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.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-