Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

Be warned: This year’s Thunder are better than last year’s


Kevin Durant is a better player today than he was when the Thunder lost Game 5 of the NBA finals last season. His ball handling has improved allowing him to take on more playmaking. His defense is better. He is rebounding more.

Russell Westbrook is more of a floor general. His play seems crisper, more confident. And he’s still one of the most athletic players in the NBA.

Serge Ibaka might win the NBA’s most improved player award this year — he has developed a very reliable midrange catch-and-shoot jumper and is shooting 57.1 percent on the season. He used to play only for his defense, now he starts because you have to guard him.

When the Thunder traded James Harden for Kevin Martin before the season the team took a small step back. They will miss Harden’s playmaking off the bench. His defense. His beard.

But the Thunder today are a better team, a hungrier team than the one the Heat beat in the finals last season. Their defense is about the same but their offense is 3.5 points per 100 possessions better this season — it is the best offense in the NBA.

That growth is because Durant and Westbrook are just 24 years old and still on a steep improvement curve. Ibaka is 23. With every new experience — like losing in the finals — they learn. They get better.

“When we made the (Harden) trade, we knew that we were still going to be a good team…” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Our players are better. They came back better this summer. I thought the Olympic experience for all of them, even Serge with Spain, I thought everyone came back a little better.”

All of that showed in a rout of the Lakers Friday night. The Thunder defended and got out on the break to get some easy buckets. They moved the ball, made the extra pass, got good looks and then their shooters knocked them down.

Kevin Durant showed a mean streak, scoring 42 points and seeming at points to really enjoy taking it out on the Lakers. At one point he drove baseline and dunked over Antawn Jamison, then glared with a fire he rarely makes so public. Westbrook had 27 points but also 10 assists. The Thunder role players get their jobs and execute them.

And they are not tolerating lapses — up more than 20 with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers scored back-to-back buckets on lazy defense by the Thunder. Brooks called time out and chewed out his team. He put the starters back in for a few minutes to fully seal the game. And to send a message about effort and building good habits.

The Miami Heat are not building good habits, they are coasting through this season. Which is still enough to lead the Eastern Conference. It’s not easy to imagine a scenario where another team comes out of the conference. The Heat are the defending champs, if you want a ring you have to go through them.

Oklahoma City might just be a team that can do that. Because their stars are better than they have ever been.

Ty Lawson makes the Kings’ regular-season roster

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 04:  Ty Lawson #10 of the Sacramento Kings attempts a pass between Yi Jianlian #11 and Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a preseason game at Honda Center on October 4, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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When it’s news your expected opening-night starting point just makes the team, you’re in a bad place.

But we already knew that about the Kings.

With Darren Collison suspended the season’s first eight games and Garrett Temple the only other point guard with a guarantee salary, Sacramento – despite his preseason problems – will turn to Ty Lawson.

Kings release:

The Sacramento Kings today waived guards Jordan Farmar and Isaiah Cousins, according to Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Vlade Divac.

That allows Sacramento to keep Lawson. Lawson was a good starting point guard until last season, when he struggled with the Rockets and Pacers. Can he re-find the groove he had with the Nuggets? If so, the Kings might be alright. If not, they’re in for a rough start. That Lawson had to settle for a make-good contract says plenty about expectations.

Farmar was Sacramento’s other swing at an experienced point guard. Losing this job to Lawson bodes poorly for his NBA future.

With Cousins, the No. 59 pick, the Kings become the third team to relinquish rights on a 2016 draft pick already. The Celtics waived No. 51 pick Ben Bentil, and the Jazz dropped No. 55 pick Marcus Paige.

Archie Goodwin requests trade, Suns waive him

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 13:  Archie Goodwin #20 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball in the second half of the NBA game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Talking Stick Resort Arena on April 13, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Suns defeated the Clippers 114 - 105.  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 Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
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Archie Goodwin had been stuck behind better guards with the Suns, most notably Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.

But when Goodwin lost playing time to someone better and younger – Devin Booker – it became time to exit Phoenix.

Suns general manager Ryan McDonough complied.

Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

McDonough said they did not see a way Goodwin would play meaningful time in a fourth Suns season.

“We told Archie Goodwin and his agent at the end of last season that if there wasn’t going to be an opportunity for him to play going into the last year of his deal, that we would try to help him get to a good spot,” McDonough said. “We explored some trade scenarios throughout the summer and into the fall. We tried to help him get elsewhere in a trade.“

Unable to fulfill a trade request from the Goodwin camp, the Suns waived the 22-year-old

This allows Phoenix to keep two players without guaranteed salaries, John Jenkins and Derrick Jones Jr.

Jenkins, the No. 23 pick in the 2012 draft, previous played for the Hawks and Mavericks. He looks like a good spot-up shooter and shot well from beyond the arc in Phoenix after being claimed on waivers last season. But he was dreadful from beyond the arc in Dallas and has had other lulls prior. Despite quality defensive rebounding for a shooting guard, he’s a defensive minus.

Undrafted out of UNLV, Jones is a phenomenal athlete. But he needs to develop his skills and, at 6-foot-7 and 190 pounds, his body. He’s an intriguing project.

So was Goodwin, but the guard didn’t progress enough in three NBA seasons. He remains a lousy 3-point shooter and unreliable defender. His ability to penetrate goes only so far without better finishing or floor vision.

Goodwin’s athleticism and raw tools could convince a team to take a flier on him. But he has a long way to go to being a helpful NBA player. The team that knows him best being willing to let him walk says something.

PBT Podcast: Predicting NBA playoffs, Finals. Yes, meaning Warriors vs. Cavaliers

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts to a foul call during the fourth quarter as LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Golden State Warriors vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Like virtually every other prognosticator, we at PBT are predicting that as the NBA Finals as well.

Is having the same teams in three straight Finals good for the league? Which teams could get in the way of that rematch? Kurt Helin and Dane Carbaugh of discuss just that, including the Celtics, Spurs, and Clippers. They also talk surprise teams and the log jams in both conferences after you step back from the top few teams on each side. There’s a lot to cover.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at

Warriors, TNT to begin NBA season with tribute to Craig Sager

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 13:  Honoree Craig Sager accepts the Jimmy V Award for Perserverance onstage during the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) — The Golden State Warriors and TNT will begin the season with a tribute to sideline reporter Craig Sager, who is battling leukemia.

TNT will unveil a T-shirt during its Tuesday night studio show that was inspired by the suit Sager wore while receiving the Jimmy Valvano Award at this year’s ESPY Awards. Proceeds from the sale of the shirt will benefit the SagerStrong Foundation .

The Warriors will then give their fans at their season opener against San Antonio a Sager Strong T-shirt. The team also will play a message in the arena supporting his fight.

The popular reporter, best known for his colorful suits, won’t be able to work the game as he continues treatment for the disease.

He also designed a special edition Nike sneaker, and 100 pairs will be available via online auction beginning Tuesday through Nov. 4. A portion of the proceeds from the auction will benefit the SagerStrong Foundation.