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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Terse Kevin Durant says he has not yet spoken to Draymond Green

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Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant‘s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Jimmy Butler on Markelle Fultz: ‘I know how hard he works’ (VIDEO)

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Much discussion has taken place about the potential impact that new Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler might have on the development of struggling young sophomore Markelle Fultz.

Fultz has had the yips for over a year, and Butler did not garner rave reviews from the young stars on his last team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There does seem to be some worry that Butler might not respect Fultz, or that Butler might push him even further into whatever psychological hole he’s currently in.

Butler joined the Sixers organization this week, and during his introductory press conference said that he knows that Futlz is a hard worker. It was the right thing to say, perhaps the first in many weeks after Butler went off the rails in Minnesota.

Via Twitter:

That’s promising at this moment. Fultz needs all the help he can get, and not having Butler going directly at him is additive in and of itself.

Sixers fans are hoping things work out with this new group in Philadelphia. Time will tell if Butler will be able to solve some of the issues they’ve had on offense to start the year.

Raptors players say emotions will run high when Dwane Casey returns

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TORONTO (AP) Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas spent a dozen years between them developing their games under coach Dwane Casey. Valanciunas had never played for any other NBA head coach before this season.

When they welcome Casey and his Detroit Pistons back to Toronto on Wednesday night, the two longest-serving current Raptors know emotions will be running high.

“It’s going to be different, but hey, I’m still going to try to take his head off, the team’s head off,” Lowry said with a laugh.

The Raptors will face Detroit for the first time since Casey was fired, just days after Toronto was ousted from the playoffs by Cleveland for the third consecutive season.

Lowry became a four-time NBA all-star under Casey’s watch, while Valanciunas has grown into a multi-skilled big man. Casey had kind words for both Raptors on the eve of his visit. Lowry got off to a rocky start with Casey when the Raptors acquired the temperamental guard in 2012, but he and Valanciunas returned the compliment.

“(Our relationship) changed a lot,” Lowry said. “It went from a guy who kind of wasn’t trusting in what I did, and me not trusting in what he wanted, and kind of us battling back and forth, to him being like, `Hey listen, I believe in what you can do, you show me what you can do,’ and me saying `All right, if you show me that and I’ve showed you what I can do, I’ll listen to you more and we’ll have a good relationship.”‘

“It turned into a great coach-player relationship. And him having young kids, and me having … they played soccer together, so we created a bond off the court also.”

Nick Nurse, who was promoted to head coach after Casey’s dismissal, insisted he was looking forward to seeing his former boss despite rumors the two were not close.

“My communication with whoever is between me and whoever I’m communicating with, whether it’s between Kyle and me and Kawhi (Leonard) and me or Case and me. . . or whoever,” Nurse told The Canadian Press. “I’ll keep that to myself. I am looking forward to seeing him.”

Nurse characterized his relationship with Casey as “good.”

“We have five years together and a lot of success. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together, working hard,” Nurse said. “He took a team from relative obscurity or the hinterlands to relevance, and that may be the hardest thing to do in this league. I’m glad I was a part of it for five years. We had a lot of success and I learned a lot from the guy and have a lot of respect for the guy.”

The 51-year-old Nurse said the biggest lesson learned under Casey was professionalism and diligence.

“The seriousness of the day-to-day, the grind and probably most importantly is the work ethic,” Nurse said. “He used to say it to us a lot. He’d put his work ethic up against anybody in the league and he was right in that. The guy always had our staff prepared and our players prepared, he taught me all those things.”

After leading Toronto to a team-record 59 wins and the top seed in the East last year, Casey was also named the NBA’s Coach of the Year – after his firing.

The Raptors have a video tribute planned for the 61-year-old Casey early in the game.

“He did some really good things for the city, for the team. I think everybody respects him,” Valanciunas said. “(But) as a business we’ve got to move on and he (ended) up pretty well, so that is life. Sometimes we’re separating.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Kerr jokes after Durant-Draymond spat: ‘I kicked MJ’s ass’

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Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers said on Tuesday that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had not yet spoken after the two had a dust-up during Monday night’s overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Green was suspended for one game, apparently for repeatedly calling Durant “bitch” while the two were still on the court with the Clippers. It was testy, and Durant was even seen saying what appeared to be the words, “That’s why I’m out.”

Things didn’t calm down when the Warriors returned to the locker room after the game, and a suspension was issued by the team.

Meanwhile, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that he felt that the team would be fine. He reiterated that no team he had ever been on had always experienced smooth sailing. Kerr famously got into a scuffle with Michael Jordan in Bulls training camp in 1995.

To that end, Kerr joked on Tuesday that he had, “Kicked MJ’s ass.”

Via Twitter:

Will things be okay in the Bay moving forward? The team has such a strong culture it’s hard to bet against things getting patched up, especially with regard to how the team will play as they seek another championship this season. Remember, Green was one of the guys who recruited Durant to Golden State in the first place, and the two have the same goal.

The real question many have is whether this spat will have an impact on Durant staying with Golden State this offseason. That’s anybody’s guess, seeing as how Durant is nearly impossible to predict.

For now, we just have to wait.