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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Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.