The NBA season starts tonight and with it a bucket of new storylines to for hoopheads to follow. Can Lebron deliver the Lakers to their first playoff berth in five years? Will the Celtics or the Sixers be the new Beasts of the East? And can anyone stop the Warriors from a three-peat?
Despite sports media’s love for speculation, the answers can only be found by watching the games. And that can be tough to do if you’re a cord cutter. As with baseball, televised basketball has become a primarily cable-only affair. This season, the bulk of nationally televised games will be aired on the league’s own cable and satellite network, NBA TV, with the rest split among ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, and ABC. If you’re a “big game” hunter, there are a few ways to catch these broadcasts without a cable-TV subscription.
Updated October 15, 2018 to reflect the the 2018-19 NBA season.
The outlook is grimmer if you’re mainly interested in following your local team through the season. Most teams’ regular-season games are carried by regional cable sports networks like Fox Sports and NBC Sports, which are inaccessible online without TV Everywhere credentials. A few teams can still be found on over-the-air channels—the Chicago Bulls on the windy city’s WGN, for one—but that arrangement is rapidly going the way of the two-handed set shot.
Over the air
The good news is you can access ABC for free if you have an over-the-air TV antenna and are within the radius of a local ABC affiliate. The bad news is the network only broadcasts 18 of this year’s nationally televised games. These, however, include some of the league’s marquee matchups, including a Christmas Day match-up between the reigning NBA-champion Warriors and LeBron’s Lakers. ABC also carries portions of the postseason, including all of the NBA championship series.
You can watch the remaining games with some combination of the following services.
The easiest way to catch many of the cable telecasts is with the Sling TV streaming service, but you’ll need to pony up for a monthly subscription. For $25 per month, Sling’s Orange package will get you ESPN, ESPN2, and TNT. With a digital antenna to catch the ABC broadcasts, that leaves only the NBA TV games to account for.
PlayStation Vue offers channel packages similar to those of Sling TV, but also includes live feeds from the major networks—including ABC—in select markets. If you’re fortunate enough to live in one, you can buy the Access channel bundle, which includes ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and TNT for $45 a month. You can also use your PlayStation Vue credentials to sign in to TV Everywhere apps such as Fox Sports Go and NBC Sports to catch your regional broadcasts at no extra charge. To see which Vue Access package is available in your area, enter your zip code on the website.
You can also get ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and TNT with DirectTV’s streaming service, DirectTV Now. All you need is the basic Live a Little package for $40 a month. That will get you 60-plus channels, about a dozen more than PlayStation Vue’s comparable Access package, for $5 less per month.
Hulu with Live TV
For $40 a month, Hulu with Live TV gives you access to live sports, news, and entertainment, plus the entire Hulu streaming library. That includes ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and TNT, though as with other services the exact channel lineup can vary by market. With only the one channel package, though, you don’t get the customizability of Sling TV or PlayStation Vue, so keep that in mind if you plan to use your subscription beyond basketball season.
The once soccer-centric fuboTV is now an all-purpose streaming service with some perks for NBA fans. The main one is that its $45-per-month basic package (which gives you the first month for $40) includes NBA TV. It also contains a variety of regional sport networks, that, depending on where you live, might give you access to your local team’s broadcasts. What it doesn’t include are ABC, TNT, or either of the ESPN channels, so you’ll need to complement it with one or two of the choices above to catch all the basketball action.
NBA League Pass
If you’re truly hardcore for the hardwood, you should consider a subscription to NBA League Pass, the league’s official streaming service. For $200 a year or $29 a month, you can watch every live out-of-market game that isn’t being broadcast nationally on one of the four networks we’ve mentioned.
A League Pass subscription allows you to watch up to four games at once in HD, and it works on computers, tablets, smartphones, and streaming devices. Games originally broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, and ABC are available 24 hours after completion in the video archives. You also get anytime access to a curated selection of “classic” games.
For $250 a year or $40 a month, you can upgrade to NBA League Pass Premium, which adds an in-arena stream during game breaks.
NBA Team Pass
Two bills is a big investment if you only want to follow your favorite team. Take a look at NBA Team Pass: For $120 a year or $18 a month, you get access to all your squad’s local broadcasts for both home and away games.
The rub is that NBA blackout rules still apply. If you live in your team’s “home” market—a Warriors fan residing in the Bay Area, for example—you still won’t be able to watch their games even with a Team Pass subscription (this goes for League Pass as well). Your team’s home market isn’t necessarily defined by your town’s city limits, however. In the NBA’s own words, the league determines blackout zones “using zip code (if watching via a satellite television provider), a combination of zip code and cable system distribution territory (if watching via a cable television provider), or by the IP address associated with your internet connection or your mobile device’s GPS coordinates.”
What that means is this isn’t a cord-cutting option for everyone. The only way to be sure of your situation is to enter your zip code in the league’s Blackout Explorer before you sign up for one of the NBA subscriptions.
NBA streaming is still 50-50 ball
Streaming live NBA games continues to be a mixed bag for cord cutters. The availability of national broadcasts through streaming services gives you a courtside seat for some of the biggest matchups of the season. But local fanbases that want to follow their team continue to be left on the bench, for the most part. Until streaming options for regional sports networks become more widely available, you might want to dust off your radio.