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.

After seeing video, Milwaukee mayor expressing concern about police conduct in arrest of Bucks guard Sterling Brown

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee’s mayor is expressing concern about police conduct in the stun-gun arrest of Bucks guard Sterling Brown in January.

Mayor Tom Barrett says he’s viewed police video of Brown’s arrest over an alleged parking violation. He did not offer details but has said he has questions about how police acted. The video might be released this week.

Police have shown the body-camera footage to some local officials, including a closed session of a Common Council committee.

Brown was arrested in a Walgreens parking lot about 2 a.m. Jan. 26. Officers had been checking on a vehicle parked across two handicap spaces. Brown was not charged.

The Bucks signed the 6-foot-6 guard from SMU last summer in a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Report: Teams trying to trade for Karl-Anthony Towns amid his perceived disconnect with Timberwolves

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The Clippers took what appeared to be a stab in the dark by offering Blake Griffin to the Timberwolves for Karl-Anthony Towns before trading Griffin to the Pistons.

But maybe it wasn’t completely a stab in the dark.

Appearing on ESPN, Brian Windhorst elaborated on talk of tension between Towns and Minnesota:

Let’s just put it this way: I didn’t make this up. People in the league have been saying, “You know, maybe we should call and take a look and see what’s going on with Karl Towns.” Now, he and Tom Thibodeau did not have the greatest season together. I think that’s far to say.

They recently fired Vince Legarza, who’s his strength-and-conditioning coach or he’s actually his workout coach with the Wolves and, according to The Athletic, didn’t tell him about it. He found out when everybody else did.

I don’t think that the Wolves are looking to trade him, but teams are definitely sniffing around as if maybe there’s something here.

They’ve already taken some calls on him. This is not new. Blake Griffin, the Clippers called and offered Blake Griffin for him. They’re going to, I believe, get more calls on this, especially the way there seems to be a disconnect between Karl and the franchise.

Maybe these calling teams know the Timberwolves-Town relationship is broken beyond repair. I doubt it, mostly because I doubt the relationship is broken beyond repair.

But teams don’t need to know he and Minnesota are done with each other to propose a trade. Those teams just need to know Thibodeau’s phone number.

There’s no downside to asking the Timberwolves about Towns’ availability. The upside is landing a 22-year-old star with generational offensive talent and the tools to defend exceptionally well.

So, it’s easy to see how a minor issue could be perceived as something bigger.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude this being a major issue already.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows players to receive super-max salaries in their ninth and 10th seasons only if they get it from their original team or changed teams only during their first four seasons via trade. A potential unintended consequence? Unhappy young players – like Towns? – push for trades sooner rather than ride it out longer. If Towns wants to leave the door open for a designated-veteran-player contract outside Minnesota, he must get traded in the next year.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Timberwolves will trade him. For all the reasons other teams want him, Minnesota wants to keep him. If he and Thibodeau truly reach a breaking point, I doubt ownership would side with Thibodeau. Star players usually win those battles.

The Timberwolves can offer Towns a contract extension this summer worth a projected $157 over five years. They could even include a clause that would lift Towns’ compensation by 20% (to a projected $188 million over five years) if he makes an All-NBA team next season.

That could pave over many problems, but it wouldn’t necessarily signify a complete resolution. Towns would still be trade-eligible, and the clock would still be ticking on his ability to get a designated-veteran-player deal elsewhere later. A max rookie-scale extension wouldn’t lower Towns’ trade value. Any team trying for him surely expects to give him the same extension itself.

Still, Minnesota would probably want to know Towns is content there before offering him so much money. This sets up more weird meetings before the Timberwolves offer someone a max rookie-scale extension.

Do you like when Stephen Curry swears because it’s out of character for him? Kevin Durant: ‘F— yeah’

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Stephen Curry has cultivated such a wholesome image, it became a story when he yelled “This is my f—ing house” during the Warriors’ Game 3 win over the Rockets:

His mom scolded him, but Kevin Durant liked it:

Uh oh, if Durant isn’t careful he might just come across as likable.

PBT Extra: NBA Mock Draft Top 10

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DeAndre Ayton is going to go No. 1 in the upcoming NBA Draft. After that, things get interesting: Will the Kings take European sensation Luka Doncic, or are they tempted by the scoring potential of Marvin Bagley III. Where does Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson fit into all of this?

Recently, myself and College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster sat down and did an NBA Mock Draft. This is our Top 10.

We have Ayton going first to Phoenix. Yes, the new Suns’ coach Igor Kokoskov is the Slovenian national team coach and knows Doncic well, but Ayton is more likely to be a franchise-changing player, and no GM can afford to leave that kind of player on the table.

We have the Kings’ taking Doncic second, although that is no guarantee. The Kings need help everywhere but the guard spots, and Doncic as a playmaking three makes sense, but then so would Bagley as a big who can score (the bigs the Kings have drafted have not panned out as hoped). That has us sending Bagley to the Hawks at three, but Jackson and Mohamed Bamba could be in play.

Check out the video above to see our mock draft Top 10.

You can see the entire first round picks here.

And if you really want to nerd out on the draft, Dauster and I did a two-hour, two-part podcast where we made these mock draft picks. Check them out.