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Thunder winning games, just not expectation game

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are 6-4, which means they are on pace for about 49 wins this season. Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring. If the playoff started today after an absurdly short regular season, they would be the seven seed in the West.

That coming after a season where they won 50 games, Kevin Durant led the league in scoring and they were the eighth seed in the West. That was followed by a summer where the Thunder decided to stand pat and not make any big free agent moves, not to make any dramatic roster changes.

So why does it feel like the Thunder are a disappointment?

Because of you and me, because of our expectations. Our unreasonable expectations (we warned you this would happen). All of us saw how dynamic they were in pushing the Lakers in the first round last season. We saw Durant dominate the world this summer, with Russell Westbrook by his side. All that led to this feeling that they would take another gigantic leap forward.

That almost never happens. If you bring back the same team you had last season, then you are what you were last season. Really, after a breakout year just remaining the same in the face of a “sophomore slump” is a step forward. Not the leap people wanted, but a step.

What is frustrating is you can see where these Thunder really could be better. Where they really could take that leap, mostly because this year feels like a regression on the court.

However, that really isn’t measured until the playoffs. Last season the Thunder started out 7-7 but figured it out by the end of the season. That could happen again if a few things come together.

On offense, the Thunder are still good, but it is coming with Durant and Westbrook more in isolation. Durant is averaging 28.4 points per game, Westbrook 23.5, but some of the movement — both ball and player — have been gone.

What is keeping the offense going is free throws — they are getting to the line more (per field goal attempt) than any team in the league. Then once there they are hitting a ridiculous 88.1 percent of their free throws as a team — the 89-90 Boston Celtics hold the current record at 83.2 percent. OKC is five points ahead of that. What all those free throws mean is the Thunder are still attacking.

What they are not doing well is defending. Last season they gave up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, this season that has jumped to 112.5, 29th in the league. They are allowing teams to shoot a higher percentage, they are creating fewer turnovers (which really hurts them because the Thunder are so dynamic and get such easy baskets in transition).

The biggest problem is in the middle — opposing teams are getting five more shots a game right at the rim than they did last year. In today’s NBA you need someone to protect the paint, and maybe this year’s draft pick Cole Aldrich can be that guy someday, but he is not right now.

The Thunder could help their cause by starting Serge Ibaka. They did with Jeff Green out against the Jazz last game, Ibaka had four blocks and the Thunder beat a hot Jazz team. When Green returns he needs to play, but it may be time to bring Nenad Krstic off the bench. You don’t lose any offense (he had 22 points against the Jazz) and what he brings on defense is needed.

It’s a step in getting this team back to the potential we all expected of them, what we hoped of them. But maybe we should reign in those expectations, too. This week they play Boston then Milwaukee on the back-to-back. Things are not getting easier for these Thunder as they try to improve. And improvement might look a lot like standing still sometimes.

Ben Simmons says he plans to work on shooting, handles, getting stronger before camp

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons cheers from the bunch during the first half of the team's NBA summer league basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Associated Press
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The leap from college — even high-level college programs — to the NBA can be hard to describe. Now everybody is bigger, longer, and far more athletic — the guy at the end of the bench barely getting any burn was one of the best players on his college team.

Players get their first taste of that at Summer League. The Sixers’ No. 1 pick Ben Simmons looked pretty good when he got that taste, but you can see the development that needs to go on as well.

He’s spending the time between now and the start of training camp working on his shooting and getting stronger, among other things, he told Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com.

“I think just getting in the gym and making sure I’m getting reps up, shooting-wise, dribbling,” Simmons said earlier this week after an appearance at Sixers Camp in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “The weight room as well, making sure I get my strength back and my weight up.”

All good things. Handles and shooting in particular — he’s about to start seeing much better defenders nightly. It’s going to take time, and we’ll see how far he can go, but Simmons unquestionably brings a lot of skill and potential to the table. That he’s putting in the work is a good sign — that was one of the concerns about him heading into the draft.

New GM Bryan Colangelo is going to benefit from Sam Hinkie’s process. So long as he doesn’t screw it up.

Report: Warriors sign JaVale McGee go make-good training camp contract

JaVale McGee
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JaVale McGee is getting another shot in the NBA.

He played just 34 games off the bench for Dallas last season. He played 23 games the season before that due to injury.

But the Golden State Warriors are thin up front — Zaza Pachulia will get the bulk of the minutes at the five (when the Warriors use a traditional center), and there is the often-injured Anderson Varejao behind him. The Warriors could use another big. So they are giving McGee a look, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

This is a low-risk move by the Warriors, and it’s worth the gamble. Vintage McGee, for all his Shaqtin’ a Fool flaws, is far more athletic and a better rim protector than any of the guys the Warriors now have at the five. If it doesn’t work out — and the odds are it will not — they cut him, if it does they pay him a minimum deal.

I hope he makes it, just because the league is more fun when McGee is in it.

Russell Westbrook laughs off question about Kevin Durant

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant #35 discuss play during the first half against the Los Angeles ClipperLos Angeles Kingsat Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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At some point, Russell Westbrook will sit down with members of the media and discuss Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder, how he felt about the move, and how it impacted him both personally and professionally.

But not right now. He remains silent.

This Vine making its way around, where Westbrook laughs — probably at the question, although read into that whatever you want — when asked about Durant sums up where we are.

https://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

In the full Facebook clip, Westbrook walks away, too. It’s his right. He can talk about it on his schedule.

Rudy Gay, Vlade Divac clear the air

Rudy Gay
AP Photo
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Rudy Gay expressed displeasure with how the Kings were handling trade rumors. Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac retorted that Gay had his phone number.

Apparently, Gay found it.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Following those comments, Gay told ABC10 on Thursday afternoon that he had since spoken with Divac.

“I have talked to Vlade,” Gay said from his Nike Skills Academy at Hardwood Palace in Rocklin. “I can’t say since Monday stuff has changed, but I just feel like we have a little bit of time to start changing things.”

Gay, who will be entering his 11th NBA season, has insisted he hasn’t demanded a trade and should he remain a member of the Kings by the time training camp opens in October, he says he’ll report and be ready to go.

“At this point in my career I just want to be happy,” said Gay. “I talked to Vlade and we’re trying to make that happen.”

Even if he hasn’t demanded a trade, it sure sounds like Gay would welcome one. I doubt the Kings would mind moving on, either.

But it takes another team to trade for Gay, and so far, one hasn’t emerged.

In the meantime, tensions appear to be eased. Open communication usually helps.