Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

How they can win it all: The Oklahoma City Thunder

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How did we forget about the Oklahoma City Thunder? After Kevin Durant’s season-long coming-out party last season and the tough fight the young Thunder put up against the eventual champion Lakers, the Thunder were everyone’s pick to put it all together and establish themselves as one of the league’s elite teams this season. They did that, but they managed to fly under the radar last season. The Thunder looked very good before the trade deadline; since they traded for Kendrick Perkins, they’ve looked downright scary. Here’s how the Thunder can bring a title to Oklahoma City:

1. Firepower

I don’t need to tell you about Kevin Durant. He led the league in scoring this season — again. He scores efficiently, and he can do it from anywhere on the court. He has a silky-smooth jumper, he can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket, he can catch and shoot coming off of picks, and his “rip” move allows him to get to the line over and over again and knock down free throws. He’s a scorer’s scorer, and he’s one of the most unstoppable offensive players in the league.

The Thunder were impressive when Durant was essentially a one-man show on offense last season. This season, he has help. Russell Westbrook made a huge leap this season. He was always able to blow by anyone in the league and get into the paint, put pressure on the defense in plays, and make sharp passes. This season, he’s put his offensive game together. He’s a much better shooter, he’s a much better finisher at the rim, and he’s far more consistent than he was last season. Last year, the Thunder fell to the Lakers because the offense went stagnant and Ron Artest and Co. were able to hold Kevin Durant in check. This season, with Westbrook putting pressure on the defense with penetration, Durant is free to move without the ball and get far more open catch-and-shoot jumpers and easy lanes to the basket.

James Harden has come on strong in the last few months, and he’s become the kind of all-around scoring threat the Thunder hoped he would be when they drafted him with the third overall pick. Serge Ibaka has made huge strides as an offensive player. Eric Maynor has emerged as one of the best backup point guards in the league. Last year, the Thunder’s dirty little secret was that they weren’t a great offensive team, despite Durant’s brilliance; this year, they’re a top-five offensive team.

2. Defense

Last season, the Thunder were able to win 50 games because of their surprisingly effective defense. It looked like they forgot about that at the beginning of this season. While they were still winning games playing run-and-gun basketball, they weren’t nearly as effective on defense as they were last season, and they were one of the worst teams in the league at defending the rim.

Then they traded Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins, and everything changed. There were too huge benefits to trading for Perkins. First of all, the Thunder were playing Ibaka out of position at center, which wasn’t the best use of his talents, and playing Jeff Green at the power forward. Jeff Green cannot defend opposing power forwards, and each lineup that featured Green at the four had major defensive issues.

With Perkins playing center, Ibaka was able to slide to his natural power forward position, where his athleticism makes him a force defensively. Before the deadline, the Thunder had a decent defender starting at the center position and a horrible defender starting at the power forward position. Now, they start great defenders at both the center and the power forward positions. It’s hard to overstate how much of a difference that makes. The Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Green/Ibaka lineup had a defensive rating of 113.79 — the Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Ibaka/Perkins lineup has a defensive rating of 102.02. These Thunder play defense.

3. The “Why Not Us?” Factor

The Thunder are a young team, and don’t have to bear the burden of expectations the way the other title contenders do. They have some of the best fans in the league. They have great chemistry. They have the confidence that youth brings with very little of the immaturity. They have as much talent as any team in the league, and the mentality of a bracket-busting college squad. That combination can absolutely create a champion. Most are expecting that Oklahoma City’s championship will come a few years down the road, but there’s no reason that it can’t happen for them this year. They know that. And the rest of the league may be about to find that out.

Kendrick Perkins: Kevin Durant didn’t properly respect Russell Westbrook with or while leaving Thunder

MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 13:  Kevin Durant #35 reacts with Kendrick Perkins #5 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Perkins' basket and a foul against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on May 13, 2011 in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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On one hand, there’s the Kevin Durant who professed his deep friendship with Russell Westbrook, had Westbrook’s back at every turn and even preemptively stuck up for Westbrook.

On the other hand, there’s the Durant who reportedly had problems with Westbrook’s playing style, distanced himself from Westbrook during free agency, signed with the Warriors, texted Westbrook about his departure and, according to Westbrook, hasn’t talked to Westbrook.

How do you square all that?

Kendrick Perkins, who played with the two stars on the Thunder, provides fantastic perspective.

Perkins on The Vertical Podcast with Woj:

I think to me, what happened was with Russ and KD, I think they never really valued one another other like they should have. And not saying that they didn’t value as didn’t like each other. What I’m talking is, I don’t think they ever realized and said – I don’t think Russ ever realized and said, “Hey, man, I got Kevin Durant on my side. We could take over this league.” And I never thought KD did the vice versa. He never said, “Hey, I got Russell Westbrook on my side.” You’ve got two of the top five players in the NBA on the same team, and I just think that they never valued each other.

And trust me – I’m telling you this right now – when they think about this 10 years later, they’re going regret that. They’re going to regret that they didn’t value each other the way that they should have. And I’m talking about both of them.

And I ain’t saying they didn’t like each other, because it wasn’t none of that. I mean, we all played cards. They laughed and joked. We all had conversation. We had a group text going about Redskins and Cowboys football, because it was all good.

I think what it was was this. Let me correct that. I think what it was was this. Russ actually did value KD as being the player that he is. But what I had to explain – and I explained to KD – is that what you have to understand also about Russ is that Russ, at the time, he wasn’t getting the credit of being on the same level as KD. But he had the potential.

And like I was saying was, the whole thing was that, I thought out of all that, it never really came down to those two guys that got in the way of each other. It always was the outside that got in the way of both of them.

It was always the outside. It was always a controversy of whose team it was.

Why it just can’t be both of y’all’s team? How about Russ goes for 50 one night, you go for 60 the next night? How about it just be both of y’all’s team.

And the thing is is that, at the time, KD was already probably a two-time All-Star, the No. 1 draft pick while Russ, when I first got there was still kind of putting his name out there. And then all of a sudden, Russ caught up to KD, and they both was kind of on the same level as far as just being the elite icons of the league.

And I just think that they will have some type of regrets in the next 10 years or when they’re done about that they couldn’t handle it better when they was still together.

Not saying there was beef. I was talking about on the court.

It’s cool that KD – you’re a man, you decide the decision that you want to make. But at the end of the day, there’s a way about how you go about it. And you don’t send Russ a text and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to the Warriors.’

No, you do like LeBron James did when he left Miami. He went down and he sat and had diner with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to tell the that he was leaving, that he was going to sign with Cleveland. That’s what you do. That’s what you do. That carries a long way. It don’t take you nothing to call Nick Collison and Russell Westbrook and go and sit down and have a conversation with them and say, “Guys, hey look, it’s been fun. I still love y’all like my brothers. But I’m going to Golden State.”

I think it’s more of his personality that it would have been hard for him actually look Russ and Nick in the eyes. Because if he would have sat down at a lunch table, I think it would have been the same thing that happened with DeAndre Jordan  It’s easier to text and be done with it than actually sit down face-to-face and actually look your friend and your brother in the eyes that you done went to war with for six years. It’s a lot harder, and it make your decision a lot harder.

I obviously didn’t have the access to Durant and Westbrook like Perkins did. But if Durant fully respected Westbrook in all the ways Perkins said was lacking, how different would that have looked?

On the court, Durant often ceded control to Westbrook, allowing Westbrook to grow into a superstar peer. Maybe Durant deferred begrudgingly, but he did it – maybe even too much earlier in their time together.

And it’s not as if going to Golden State proved Durant undervalued Westbrook. Durant left to play with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. This wasn’t a case like Stephon Marbury, who forced himself off the Kevin Garnett-led Timberwolves to play with Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles in New Jersey.

Yes, Durant could’ve shown Westbrook more respect by telling him in person about leaving. But, as Perkins acknowledged, that would’ve been difficult for Durant. Durant earned the ability to operate free agency how deemed best, and if he didn’t want to be temped into going back to Oklahoma City, he deserves the respect to handle it that way.

I tend to think Durant and Westbrook will look back on their years together with some remorse. Durant might even eventually wish his attitude about Westbrook was different.

I’m just not sure what that would’ve actually changed.

51Q: How quickly will the Lakers’ young core progress?

Los Angeles Lakers' D'Angelo Russell, left, poses with with Jordan Clarkson (6) during the team's NBA basketball media day in El Segundo, Calif., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle placed somewhere between promising and good for their ages last season.

None of that is to say plain “good.”

When Russell, Clarkson and Randle shared the court, the Lakers scored fewer points per possession than the NBA’s worst offense and allowed more points per possession than the league’s worst defense. In all, those units got outscored by a dreadful 16.0 points per 100 possessions. A teenage Brandon Ingram, the draft’s No. 2 pick, is unlikely to swing fortunes quickly.

Ingram (19), Russell (20), Randle (21) and Clarkson (24) carry significant value, but little of it is tied to their ability to produce right now. When will that change?

It’s important to acknowledge reality of the present before setting expectations for the future.

Here’s how each core piece ranked in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus last season:

  • Russell: 69th among 82 point guards
  • Clarkson: 119th among 175 guards
  • Randle: 90th among 93 power forwards

Russell ranked in just the 36th percentile in points per possession when finishing a play as pick-and-roll ball-handler. With Russell guarding, his man shot 47%.

Clarkson’s man shot even better, 48%. Not limited to defense, Clarkson has yet to turn any skill in his all-around game into a major asset.

For all the hype about his ball-handling and passing, Randle turned the ball over more than he assisted baskets last season. He also blocked fewer shots than Jeremy Lamb, a shooting guard who played more than 1,000 fewer minutes.

Ingram is a skinny teenager. Like most rookies, he’ll face growing pains as he jumps to the NBA.

These players have a long way to go – and that’s fine. Time is on their side.

The Thunder once went 23-59 with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. LeBron James missed the playoffs his first two seasons. Even Michael Jordan spent his first three years on losing teams.

Simply, young teams rarely win in the NBA. At least a modicum of experience is crucial.

But don’t assume these young Lakers are destined for success.

At one point, Charlotte thought it had something with Emeka Okafor (No. 2 pick, Rookie of the Year in 2005), Raymond Felton (No. 5 pick, All-Rookie second team in 2006) and Adam Morrison (No. 3 pick, All-Rookie second team in 2007).

Drafting highly touted players who produce immediately doesn’t guarantee long-term success.

If the Lakers look at the bigger picture, they’ll monitor their young core’s development and proceed as they gain more information. They won’t overreact to the most likely outcome: another losing season.

It could be another year or two or even three until Russell, Clarkson, Ingram and Randle ascend into playoff contention. As long as they show progress, that’s OK. Those four should be graded on a curve for their age.

The Lakers might be in a good place if they don’t get in their own way. But with a fan base accustomed to championship contention and a front office on a self-imposed deadline to advance in the playoffs, do you trust he Lakers to remain patient?

DeMarre Carroll considers this his first season with Raptors

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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BURNABY, British Columbia (AP) — DeMarre Carroll is ready to start over.

A prized free-agent acquisition for the Toronto Raptors last year, Carroll played only 26 regular-season games because of a right knee injury that had to be surgically repaired in January.

The small forward worked hard to rejoin the club in time for Toronto’s run to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, but wasn’t the same player the Raptors signed to be difference-maker from the Atlanta Hawks.

And while not yet 100 percent after a month of rest followed by a strenuous summer of rehabilitation, Carroll is looking forward to hitting the reset button.

“I look at it as basically my first season (with Toronto),” the 30-year-old Carroll said as the Raptors opened training camp this week. “A new season, a new beginning. I’ve just got to come in and get back to playing DeMarre Carroll basketball when I’m healthy.”

Apart from locking up DeMar DeRozan to a long-term contract and bringing in Jared Sullinger, the Raptors had a relatively quiet break.

However, finally having a healthy Carroll would be a major bonus for a club looking to take the next step.

“A big difference,” DeRozan said. “It was tough for us last year to figure out ways to play without him. Even when he was playing early on he was hurt (and) even when came back he wasn’t his full self and we still managed to make history.

“To have him back at the start of camp, start of preseason, to be able to implement him fully is going to give us everything that we’ve been searching for.”

The 6-foot-8, 215-pound Carroll only returned to the court for live action last week, and said his offseason regimen included making sure all the proper steps were taken to ensure his knee is ready for the season.

“We took a hard approach about it and we did it the right way,” said Carroll, who took a month off after the playoffs in hopes of reducing the swelling. “Last season it was more of a rush, trying to get me back. We didn’t go through the whole thing we needed to go through to get the knee to where it needs to be. I feel that we’re on the right track.”

Carroll, who averaged 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds last season, came through the first two days of camp unscathed for the Raptors, who open their exhibition schedule on Saturday at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena against the Golden State Warriors.

“(The team) has talked about bringing me along slowly, not trying to kill myself in pre-season,” Carroll said. “Just be ready and healthy for the first game of the season.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Carroll’s presence on the floor, including his ability to hit from three, helps create openings on a team that is thin at small forward.

“Really gives us the spacing that we need with Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar handling the ball, attacking of the dribble,” Casey said. “That’s what we need from him, his spacing and his defensive presence. He did a great job accepting that role last year. He takes us from a good team to a pretty good team when he does that.”

For his part, Carroll said the mental side of the injury was tough, but something he forced himself to push through.

“You’ve got to stay strong, especially in this league. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you,” he said. “It can be draining to keep on going through the same thing, having the same setbacks. But I’m happy right now because I haven’t had any setbacks. I’ve just got to look at the positives and keep trying to work towards the future.”

ESPN’s new NBA contract lowers value of Disney stock

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 22:  In this handout image provided by Disney, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant (L) celebrates the Lakers' NBA championship with Goofy at Disneyland on June 22, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disney via Getty Images)
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ESPN and Turner signed new national TV contracts worth $24 billion over nine years, a huge revenue increase triggering a corresponding salary-cap rise.

That wasn’t the only consequence of the deal.

Richard Morgan of the New York Post:

Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible downgraded Disney stock on Monday in response to “a massive increase in NBA costs” for ESPN.

Disney’s deal to televise NBA games, with its increase in step-up costs over last year, could shave as much as 5 percent off pre-tax profits.

This isn’t necessarily bad for Disney-owned ESPN. It just shows how much more favorable the old national TV deals were for the TV networks.

The NBA is now getting a fair share of the money – which, if you’re the one paying the money, isn’t as good as paying a bargain rate.