Five Things We Learned in NBA Thursday: Oklahoma City may be best in West now

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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while wondering why you get the munchies while high

1) Oklahoma City should now be the favorite to win the West. The lowest seed to win the NBA title was the Houston Rockets as the six seed (the only eight seed to make the NBA Finals was the 1999 Knicks). The Thunder may rewrite that history. Oklahoma City was a potential contender before Thursday — healthy again this was the same team that made the conference finals last season and, once Serge Ibaka returned, gave San Antonio all it could handle. But they won the trade deadline Thursday adding Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, and Steve Novak. They now have a bench they can trust in the playoffs, something they have lacked since James Harden left. If you had any question how good the Thunder are you could see it Thursday night as they jumped on a good Dallas team early and never let up. The one concern with OKC is health — Kevin Durant’s surgically-repaired foot was clearly bothering him Thursday night. The West remains loaded and to count out Golden State, Memphis, San Antonio, or a few other teams is a mistake. But right now, I’d bet on OKC.

2) Tim Duncan can still dunk. Watch out Zach LaVine, the Big Fundamental is coming for you. First he did this on DeAndre Jordan (more on him later):

Then later in the game Duncan (who had 30 points on 12-of-14 shooting) did this:

3) Sam Hinkie likes to blow things up. I’ve been in the corner of the Sixers’ GM through all of this rebuild that has become the poster child for tanking — for the Sixers to become elite the core needs to be built through the draft. I’ve said we need to wait until 2018 to truly judge this plan. And I still believe those things — but I don’t get today’s moves. These Sixers were starting to develop an identity. They were playing good defense, and while the offense lacked shooting you could envision them becoming dangerous with Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and some more picks coming over the next couple years. So Hinkie blew it up. I could live with trading Michael Carter-Williams for the Lakers first round pick that belonged to the Suns (top five protected this year, top three next year; the Lakers stink that should be a very high pick). But I don’t get trading K.J. McDaniels just because they have to pay him some this summer — now the Sixers are going to pay JaVale McGee instead, because they took him on to get a pick. At some point all the assets need to become players and you started to see that in Philly, but the team was blown up again. It’s time to build something. But I’ll reserve total judgement for a few more years.

4) Portland quietly had a big day Thursday. With the frenzy of trades at the deadline there was a lot of buzz about how the Thunder got better, how the Sixers got worse, and what the Suns were doing (Brett Pollakoff of PBT liked their moves, I’m not a fan). Lost in all that — Portland had a fantastic trade deadline. They are a team with questions at the three and questions about depth, they went out and added Arron Afflalo from the Nuggets. This is a fantastic fit, a sixth man who can knock down the three, is a solid defender and can create his own shot on the wing playing the two or three. Portland’s starting five — Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez — outscores opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions, but when the team goes to the bench things go sideways. Afflalo helps change that. Portland just got a lot better.

5) Blake who? DeAndre Jordan finding offensive game at right time. That’s three wins in a row for the Clippers without Blake Griffin, this time Jordan put up 26 points on 8-of-11 shooting plus he had 18 rebounds. He was a force inside from the very start and was the focal point all night because Gregg Popovich went to the “hack-the-DJ” strategy. It worked in the first half when Jordan was 4-of-14 from the line, then in the second half he was 6-of-14 but the Clippers did not surrender their lead. With the Dallas loss to OKC, the Clippers are now the five seed in the West, and while things will change before the end of the season so far they are not slipping down the ladder without Griffin. And DJ is the main reason.

Plus, he did this.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-

Report: Iman Shumpert rejects offer from Rockets, who’ll have several familiar names in minicamp

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Iman Shumpert is the best free agent available.

Why hasn’t he signed yet? Apparently because he spent the offseason negotiating with the Rockets, but those talks haven’t produced a deal.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic:

I wonder whether Houston tried to sign Shumpert to a contract similar to Nene’s, creating another trade chip. The Rockets are close to the luxury tax and probably wouldn’t guarantee Shumpert much. It doesn’t take months to negotiate a simple minimum contract.

Shumpert (29) is a credible wing in a league starving for them. He played well for the Kings last season before getting traded to Houston, where he struggled. Other teams should be interested.

The Rockets have just nine players with guaranteed salaries. There’s plenty of room for some of these past-their-prime veterans to make the regular-season roster. It might mostly depend on which of Terrence Jones (27), Nick Young (34), Luc Mbah a Moute (33), Corey Brewer (33), Raymond Felton (35) and Thabo Sefolosha (35) are in the best shape at this stage.