leonard to the East, not a team in the West with the resources of the Lakers. Ultimately, however, the Spurs are going to take the trade offer that’s best for them, and if they perceive that to be the Lakers, then they will do it.

(Note: Some Lakers fans seem convinced Spurs have no leverage here, that if Leonard says he will only re-sign with the Lakers that’s the only place they can trade him. Not true. Most importantly, the Spurs care only about the return on the trade not what happens after. Leonard’s threat will scare off some teams that shouldn’t put that many assets into a deal — Sacramento’s rumored interest is a perfect example — but it’s not going to scare off Boston, Philadelphia, or a handful of others who are convinced they could win Leonard over within that first year. They will make the same bet OKC did on George, that they can win him over with their culture/coach/fans/winning, plus he would be able to get $49 million more guaranteed if he re-signed.)

The Spurs will get multiple trade offers. The Lakers offer likely looks something like discussed above: Ingram, Kuzma, picks, and Deng (very possibly with a third team in the mix to take on Deng and other assets the Spurs don’t want, but that team will need a sweetener, too).

Boston’s offer is rumored to be along the lines of Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris (for salary reasons), and Sacramento’s first-round pick in 2019 (only No. 1 pick protected). The Celtics and their wealth of assets could alter this trade in other ways: Sub in Jayson Tatum for Brown (that would mean less valuable picks going to the Spurs), plus they have the Grizzlies 2019 pick (top seven protected) and the Clippers 2019 first round pick (lottery protected), plus their own first rounders and a few second rounders. Boston also could re-sign Marcus Smart and move him in the trade. Danny Ainge has options.

Philadelphia will want to get in on this, too: This year’s No. 10 pick, Markelle Fultz, and Robert Covington would work, and they have their own first-round picks in future years to offer. (While fans seem to have given up, some teams believe Fultz could still be developed into what was expected of the former No. 1 pick.) However, after this draft the deal gets harder for the Sixers unless the Spurs love Fultz.

For the Spurs, it may well simply come down to this: How do they internally rate Ingram vs. Brown/Tatum (and picks) vs. Fultz? If they have a strong preference toward one of those players over the others, or the potential of the picks offered, they will lean that direction.

• What if the Spurs decide to take their time?

Right now, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers, wanting to sit down with Leonard. While ultimately that may not change the situation, the Spurs are not an organization that gets rushed into things they don’t want to do. Reports are (and again, sources have confirmed this to me) that the Spurs are not going to hurry this decision on when and where to trade Leonard. They are willing to drag it out deep into the summer or even into next season if they don’t like the offers presented.

The longer this goes on, the harder it is on the Lakers to pull together this super team.

On July 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder will put a max five-year, $176 million extension on the table in front of Paul George. Reports are he’s leaning toward taking it — or, more likely, taking a shorter, one-plus-one or two-plus-one contract where he is a free agent again in a year or two — but the idea of going to Los Angeles to play with LeBron and Leonard will give him pause on signing that deal. He will wait to see how it shakes out… for a little while. How long is the question?

LeBron is in the same boat. Starting July 1 he will meet with multiple teams and field multiple max offers, from the Lakers and others. He may want to form a three-player super-team in Los Angeles, but would he come to L.A. without Leonard? If the Spurs sit on their hands early in free agency, how does that impact LeBron’s decision making process?

Even the Lakers are on the hook here — other teams are going to come hard at restricted free agent Julius Randle. Los Angeles would like to keep him after Randle’s leap forward on the offensive end last season. Randle can sign an offer with another team on July 6 and the 72-hour clock is on the Lakers — match it and they can’t bring together this big three.

• Other things that could mess the Lakers up

• The biggest is one mentioned before: Paul George agrees to take OKC’s $176 million on July 1 and it’s done. Or, more likely, George agrees to a shorter deal where he can hit the market (and head to the Lakers or wherever then). George may want to give it a run with the Thunder, and if that doesn’t work consider his options again. If that happens, the Lakers could scramble to try to find another max player to bring in (Chris Paul?) but if PG13 just decides he likes the Thunder and playing with Russell Westbrook, there is nothing Magic Johnson nor LeBron can do about it.

• LeBron James could decide he like’s Chris Paul’s recruitment pitch on Houston and join the Rockets. We’ll know about that one by June 29, the day LeBron has to tell the Cavaliers whether he’s opting into our out of his contract. If he opts in then the trade is worked out in principle (that or he’s staying in Cleveland, but I wouldn’t bet on that one). If LeBron opts out, he’s not going to Houston, it’s just hard to make the math work.

• LeBron decides to stay in the East and signs as a free agent with the Sixers. Philly is going to come hard at him.

Right now, you can be sure that forces are working through back channels to make this new Lakers’ super team happens. Some people want to happen.

But none of those people are in the Spurs organization. Ultimately, they hold the cards on this. And if they don’t want to deal those cards, LeBron, Paul George, and the Lakers will have to find a game elsewhere.

Hawks could turn deep supply of picks into draft-day trade

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ATLANTA (AP) — As the only general manager holding three first-round picks in Thursday night’s NBA draft, including No. 3 overall, Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk has been a popular target for trade talk.

Overall, the Hawks have four picks in the top 34. That’s more than enough depth to attract interest, but the rebuilding Hawks are even more attractive trade targets because they also have about $20 million in salary cap space. That creates more attractive options for a team needing to unload a contract in a trade.

Schlenk says he is answering every call and considering all options – including the possibility of trading up or down from the No. 3 spot.

It’s an exciting time for Schlenk, who never held such a high draft pick in his previous job as assistant GM with the Golden State Warriors.

“This is the highest pick that I’ve been a part of,” Schlenk said last week. “At Golden State, the highest pick we had was six. So it’s exciting. Having the four picks, along with the third pick, we get a lot of phone calls, which is exciting as well, and we’re going to go through all the options that are presented to us and make the best decision, hopefully.”

He says he’s comfortable with the idea of opening the 2018-19 season with four rookies.

Schlenk is planning the Hawks’ future with a new coach. Former Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce was hired on May 11 to replace Mike Budenholzer, now the Bucks coach.

Schlenk might use his first pick to select a forward-center to pair with 2017-18 rookie John Collins. Among players who could be available are Duke’s Marvin Bagley III , Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson and Mo Bamba of Texas.

Guards Luka Doncic of Slovenia, Trae Young of Oklahoma and forward Michael Porter of Missouri could be alternatives for Schlenk.

Pierce stressed defense in his first news conference in Atlanta. Schlenk said it’s important to land players with balanced offensive and defensive skills.

“Obviously when you look at the best teams in the league, the majority of the time they’re good defensive teams,” Schlenk said. “But at the end of the day, if you’re not scoring 100 points you’re probably not winning, so we’re going to look for guys that are two-way players, who can play defensively, but also we’ve got to be able to score the ball on the other end.”

Bagley qualifies as that two-way talent, but he could be drafted at the No. 2 spot by Sacramento.

“I put a lot of work into this and I think I’m the best player in the draft,” Bagley said after his draft workout in Atlanta last week. “I mean that in the most humble way possible, not to be cocky.”

Phoenix is projected to select Arizona center DeAndre Ayton with the top pick.

Jackson is an accomplished shot blocker with less polish on the offensive end. He is regarded by many to have the potential shooting skills to develop into a well-rounded NBA big man.

With point guard Dennis Schroder‘s future in Atlanta uncertain, the Hawks can look for talent at any position. Their wealth of picks could make it easier to take a chance on Doncic, who has the skills to play multiple positions even though his ability to create space in the NBA has been questioned by some critics.

“I’ve maintained all along, and I honestly believe this, we’re going to take the best player,” Schlenk said. “We’re in a situation where we’re looking to add the most talent we can, and we’re going to get a good player at the third pick.”

The No. 3 spot is the Hawks’ highest since 2007, when they selected Al Horford at No. 3.

Atlanta also has the No. 19 and No. 30 picks in the first round and No. 34 early in the second round. Those selections give Schlenk a wealth of options, including a deal for a higher pick next year.

Schlenk said he has considered if the possibility to “trade back to collect more assets would be advantageous.”