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.

Reports: Knicks reach deal to send Carmelo Anthony to Thunder

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Carmelo Anthony and his camp pushed the Knicks the last 48 hours to get a trade done before training camp opens on Monday, which included Anthony expanding the list of teams he would accept a trade to.

One of those teams was the Oklahoma City Thunder, and that got the deal done, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (Shams Charania of Yahoo has also confirmed the reports).

Anthony waived his trade kicker to make the deal work.

The pick is the Bulls’ 2018 second rounder, so it should be a high second.

This trade moves the Thunder into the second tier conversation in the West, battling Houston and San Antonio in a deep conference. Everyone is still chasing Golden State, which should be improved this season.

The Thunder get another star to pair with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, another shot creator that will be difficult to account for. The Thunder will have a strong defense — Anthony does not hurt that much, Kanter doesn’t defend either, but he did come off the bench for them — and with this move they get more offense.

The move also ads $12 million to a Thunder tax bill.

The Thunder aren’t thinking about next season, they are all in on this one. When you have a chance, take a big swing.

The Knicks get rid of ‘Melo’s shadow and make this Kristaps Porzingis‘ team. They get a solid bench scorer in Kanter, who is owed $17.8 million this season and has a player option for $18.6 million (which he will probably opt into, considering the tight market next summer). McDermott is in the last year of his rookie deal and has a lot to prove. The pick is nice, but not a first rounder.

This is not a great haul for the Knicks, but it speaks to Anthony’s trade value — he can score, but his style of play and cost had only a few teams interested. New York may have done just as well buying Anthony out after last season.

LeBron James calls President Trump a “bum,” Chris Paul tells him to stay in his lane

Associated Press
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LeBron James isn’t going to stick to sports.

The way the president isn’t sticking to politics.

Donald Trump pulled his White House invitation to the Warriors Saturday after Stephen Curry said he would vote not to go to make.a statement.

LeBron James came to Curry and the Warriors defense on Twitter.

LeBron endorsed and campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the last election.

Chris Paul also took a shot at the president.

LeBron and CP3 have been more outspoken on social and political issues in recent years, which has worked for them in an era where fans want players to be authentic and themselves.

Trump on Friday night at a rally in Alabama slammed the NFL for its increased focus on concussions saying it was ruining the game, and said regarding national anthem protests in the league:

“We respect our flag. Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a b—h off the field, right now, out? He’s fired.”

This may resonate with some NFL fans, but LeBron will resonate more with NBA fan base, which is younger, more urban, and much more multicultural. The NBA fan base leans left of the NFLs, plus is far more international (where Trump bashing plays well).

Saturday morning, after being told by the NBA the Warriors were going to vote on whether to come to the White House, Trump pulled his invitation.

Now we know how LeBron and CP3 feel about that.

President Trump withdraws Warriors invitation to White House after Curry’s remarks

Associated Press
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As tends to happen with presidential decrees in this administration, the announcement came via Twitter — the Golden State Warriors are no longer invited to the White House.

Curry had been clear Friday at Warriors’ media day that he planned to vote no when the Warriors discussed visiting the White House.

“We have an opportunity to send a statement that hopefully encourages unity, encourages us to appreciate what it means to be American, and stand for something.”

Curry, along with coach Steve Kerr and other members of the Warriors organization had been openly critical of President Donald Trump and his policies. They were expected on Saturday to vote to decline the invitation. The NBA had let the White House know what was coming.

Trump decided to be proactive.

The tradition of championship teams going to the White House for a PR photo-op — it is nothing more than that — goes back many administrations. Some sports figures have skipped the White House event in the past when Barack Obama was president (even if Tom Brady wants to deny that’s why he bailed), but teams have not skipped it. Of course, now the Warriors aren’t skipping it, they are not invited.

 

Russell Westbrook to miss start of training camp after PRP injection in knee

Associated Press
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There is a physical price for the historic, MVP season Russell Westbrook had last go around.

When the Oklahoma City Thunder open training camp next week, Westbrook will be sidelined for a couple of days to rest his knee after getting a platelet-rich plasma therapy injection, Thunder GM Sam Presti told the media (as reported by Royce Young of ESPN).

PRP therapy was made popular in the NBA by Kobe Bryant and now a number of players have used the treatment. It involves the player giving some blood, which is then spun in a centrifuge to separate the platelets, which are then injected back into the area where the person wants to promote healing.

Westbrook is the heart and soul of the Thunder, averaging a triple-double last season with 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game. With the off-season addition of Paul George, the Thunder are a dangerous team in the West, one that will have a very strong defense and a couple of elite scorers now.

Westbrook also has a max contract extension sitting in front of him from the Thunder, as he has since July 1, which he has yet to sign. That should make Thunder fans a little nervous. George is in the last year of his contract, and there have been not-so-subtle hints out of his camp he is headed to the Lakers next summer. If this year goes well in Oklahoma City — such as the Thunder reaching the Conference Finals — maybe George reconsiders, and with that Westbrook would stay (he has professed and shown loyalty to the city so far). Maybe they stay anyway. However, both men seem to be using the LeBron James playbook of keeping all their options open.