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.

Report: Yi Jianlian has asked for release, will be waived by Lakers

Yi Jianlian, from China, newly acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers, poses in his new jersey during his introduction at the NBA basketball team's headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

On paper, Chinese center Yi Jianlian made a lot of sense for the Lakers, especially in Luke Walton’s system — he was the only floor spacing big on the roster. Watching Yi at the Olympics, it was easy to imagine it working out for him in the NBA this time around.

In practice, he was struggling to find a consistent role with the team. He had averaged less than 11 minutes a game in the preseason, shooting 35 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three. His defense wasn’t good, and he remains a player who doesn’t exactly have a high motor. With Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Timofey Mozgov, and Tarik Black, Yi wasn’t finding a consistent niche.

So he has asked out of his contract and the Lakers are going to oblige, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

This likely means Thomas Robinson will earn the final Lakers’ roster spot.

Yi has a strong and lucrative international career to return to.

This was a smart gamble by the Lakers — he had about the most team-friendly contract imaginable, and this was not a big financial hit. It’s a little disappointing it didn’t work out, but both sides will move on.

Duncan-less Spurs eager for another run at NBA postseason

San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9), of France, talks with forward Kawhi Leonard during the second half of the team's preseason NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs responded to their most successful regular season in franchise history with the greatest turnover in Gregg Popovich’s two decades with the team.

Tim Duncan’s retirement played a large role in the reconstruction, but so did losing in six games to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals.

Duncan is gone along with veterans Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and late-season additions Andre Miller and Kevin Martin. While San Antonio added another veteran in Pau Gasol, they also brought in a lot of youth and athleticism as they prepared for life without Duncan, the power forward who led the franchise to five NBA titles in 19 seasons.

“Right now we don’t know what we’re going to miss on the floor because we haven’t been through the season yet,” Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said. “(But) just knowing he’s not here, his personality isn’t here. Jokes that he makes during practice, that’s the things I’m missing right now.”

Duncan will be with the team occasionally as an unofficial assistant coach, but San Antonio is placing the team squarely in Leonard’s hands. The 6-foot-7 forward finished second in MVP balloting after averaging a career-high 21.2 points and 6.8 rebounds last season. He also was named Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.

After spending his first five seasons adding a pull-up jumper and honing his 3-point shooting, Leonard spent this offseason working on something else: “Just becoming a leader. Just making sure I know what’s going on on the floor at every position. Just getting ready to get my mentality of just leading the group this year.”

Leonard’s evolution as a leader should be aided by Gasol. The 17-year veteran won two NBA championships while with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“One thing that makes me feel a little better with (Duncan’s) loss is Pau Gasol,” Popovich said. “He is a very intelligent man and he understands how to play and he’s played for a lot of good people. That’s going to help us in that loss, but having said that, it will take time to get all the new guys to understanding exactly how we play and who goes with whom.”

Gasol averaged 16.5 points and 11.0 rebounds for Chicago last season while earning his sixth All-Star appearance. Duncan averaged 8.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the final season of a Hall of Fame career.

Gasol’s numbers will likely drop this season, though, as San Antonio will continue to develop around Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

“It starts with me and L.A. first,” Leonard said. “If we win a championship, it’s going to be up to us to lead the group.”

The duo earned All-Star berths last season while leading San Antonio to a franchise-record 67 victories. But the Spurs dropped four of five games to the Thunder in the West semifinals and San Antonio knew changes were needed. The Spurs drafted 6-foot-5 point guard Dejounte Murray and brought in 2011 second-round pick Davis Bertans at forward along with signing 7-foot center Dewayne Dedmon along with David Lee.

Some other things to know about the Spurs, who open the season Tuesday night at Golden State:


Aldridge struggled to fit into the team’s offense in the first half of last season, but closed strongly to lead the team in rebounding and finish second in scoring. He said he was not bothered by reports San Antonio was willing to trade him.

“(Popovich is) a pretty direct person and this organization is first-class, so if that was the issue, I would have known way before the media knew,” Aldridge said. “So, I wasn’t worried about it at all.”


Point guard Tony Parker suffered a drop in scoring for his third straight season, which is a product of the team’s evolution rather than any decline in his game. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 11.9 points last season, but he had a career-low 1.8 turnovers per game and shot 49 percent from the field. It was the third time in four seasons that Parker has shot 49 percent or better from the field. He also shot 42 percent on 3-pointers, marking the second straight season he has shot over 40 percent on 3s. Fellow veteran Manu Ginobili said he will not decide if this his last season until after it’s done.


After averaging 7.9 points and shooting 47 percent on 3-pointers in 15 games for Baskonia in the Euroleague last season, Bertans is averaging 5.4 points and shooting 31 percent on 3-pointers in five preseason games for the Spurs. He has astounded his teammates with his leaping ability especially after right ACL surgery twice in the past three years.

“I think in the second ACL they put something special in there,” Bertans said.


Dedmon is expected to be one of the team’s primary frontcourt reserves if he can stay on the court. The 7-footer has struggled with foul trouble in his career, averaging 2.1 fouls in just 13.1 minutes per game. He is averaging 3.2 fouls in five preseason games, including fouling out in 22 minutes in San Antonio’s preseason opener against Phoenix.


Gasol has stepping into Duncan’s spot in numerous ways, not just in the starting lineup. Gasol has taken Duncan’s spot standing next to Parker and Ginobili during the national anthem and is also handling tip-off duties.

Damian Lillard’s goal for season: Win MVP

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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When the PBT staff made our predictions for MVP you saw some expected names — LeBron James, James Harden — and a smart pick off some people’s radar in Kawhi Leonard. Russell Westbrook was discussed as someone with a chance.

What about Damian Lillard? You know, the hip-hop star.

Lillard told a Jay Allen of Portland area Fox Sports Radio that’s his goal.

Lillard averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists per game last season, he is unquestionably a dynamic offensive force — he has a great pull up jumper and he can get to the rim and finish. Plus, he’s just entertaining to watch.

But MVP? That’s going to take more than numbers.

Portland won 44 games last season. The MVP almost always goes to the best player on a top two or three seed, meaning a team winning around 55 games or more. For Portland to add 10 wins or so and get Lillard noticed in the MVP race is going to be about defense — Portland was bottom 10 last season in defense and they need to be at least middle of the pack this time around. Which comes back to Lillard on some level, he’s often an overmatched defender and he can lose focus on that end. He’s gotten better over the years, but Lillard is going to have to lift up the Blazers defense, not just offense, to get in the MVP discussion.

I’m skeptical (of Lillard’s chances and the Trail Blazers taking a step forward), but we all underestimated Portland last season, too.

LeBron James says he can still win MVP with reduced workload, cites Stephen Curry

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 02:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers with the ball against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter in Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 2, 2016 in Oakland, 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The door is open for LeBron James to win a legacy-altering fifth MVP.

But his Cavaliers could also win another championship, leaving Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue planning to limit LeBron’s minutes in preparation of a long playoff run.

LeBron, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN

“No,” James said Saturday when asked if he was concerned that planned rest could affect his MVP case. “Because Steph played 31 minutes a game and he won the MVP.”

“Well, I’ve never set into a season saying I want to win MVP,” he said. “I’ve always thought of the season saying I want to be MVP for my team and it’s resulted in me getting four of them. So I’ve been available, for the most part, every night and I’ve been available on both sides of the floor. I’ve been healthy.

Curry won 2015 MVP while playing 32.7 minutes per game, the fewest by any MVP. He played 34.2 minutes per game last season, third-fewest by an MVP – ahead of just himself and 1978 Bill Walton, who played 33.3 minutes per game.

To contrast, LeBron has set career lows the last two seasons with 36.1 and 35.6 minutes per game. So, LeBron could get a reduced workload and still play more than Curry did.

But Curry, to some degree is an anomaly. He often sat late in games with his Warriors on the right side of blowouts. The Cavs aren’t good enough regularly rest LeBron as much in those situations.

It’s not that voters care directly about minutes. But the less LeBron plays, the lower his per-game averages will be and the less Cleveland will win. Those factors matter significantly.

LeBron can overcome that. He’s darned good, and there could be a push to reward him after the last two Finals have shown he’s still better than Curry when it matters most.

Playing fewer minutes per game won’t eliminate LeBron from the MVP race, not even close. But it will – and should – hurt his case. After all, MVP should reward the player who does the most to help his team win. MVP-caliber players don’t significantly help while sitting on the bench.