Kurt Helin

USA Basketball Men's National Team Training Camp

Kevin Durant fully cleared for Thunder training camp

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Kevin Durant is ready to go.

Actually, he is already going. The former MVP is coming off multiple surgeries to repair a Jones fracture to his right foot, but he has been playing 5-on-5 at the Thunder practice facility and is fully cleared for practice, Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti said at a news conference Wednesday. Royce Young of ESPN was on hand.

After the health concerns for Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in recent years, new coach Bill Donovan should find a way to limit their minutes when he can. It’s a marathon, one where the Thunder need to be fresh for the sprint the final miles (the playoffs).

It’s simple: If Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are near healthy the Thunder are legitimate title contenders. With the margins between the top teams in the West being so tight, that’s where questions such as, “is Donovan ready?” or “will Enes Kanter‘s defense be too big a liability?” come into play.

But the Thunder need to answer the big health questions first, and at least they are starting on the right foot (so to speak).

51Q: The Lakers will entertain, will they be good?

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

The Lakers will be improved, but will they be any good?

Plenty of NBA fans (not to mention people around the league) are in the schadenfreude camp of enjoying the Lakers’ struggles.

But I can give you 19 reasons even those “haters” want the Lakers to be better this season — that’s the number of times they are in a nationally televised game. Seventh most in the league. The same number as the Houston Rockets, and more than Anthony Davis’ Pelicans, the Heat, and the Grizzlies. Even more than the Knicks and Mavericks combined.

You’re going to have to watch them. You want them to be at least entertaining.

And they will be.

The Lakers have assembled some of the best isolation loving, ball dominating, wing gunners the league has to offer — Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, and Nick Young. Considering his Summer League performance, Jordan Clarkson seems to want to join that group, too. Beyond them, there are some legitimate young players worth watching in D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (Clarkson wants to be in this group, too).

No doubt the Lakers have some offensive firepower — they are fearlessly going to fire away from whatever old-school sets Byron Scott draws up (this roster is fairly well suited to that style). Kobe is not going to go quietly into that good night. The Lakers are going to put up some points. They will entertain.

But will they be any good?

No.

To be fair, the real answer to that question depends on how you choose to define “good.” If you’re a smart Lakers fan and define that as “better than last season” and “the young players show signs of growth and development” then the answer should be yes.

These Lakers will be better than the 21-win, franchise-worst team that took the court last season. Adding veterans like Williams, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert will ensure that. Plus we should all hope that Kobe stays healthy, his minutes are kept in check, and he is himself again — we are witnessing the end of the career of one of the best ever to play the game and we should savor that.

However, if you’re going to define “good” as the Lakers making the playoffs — or even being in the hunt — then the answer is no. The Lakers are not going to be that good (even in the East I’d have serious doubts, but in the stacked West no way). The Lakers are not going to improve 25+ games this season, which is what it would take to sniff the postseason. They likely are 10-12 games better.

The problems will come on the defensive end, where the Lakers were 29th in the NBA last season allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are pointing to Hibbert being the difference on defense, providing some rim protection that has been lacking in Los Angeles since the handful of games when Andrew Bynum decided to care about basketball.

No doubt Hibbert will help the Laker defense, but not as much as some think. He is slow of foot, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA he can be exposed as you pull him away from the basket and force him to cover pick-and-rolls or guard guys out on the perimeter. If you remember the Hibbert that was a defensive force in Indiana remember this as well — that team had three high-quality perimeter defenders in Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill. Those guys played in a smart, well-executed system where they would funnel penetration to where Hibbert was already stationed, basically running ball handlers into a brick wall. The Lakers don’t have that kind of perimeter protection to help Hibbert, especially if they play the youngsters heavy minutes like they should (Kobe, at 37 and with his previous injuries, is not that guy anymore). Hibbert can be an elite rim protector, but him alone on an island in the paint doesn’t solve that many problems.

The Lakers should not be focusing on the playoffs anyway, only one question should guide every Lakers decisions this season:

How do we develop Russell, Randle and Clarkson?

The Lakers are a rebuilding team, and those three should be key parts of the future. Russell is the highest draft pick the Lakers have had since James Worthy, but by his own admission not a guy whose athleticism is going to overwhelm at this level. Russell has to beat guys with his vision, his IQ, with his mind. That’s going to take some time to develop and adjust at this level — he should improve as the season wears on, but there will be rough patches. Russell and Clarkson need to learn how to play together and share playmaking responsibilities. Randle needs to develop a diversity of offensive moves.

The Lakers learned some hard lessons this past summer about what it’s going to take to recruit the next free agent superstar to Los Angeles — they can’t just sell the city, the glamour, endorsement opportunities, and the brand anymore. That will not get it done. They need to sell basketball, too. Guys can live in Los Angeles in the off-season, and in a social media world they can reach out to fans and bring in the endorsements whether they live in Los Angeles or Oklahoma City.

But after striking out with the big names, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak did a solid job of trying to walk the line between winning more now, not being embarrassing, and making sure this team was rebuilding for the future. It’s a tough balance to find, but he did well with that mandate. The Lakers have plenty of flexibility for the future (but they will not keep their first-round pick for next season without some lottery help, it is only top three protected, and now belongs to the Sixers).

The Lakers will be better with this roster. They certainly will be entertaining with all those shooters and just one basketball.

But the Lakers will not be good yet. What matters is they take steps in that direction.

Isaiah Thomas: Five guys with best handles in NBA

Jamal Crawford
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Who has got the best handles in the NBA?

It’s a subjective question, although if you just said Omer Asik you’re doing it wrong. Boston’s Isaiah Thomas has had to guard a bunch of these guys, and he wrote a piece over at the Players’ Tribune naming his five favorite ball handlers in the game right now. The game’s best ankle breakers.

At the top of the list — Jamal Crawford.

There’s some Seattle bias going on with that pick, although it’s hard to argue that J Crossover doesn’t belong on the list.

Next on the Thomas’ list is Stephen Curry. Can’t argue with that one.

Steph plays like he’s a wide receiver in football running an option route on every play. Everything he does depends on what the defender is doing. So when he’s coming at you, if you’re afraid of the three — which you should be — and you give him too much space, he’ll knock it down. If you play too far up on the three, he’ll take you off the dribble. If he beats you on the first step because you were playing too far up, say goodbye. He’s already gone. If you sink back with him, he has the shiftiness and the quick release to step back and shoot.

The final three on his list are Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden. Of course, as a bonus he puts himself. You have to let that slide.

That’s a strong top five list. While you could try to make a case for Rajon Rondo or Tony Parker, I don’t know who you would take off that list to replace them.

Suns’ Sonny Weems tears down rim on dunk (VIDEO)

Ramunas Siskauskas (L) of CSKA vies with
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Around the country NBA players are showing up early to their team facilities and — when they can get in — working out with teammates in advance of NBA training camps opening next week.

Sonny Weemsback in the NBA after four seasons in Europe after he split during the lockout — is one of those guys, working out in Phoenix. And he is tearing the place up. Literally. Watch him destroy a rim in practice.

Yes, that’s some pretty grainy cell phone footage, but it was released by the Suns and it’s the best we’ve got.

What we know is Weems can throw it down, he didn’t lose that skill overseas.

Consider it his tribute to the just passed Darryl Dawkins.

Transition Buckets: Los Angeles is the NBA’s summer home

Downtown LA
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Even in the dog days of the NBA off-season, there are a lot of interesting tidbits of news and stories worth reading we don’t get to here at NBC’s PBT. And we’re bloggers, so we have an instinctive love of the bullet point. So we’ve combined them into one post that can get you caught up some news and notes around the NBA quickly — and we’ve renamed it “Transition buckets.” Because they are quick hitters. And we couldn’t think of anything better.

• If you read one long-form thing, it should be the fantastic piece from Jared Zwerling at Bleacher Report about how Los Angeles has become the off-season home of the NBA. That includes covering how the Los Angeles Clippers’ practice facility is now THE summer run for NBA players.

“The facility is real nice—breakfast, cold pool, hot tub, you can get taped, Gatorade machine, everything,” said former NBA player Bobby Brown. “Why not play pickup in an NBA practice gym against NBA players?”

• Who are the top free agents for next summer, in 2016? Sure, we can all name Kevin Durant, but there are some intriguing possibilities behind him.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is having a little fun with the fact security guards stopped Jeremy Lin from getting into the Hornets’ arena.

Zach Lowe is right at GrantlandDanilo Gallinari is going to be a lot of fun to watch this season. That said, Lowe may be a little higher on Denver’s short-term outlook than I (and I love the Mike Malone hire).

• Former Spurs’ assistant coach — and most recently Orlando Magic head coach — Jacque Vaughn has returned to the Spurs as a scout.

Jerry West is not a huge fan of analytics. Which seems strange for a guy working for the Warriors. But the reality is if you can have different voices in the room and synthesize them it can be a big boost — as the Warriors have shown.

Lou Williams says he wants to be on a team that wins, not just for him to win awards (such as Sixth Man of the Year last season). He does know he signed with the Lakers, right?

C.J. McCollum is going to get more run this season and plans to take full advantage.

• Every wonder what Zydrunas Ilgauskas is up to? Helping coach a high school basketball team.

Adam Silver talked about the WNBA recently. He said it is still financially challenged, which makes increasing salaries and some of the things players want difficult. He also admitted the league thought the WNBA would have grown more by now and that the league needs to do a better job marketing it. That said, don’t expect the league to make any significant changes to the WNBA soon.

• Finally, these aren’t real, but the fake summer reading assignments Phil Jackson gave the Knicks is pretty funny stuff from the New Yorker.

Carmelo Anthony, “Beowulf”

If there’s one thing I need Melo to understand, it’s that he is literally Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon warrior of lore. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be killing Grendel and Grendel’s mother and the dragon and whatever else shows up. The astute among you will realize that, yes, I am talking about the Spurs and the Warriors and the Rockets and their calamitous restructuring of the right way to play. Beowulf was the original isolation virtuoso, the type of guy who makes the Triangle such a potent weapon. Beowulf can’t let himself be bothered if his buddies—like, oh, let’s say, LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and Free Darko—all won championship rings. Who is Carmelo Anthony? A man medieval in his faith in absolutes. And he’s definitely bigger than Kobe.Definitely bigger.