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The cord-cutter’s guide to legally watching the NBA

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If you want to avoid an expensive cable bill, here’s how you can still enjoy the NBA this year.

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Here's how you can watch LeBron James this season if you don't have a cable subscription. Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

You loved NBA basketball all season. You saved money by getting rid of your monthly cable bill. You did it! Or maybe you’re just starting to do it! Or maybe you only survived on league pass, and now you’re trying to figure out how to watch primetime basketball.

Here’s a guide to how you can the best teams go toe-to-toe on national television without cable since some of the biggest games are airing on ABC and others on primetime network channels.

Here’s how you can watch the NBA on ABC.

ABC is an over-the-air network. As such, you can access it for free with an over-the-air digital antenna, provided you live close enough to an ABC affiliate to pick up a signal. (Check that here.) You will need to buy an antenna, which starts around $25 for low-feature versions and goes up to about $150 for fancier models.

If you opt for Sling Orange, you can forgo the over-the-air antenna and get Sling’s ABC add-on for $5 per month. It would likely depend on what access to other over-the-air networks (NBC, CBS, PBS) you’d want.

You can also use your Sling or Vue credentials to log into the Watch ESPN service, on which you can access live ABC sporting events, including the Finals.

Here’s a guide for the NBA regular season.

Okay! We’ll break this down by the type of NBA watching you’ll be doing.

Where are the games aired?

National NBA games are broadcast on ESPN/ESPN2, TNT, ABC and NBA TV. Many of the biggest matchups and nearly every playoff game will be found on these networks. So if you’re into watching the games everyone will be talking about, you want access to these networks. There are two good options.

We’ll talk about ABC, where you’ll find Christmas Day games, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon showcases, and the entire NBA Finals, in a moment.

Sling TV: Sling’s Orange bundle gets you ESPN, ESPN 2, and TNT for $20 per month. Boom. That covers ESPN/ESPN’s traditional Wednesday and Friday broadcasts, TNT’s Thursday night double-header, All-Star Weekend, and most of the first three rounds of the playoffs, including all of the conference finals.

As of November 16, 2016, Sling TV’s Sports Extra pack offers NBA TV with more than 95 regular-season games available starting at $5 a month. And as of Feb. 22, 2018, Sling now offers NBA League Pass with Sling Orange or Sling Blue at a rate of $29 a month.

Playstation Vue: Vue ditched the Access Slim bundle and now runs its cheapest Access package at $40 a month. The Access bundle gets you ESPN, ESPN 2, and TNT. NBA TV is also available on Playstation Vue.

DirecTV Now: With DirecTV’s new bundle, currently priced at $35 per month but slated to increase to $60, customers get 100 channels that include regional sports channels. Comcast SportsNet (Bay Area, California, Chicago, Mid-Atlantic, New England), Fox Sports (Southeast and Sun, FSN Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit, Florida, Midwest, North, Ohio, San Diego, South, Southwest and West) and the YES Network are all available.

But first ...

What is cord-cutting?

Cord-cutting is simply getting rid of your traditional cable television/satellite dish service and relying instead on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go for your entertainment needs.

Do you still need high-speed internet service?

Yes. This is a major stumbling block for many would-be cord-cutters. Cable companies tend to bundle cheap high-speed internet with expensive cable packages. If you decline the cable, the price of high-speed internet shoots up. Keep this in mind when making a decision.

Can I watch sports without cable?

Yes! There are several streaming services — some sold by bundlers, some sold by the leagues themselves — that make enjoying sports without a cable or satellite contract possible.

Is it easy?

Bottom line: If you’re a normal NBA fan who wants to watch the big games and playoffs, it’s easy. If you’re a hardcore NBA fan who wants a slow drip of 1,100 games over the next eight months, it’s easy. If you love a specific team and live far away from their home base, it’s easy. If you love a specific team and live near their home base, it’s very complicated.

In almost all cases, becoming a cord-cutter will make watching the NBA less convenient than simply turning on your TV. It’s your call as to whether the trade-off is worth it.

What about NBA TV?

The single biggest problem for cord-cutting NBA fans in the past was the lack of access to NBA TV. But that changed as of November 11, 2016 as Vue made NBA TV available on its service. Vue is the only way to get NBA TV programming — including about five or six games per week — without a cable contract. Sling does not offer NBA TV, and you cannot pay the NBA directly for access to NBA TV.

Note that if you have League Pass (see below) you can access NBA TV games about three hours after they have aired, even without Vue service.

If you want all of the basketball

Is the national TV schedule not enough for you? You want NBA League Pass Broadband, which will give you access to every other regular season game not broadcast by one of the above-mentioned networks (subject to local blackouts). League Pass Broadband also allows you to watch games originally broadcast on TNT, ABC, ESPN/ESPN2, and NBA TV after the fact in archives. (In fact, you’ll have access to archived games until the season ends.)

League Pass Broadband runs $200. If you can stand to wait a couple of months, the NBA usually runs a good deal around the holidays. But note that the national TV schedule is much lighter from opening night to Christmas than it is later on.

League Pass is also available on most Roku powered Smart TVs with memberships starting at $28.99 a month. They are currently running a special with that price marked down to $17.99 a month.

You can also sign up for NBA League Pass through fuboTV for $28.99 a month, but it does have restrictions. You’ll be able to see most games on fuboTV, including those on TNT and NBA TV as long as those channels are part of your subscription, as well as the local broadcast for most teams, but ESPN is not part of fuboTV so those games are not watchable.

If you want to watch just 1 team

This can go one of two ways.

You live far away from your favorite team’s home court

If you have a favorite team and you want to see all of their games (playoffs included) and don’t live near that team’s city, you’re in luck! You can sign up for NBA Team Pass, a slimmed-down version of League Pass that gives you live access to all of one team’s games for $119. However, unless your team is never on national TV, you’ll also need to grab Sling or Vue service to see those games broadcast on TNT or ESPN/ESPN2, plus over-the-air service for ABC games. These will work for the playoffs too, unless you are a fan of one of those teams unfortunate enough to earn NBA TV duty.

You live near your favorite team’s home court

If you live in the same general area as your favorite team — you’re a Warriors fan in San Jose, a Lakers fan in Anaheim, a Mavericks fan in Arlington — things get much more complicated. You’ll be able to see your team’s national TV games on ESPN and TNT via Sling or Vue no problem. But League Pass won’t help you see the rest of the games due to blackout rules.

Blackout territories are not always intuitive. Check the NBA’s hilariously named Blackout Explorer to find out if you’d be blacked out for your local team’s games on League Pass. If you’re not blacked out, you can sign up for League Pass or Team Pass to get your team’s games.

So what do you do if you are blacked out? You need access to the regional network(s) that broadcast(s) your team’s games. To help figure out what service can get you the right regional sports network, we researched and put together the following list.

NOTE ON SLING: You need Sling Orange for ESPN networks and TNT, but all of the Comcast and Fox sports networks are, when available, on Sling Blue. Keep that mind when selecting a service.

IMPORTANT: You’ll want to make sure you verify that your house isn’t blacked out from receiving those networks via those services before ordering. We cannot emphasize enough how seemingly arbitrary and frustrating blackout rules can be. Also! These services adjust their channel lineups. There’s no guarantee they won’t drop your channel at some point. Also also! The online listings are vague in some instances. When we say it “appears” a service carries a network, we do not have firm verification. This typically applies to the smaller regional Fox Sports Networks. So contact the service provider to triple-check in those cases.

REMINDER: The following list applies for fans of teams who live in or near these cities. If you live far-a-flung, scroll up. This is for local fans trying to cut the cord.

Atlanta Hawks: Fox Sports Atlanta, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Boston Celtics: CSNNE, available on Vue Core and DirecTV Now. (Sling says CSNNE is “coming soon” to its Blue Service.)

Brooklyn Nets: Games are on the YES Network, available on Sling Blue, Vue Core and DirecTV Now.

Charlotte Hornets: Fox Sports Carolinas, which appears to be available on Sling Blue and DirecTV Now. (This RSN does not appear to be available on Vue.)

Chicago Bulls: Two networks — CSN Chicago and WGN — split Bulls games. CSN Chicago is available on Vue Core and DirecTV Now, and is “coming soon” to Sling Blue. WGN is available via an over-the-air antenna in the Chicago area.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Fox Sports Ohio, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Dallas Mavericks: Games are split between Fox Sports Southwest, available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now, and CBS affiliate KTXA, available over the air in Dallas/Ft. Worth.

Denver Nuggets: Games are on Altitude, which is not offered via Sling, Vue, or anywhere else legally. You’re out of luck.

Detroit Pistons: Fox Sports Detroit, which is available on DirecTV Now and appears to be available on Vue Core and Sling Blue.

Golden State Warriors: CSN Bay Area, available on Vue Core and DirecTV Now. (Sling says CSN California is “coming soon” to its Blue Service.)

Houston Rockets: Games are on Root Sports Southwest, which is not offered via Sling, Vue, or anywhere else legally. You’re out of luck.

Indiana Pacers: Fox Sports Indiana, which appears to be available on Vue Core and Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

L.A. Clippers: Prime Ticket, available on Vue Core and Sling Blue.

L.A. Lakers: Spectrum SportsNet, which is not offered via Sling, Vue, or anywhere else legally without a cable/satellite subscription. You’re out of luck. (Become a Clippers fan and/or move to Wyoming.)

Memphis Grizzlies: Fox Sports Tennessee, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Miami Heat: Fox Sports Sun, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Milwaukee Bucks: Fox Sports Wisconsin, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Fox Sports North, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

New Orleans Pelicans: Fox Sports Louisiana, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

New York Knicks: Games are on MSG Network, which is not offered via Sling, Vue, DirecTV now or anywhere else legally. You’re out of luck.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Fox Sports Oklahoma, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Orlando Magic: Fox Sports Florida, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Philadelphia 76ers: CSN Philly, available on Vue Core and DirecTV Now. (Sling says CSN Philly is “coming soon” to its Blue Service.)

Phoenix Suns: Fox Sports Arizona, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now.

Portland Trail Blazers: Games are split between CSN Northwest, available on Vue Core and DirecTV Now, and NBC affiliate KGW, which is available over the air in the Portland area. (Sling’s website says CSN Northwest is coming soon, but a June press release did not list CSN Northwest among the regional sports networks being added.)

Sacramento Kings: CSN California, available on Vue Core and DirecTV Now. (Sling says CSN California is “coming soon” to its Blue Service.)

San Antonio Spurs: Sixty games are on Fox Sports Southwest, which appears to be available on Vue Core, Sling Blue and DirecTV Now. Ten other games are broadcast on CBS affiliated KENS or CW affiliate KMYS, which are available over-the-air.

Toronto Raptors: You’re in a pickle if you’re a Raptors fan anywhere in Canada. The games are evenly split between TSN and SportsNet. SportsNet offers a $25 per month streaming service to receive live Raptors games with no cable subscription. TSN does not. There appears to be no legal way to watch Raptors games on TSN live without a cable subscription anywhere in Canada.

Utah Jazz: Games are on Root Sports, which is not offered via Sling, Vue, or anywhere else legally. You’re out of luck.

Washington Wizards: CSN Mid-Atlantic, available on Vue Core and DirecTV Now. (Sling says the network is “coming soon” to its Blue Service.)

Good luck!