Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

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

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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.

Billy Donovan: Kevin Durant was ‘very, very honest’ throughout free agency

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Head coach Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder talks with Kevin Durant #35 during the first half in game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Despite the Warriors recruiting him throughout the season – to the point it reportedly bothered his Thunder teammatesKevin Durant was widely expected to re-sign with Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison even reportedly left a dinner with Durant on the eve of free agency with the impression Durant would stay.

Yet, Durant signed with the Warriors – reportedly texting Westbrook and seeing a story leak about his frustration with the star point guard on the way out the door.

Did Durant deceive the Thunder in any way?

Donovan, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

I think Kevin on the front end was very, very honest.

When the season ended, he was going to go through this process, and he was going to take a meeting with us obviously first and then he was going to have some other teams he was going to meet with. And I think a little bit later on, after the season ended, they decided to do it out in the Hamptons.

But I thought the meeting that we had went very well. I think we talked about basketball. We talked about our team. We talked about direction, talked about obviously his leadership, his role – all those kind of things. And I think, leaving the meeting, it was very, very, I thought, positive. I thought it was very, very clear. I think there was direction on both sides.

And the one thing I think with Kevin was that going through nine years with the organization, he was at a point in time where he was allowed obviously to be this free agent and go through this process and start to gather some information. We were the first meeting.

So, obviously, I think, being in college for so long and you go through recruiting, you know that during that process things can change through some of these different meetings. And obviously, after meeting with Golden State, things probably in his mind probably changed.

Durant looked at ease in his season-ending press conference. Many in Oklahoma City interpreted that as evidence Durant was content there. I saw someone with enough self-confidence to make any decision in free agency he desired.

I don’t know everything Durant said or implied to members of the Thunder organization. But from afar, it seems like there was a lot of wishful thinking in Oklahoma City entering free agency that turned into bitterness toward Durant once he left.

So, I appreciate Donovan’s candor. As a former college coach, his perspective is welcomed. Decommitments happen in a system where a decision can’t become binding until a later date – and I’m not sure Durant ever committed to the Thunder or indicated he would. And if he did, so what? They knew they still had to get past that Warriors meeting.

The organization continues to take the high road publicly, as it should. If Durant lied along the way, I haven’t seen credible evidence – and Donovan is vouching to the contrary.

Despite guaranteed salaries, R.J. Hunter and James Young competing for Celtics’ final roster spot

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 11:  James Young #13 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the second quarteragainst the Golden State Warriors at TD Garden on December 11, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The NBA permits teams to begin the regular season with 15 players.

The Celtics are the only team with 16 players who have guaranteed 2016-17 salaries.

So, it’ll be an intriguing preseason in Boston, where the early battle lines are already being drawn.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

Several league sources have indicated that second-year guard R.J. Hunter, third-year forward James Young, 27-year-old wing John Holland, and rookie forward Ben Bentil will compete for the last roster spot. Young and Hunter have guaranteed deals, Bentil has a partial guarantee, and Holland is nonguaranteed.

This probably comes down to Hunter (No. 28 pick in 2015) or Young (No. 17 pick in 2014). I’d be surprised if Boston keeps Holland or Bentil.

Hunter and Young, both shooting guards, have failed to make a dent in the NBA. Young has had more time, but he’s also nearly two years younger than Hunter. Both deserve patience the Celtics can’t afford to give due to their roster constraints.

Other teams should be monitoring this competition with the intent of scooping up the loser – maybe even trading for him to preempt the waiver wire and free agency.

The Celtics would have little leverage in a deal, and they know it. They went down this road last year and waived Perry Jones III, who was still on his guaranteed rookie-scale contract. Maybe the lesser of Hunter and Young will hold more value, but it still won’t be much.

Aubrey McClendon used Thunder ownership stake as collateral for loans before death

DUBLIN, OH - MAY 30: Jack Nicklaus (R) stands with Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy Corporation during the Morgan Stanley Pro-Am Invitational at The Memorial Tournament May 30, 2007 in Dublin, Ohio.  (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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One day after he was indicted for oil and gas conspiracy, Thunder minority owner Aubrey McClendon died in a single-car crash.

Now, his ownership stake could be tied up in court.

Ryan Dezember And Kevin Helliker of The Wall Street Journal:

Collapsing oil prices in late 2014 strained the new oil-and-gas empire he had assembled, and he struggled in his final year to raise more cash to keep it afloat.

Oklahoma records show he had pledged assets as collateral for loans, including his roughly 20% stake of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, fine wine, investments in tech startups and antique boats.

Lawyers for Mr. McClendon’s creditors have said they think Mr. McClendon, who during his Chesapeake heyday was a billionaire, left behind more debt than assets. The entrepreneur’s debts so far amount to about $500 million, according to Oklahoma probate records.

But Martin Stringer, a lawyer for Mr. McClendon’s estate, said claiming it is insolvent is “incorrect” because “nobody has the facts,” according to a transcript of a May probate court hearing. The value of many assets “depends on commodity prices,” he added.

Mr. McClendon’s creditors, which so far range from Wall Street banks to a former employee to a farm-equipment maker, have until Sept. 16 to file claims.

Clay Bennett remains the Thunder’s controlling owner, so the team will likely remain stable. But there’s still potential for this to get a little messy.

Report: ‘Several executives’ believe Kendall Marshall, to be waived after 76ers-Jazz trade, still belongs in NBA

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 13: Kendall Marshall #5 of the Philadelphia 76ers puts up a shot between Justin Holiday #7 and Bobby Portis #5 of the Chicago Bulls
at the United Center on April 13, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Jazz just traded Tibor Pleiss to the 76ers in a salary dump. Utah gets Kendall Marshall in a procedural move and will waive the point guard whose salary is unguaranteed.

What’s next for Marshall and Pleiss?

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports on Marshall:

several league executives still believe there’s a spot in the league for him as a backup point guard.

Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly:

https://twitter.com/JCameratoCSN/status/769204973846589440

If so many executives believe Marshall belongs in the NBA, he’ll get signed. I have some doubts.

Marshall was curiously undervalued when he was younger and healthier. Now, he’s coming off a dreadful season in Philadelphia. A 2015 torn ACL still raises major doubts about Marshall’s ability to play even tolerable defense. His outside shooting has also regressed after blooming with the Lakers and Bucks.

Still, he’s a plus passer and just 25. He has a chance.

Pleiss is also coming off a lousy year, and he’s even older. He’ll turn 27 in the season’s second week, though he has played only one NBA season – and most of it was in the D-League. The 7-foot-3 Pleiss has plenty of size and a little shooting touch, but the 76ers don’t have playing time behind Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid to develop him. Pleiss likely returns to Europe.