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.

Report: NBA opened investigation into free agency tampering

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Summer in the NBA is always the most interesting time in the league. Free agency lets us see where players have not only decided to land, but which have schemed together in order to play with each other.

The term “preagency” has been coined to mark the period in which teams and players work out deals before free agency officially opens, and well before the moratorium ends.

It’s been thought that these rules have been circumvented as part of a gentlemen’s agreement between all teams with equal ability to navigate around the written rules. But according to a new report, several team owners are upset about the way things are going in the player empowerment era.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst reported on the NBA’s Board of Governor’s meeting this week, saying that the league has even opened an investigation into what went on this summer in terms of potential tampering.

Via ESPN:

Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.

The league has the power to punish teams it finds to be guilty of tampering ahead of June 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time — the first minute that teams are allowed to speak with representatives of free agents. It also might seek information on the timing of negotiations so that any revised free-agency calendar might better align with what is actually happening.

The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, speaking as the head of the labor committee, discussed the possible need to revisit free-agency rules in the next collective bargaining agreement, sources said.

I have two thoughts about this.

First, even if something does come of this, the fine has to be puny. Adam Silver has not strayed on the disciplinarian side the way David Stern did — much to his credit — and any reprimand is unlikely to satisfy upset parties.

Second, there will definitely be sweeping changes in the next CBA. So much has changed since the last lockout, and the money has gotten so big it’s inevitable that people want to make things better for their side. The players got themselves in a hole since 2011. They mishandled the cap jump in 2016, and the max contract rules didn’t create a rising tide that floated all boats. Star players benefited, but low-level guys are even more disproportionately compensated.

This stuff seems like the most boring part of the league, but in reality it’s what makes everything tick.

I won’t be surprised if the NBA levies tampering charges against one or even several teams. I’d be surprised if the league did much about it, though.

Wizards owner says John Wall ‘probably won’t play’ in 2019-20

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It was always likely that Washington Wizards star John Wall would be out for much of next year’s regular NBA season. The team has even filed for a disabled player exception for the 2019-20 season.

Now we have confirmation that the team is expecting Wall to miss significant time.

According to NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has said that they are going to take things slow with Wall, and that he will miss serious time.

Via Twitter:

Washington is still trying to figure out what to do with Bradley Beal, and with Wall’s contract on the books, they don’t really have much of anywhere to go. The Wizards used their No. 9 overall pick on Rui Hachimura, which raised a few eyebrows.

But the team at least does have a GM in Tommy Sheppard, and they’ve made several hirings in the front office to try and out-think their competition. Washington has made a few moves, including trading for Davis Bertans and signing Isaiah Thomas.

Expect to see the Wizards at the bottom of the East next year. Still, that doesn’t mean they won’t be entertaining.

Is FIBA’s decision to move World Cup to year before Olympics reason for USA drop outs?

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FIBA made a mess of World Cup qualifying moving the games from the summer to during the season for the NBA and all the major European leagues. The USA qualified thanks to a team of G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy, but the process was not pretty. For anyone.

Now it could be another FIBA decision that has led to the rash of stars — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and others — deciding not to play for Team USA this summer.

Traditionally, the FIBA World Cup took place every four years, on the even-numbered year between Summer Olympic cycles. For example, the last World Cup was 2014, the Rio Olympics were 2016 with the Tokyo games in 2020. However, FIBA pushed this World Cup back a year to 2019 (instead of 2018) and that has changed the calculus for players, something Michael Lee of The Athletic speculated about.

For American players, the Olympics are the bigger draw, when more people watch. We grew up with the Dream Team at the Olympics, not the World Championships. That means if players have to choose, despite the allure of the Chinese market, they will choose the Olympics next year.

The other factor: The NBA feels wide open, with as many as eight teams heading into the season believing they can win the title. A lot of those contending teams have new players, which is leading players to prioritize club over country this time around.

This is different from 2004, when the NBA’s top players stayed home from the Athens Olympics because of a combination of terrorist concerns and players not liking coach Larry Brown. Today’s players love Gregg Popovich, but other concerns are weighing on them more.

It has left team USA without the biggest stars of the game — Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the roster — but USA Basketball has such a depth of talent that they are still the World Cup favorites. The margin for error just got a lot smaller, however.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was working on jump shot with Kyle Korver (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s jumper is getting better. Last season after the All-Star break he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs that jumped to 32.7 percent. He struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games after the ASG, shooting just 16.7 percent, but off the bounce he shot 33.8 percent after the break. Also, all of last season he didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

What would make his jumper better? Working on his shot with the newest Buck, Kyle Korver.

Which is happening.

Be afraid NBA. Be very afraid.

Antetokounmpo recently said he is only at about 60 percent of his potential. If he can start to consistently hit threes off the bounce when defenses sag back off the pick-and-roll (trying to take away his drives), he might become unstoppable. Or, more unstoppable. If that’s a thing.