Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Caplan’

Rubio wants Wolves’ leadership reins


VIDEO: Rubio breaks down the upcoming season in Minnesota

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Yes, his jumper needs work and that’s why the Minnesota Timberwolves hired noted shot doc Mike Penberthy to help Ricky Rubio. Shots can be fixed, but when it comes to enhancing a player’s leadership, outside of hiring a team psychologist — which the Dallas Mavericks do, the Wolves do not and more teams should — there’s really not a coach, a sage or swami to bring in for a quick “fix.”

Leadership mostly has to evolve naturally to develop the maturity, self-assuredness and self-confidence that emboldens one to direct others. In Minnesota, that job is on Rubio. The Wolves, sans Kevin Love, are his team.

Nineteen-year-old No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins might one day become the face of the franchise, but in this transition season, it is up to the young Spaniard, still a couple weeks shy of his 24th birthday, to manage the emotions of an intriguingly athletic squad of relative pups who are likely to go through this season riding alternating waves of fun and frustration.

“It’s a different team, of course, but we have to move on,” Rubio told NBA.com in a phone interview Thursday. “We have to step up, especially me as a leader, be more vocal. Our young guys, they need someone to guide them. I think we have a lot of vets here that can do that. Mo [Williams] is a great example. Me and Kevin Martin can do the same thing.

“What I’ve been doing, since I am young, is leading by example, practicing hard and doing everything on the court. I have to learn how to be more vocal. I’m not good at that and I have to improve.”

One key for Rubio is to block outside noise. At the team’s media day earlier this week he didn’t want to discuss ongoing contract negotiations because he thinks it affects him on the floor. Last year he grew weary of the media’s inquiries into an increasingly restless Love.

“Of course we had a lot going on last year and the media was talking, they were wondering if Kevin wanted to be here, blah, blah, blah, and that hurt the team and hurt himself,” Rubio said. “Now that he’s not here, the media’s not going to talk about that anymore. I think that’s going to be good for him and for us.”

With the Love chapter closed, Rubio, fully healthy and now more experienced as an NBA player, could be headed for a big year, the year everybody has been waiting to see. For critics who wonder why he’s yet to make an All-Star team, it’s easy to forget the turbulence of his first three seasons.

A terrific start to his lockout-delayed rookie season — 10.2 points, 8.2 assists — ended abruptly in Game 41 with a torn ACL in his left knee. He didn’t return until December of the following season, one which Love played 18 games and Rubio never truly bounced back from the devastating injury.

“It was tough for me, physically, but mentally. That hurt me,” Rubio said. “When you come back, you’re thinking you’re going to be back 100 percent; you’re not. You can be in shape after a tough injury like I had, but you are not in game shape. That comes with games and it took me time to realize that. I was playing and I was going home thinking about what’s going on with me and all this stuff. So it was tough, plus people talking made it even tougher. So my second year was tough.”

There again he references “people talking” about his performance. And maybe such chatter has played mind games with his shot, too. Still, his Year 3, although ending again with no playoffs amid a slew of close losses and Love’s declining interest, finished strongly, with Rubio playing as assertively as he has in the NBA. He’s carrying that confidence into training camp, understanding the new responsibility before him.

He is excited about the new makeup of the team and the up-tempo style it will play. Whether an extension gets done by the end of the month or he goes into next summer as a restricted free agent (Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher predicts the Wolves will trade him), Rubio says he believes he can win in Minnesota. He said he’s not putting that type of pressure on his young team just yet. But, he said, ending Minnesota’s decade-long playoff drought is his focus no matter how improbable it might seem in a rugged Western Conference where Phoenix and New Orleans appear next in line to challenge for a final playoff spot.

“I feel more mature. I’ve been through good things and bad things that helped me grow up,” Rubio said. “Every season you can learn a lot of things even if you don’t make the playoffs like we haven’t done the last three years. Every time you don’t make the playoffs, you have something inside that you want to prove again next year. So it’s growing up. It’s something that we have to be patient, take our time and make it.

“I want to put my team in the playoffs, so all I’m thinking right now is growing up with my team and being the best I can to help my team win.”

Dirk’s ‘three-25’ puts Mavs in business

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki talks on media day

DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki is reaping the benefits of his unselfishness, at least on paper for the moment, anyway. When he sat down this summer to draw up a new contract with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the term “negotiation” hardly even seems applicable.

“Actually, for us, it was always three-25,” Nowitzki said Wednesday, referring to the exceedingly modest three-year, $25 million deal he signed in July.

Now 36 and entering his 17th season after making his 12th All-Star team, Nowitzki made it known last season that he would give his employer and friend of the last decade-and-a-half a serious discount on a new deal. Chuckling one day not long after Kobe Bryant signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension with the Lakers, Nowitzki said he wouldn’t be taking the Kobe deal.

Still, Nowitzki’s final figure fell below even what most league observers would have viewed as generous. It had mostly been assumed that Nowitzki would follow the Tim Duncan blueprint, a three-year, $30-million deal the Spurs great signed when he was 36. Nowitzki “negotiated” an even lower price.

“I think somebody reported it a little more, but that was never the deal,” Nowitzki said. “We agreed on three-25 from the beginning on. How’d we get that number? I’m not sure. It was just about leaving a lot of cap space and going for players. We already had Tyson [Chandler] at the time. Mark and [president of basketball operations] Donnie [Nelson] obviously made it clear we’d love to get some more pieces, so that’s the number we settled on.

“I’m glad it worked out with Parsons because if a guy’s restricted, you’ve got to throw a lot of money at him, and it worked that way. I’m glad he’s here.”

Three-point shooting small forward Chandler Parsons is indeed wearing Mavericks blue because of the Nowitzki savings. Cuban floored rival Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey by offering the 25-year-old Parsons a three-year deal in excess of $45 million. When Morey passed on matching, Parsons, who never made $1 million in any of his first three seasons, instantly became Dallas’ second-highest-paid player, a hundred-thousand or so shy of re-acquired center Chandler.

Nowitzki actually ranks fourth on Dallas’ 2014-15 payroll, also behind Monta Ellis. Paying Parsons $14.7 million this season with raises of about $700,000 in each of the following two seasons might seem like a hefty price. But taken as a package with Nowitzki, it’s practically ideal. Nowitzki’s low cost also helps the club in the coming summers when Dallas again will be flush with cap space.

Getting Parsons was a game-changer for Dallas, which has been moving players in and out ever since Cuban decided to dismantle the 2011 championship team following the lockout and ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement. After a first-round sweep by the Thunder in 2012, missing the playoffs after a dozen years in 2013 and nabbing the eighth seed at the wire last season, the Mavs are younger, more athletic and seemingly more capable at both ends, and they’re back in the conversation at least as a Western Conference contender.

I always trust Mark and Donnie,” Nowitzki said. “Did I like us letting everybody go after the championship? Obviously not, we all know that. They were my boys and we just won it all, so we would have loved to get a chance to repeat.

“But I trusted Mark and Donnie with the business decision that they had to make after the lockout. And then I think it took us a while to get our feet back under us after that decision. We tried for some free agents, we didn’t get them, and last year we started slowly building something.

“I think we got a lot better again this summer. Tyson should help us a lot. I think Chandler (Parsons) is going to be a nice player on the wing for us. So I think we’re a good team, but you know how the West is. It’s going to be tough to break into the top three or four, they’re so good up there. But we’re going to try. Hopefully we’ll stay injury-free and see what happens.”

None of it happens, however, if Nowitzki had not “negotiated” that three-25.

Blogtable: Finding Westbrook’s place

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Kobe’s production | Westbrook’s place | Knicks in the playoffs



VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook remain one of the most formidable 1-2 punches in the league.

> Scott Brooks says Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the NBA. We’re wondering if Westbrook should play 2 guard instead. What’s your thinking?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If Scott Brooks, former professional point guard by trade, considers Russell Westbrook to be a point guard, that’s good enough for me. What’s in a name, The Bard asked. That which we call a Rose (Derrick) by any other name would smell as sweet (if healthy). Same goes for Westbrook. No need to get hung up on position designation. The key is for Westbrook to complement Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in the Thunder lineup and for Brooks to build his backcourt to complement his irrepressibly athletic ball dominator. Time to move on from the John Stockton archetype, at least in this guy’s case.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: With all of the great point guards currently in the NBA, who is the best is a classic barstool question that can have many different and valid answers. Russell Westbrook, with all of his flaws, is the correct one on any given night. No, he’ll never be linked with John Stockton as a classic set-up man or Chris Paul as an overall floor general, but the Thunder have been one of the league’s elite teams with him at the point. It seems to me that if you moved him to the 2 spot, you’d actually be turning him loose to shoot even more and eliminating a raw, physical mismatch that he has over most other point guards. I’m also wondering why anyone wants to change one of the two main cogs on a Thunder team that has a .688 winning percentage over the past five seasons?

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Why would you play the, ahem, best point guard in the league at shooting guard? No. I’m leaving Westbrook right where he is. Westbrook is an All-Star, the guy does things no one else can do. OK, so some of what he does also makes you want to pull your hair out. He mentioned Monday that incorporating more player and ball movement into the offense is a high priority and suggested we might see something new from the Thunder in that regard. So we’ll see. But starting Reggie Jackson at the point and Westbrook at the 2 doesn’t make this team better. Westbrook averaged 21.8 ppg and 6.9 apg after all those surgeries last year. In the playoffs he averaged 26.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.3 rpg. Anyone else does that and we’re calling him the best point guard in the league.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: His career best for 3-point percentage is 33 percent and he’s been better than 44 percent overall twice in six seasons. So there’s that. Plus, he is uniquely effective because he is a PG with superior athleticism and better size than most on the other side of the matchup. Move Westbrook to the other backcourt spot and suddenly the Thunder have a small backdoor, a shooting guard who can’t spot up and concerns about not maximizing your second-best player. The only reason it should be discussed is if OKC wants to play Westbrook and Reggie Jackson. Otherwise, no go.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: He’s certainly the most talented point guard in the league and one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players, period. Westbrook without the ball in his hands is not the same Westbrook. There are possessions — sometimes when the game is on the line — when he needs to be more of a true point guard, but if you live by the Russ, you have to sometimes die by the Russ. It’s not like you can flip a switch in his head.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Of course, Scott Brooks is campaigning for Russ Westbrook, as any coach worth his whistle should. And he can make a great argument for the force of nature that Westbrook has become, warts and all. He doesn’t own the No. 1 spot on my list. That spot still belongs to Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers. But Westbrook is easily in my top five. My bigger issue is  with this mysterious “we” who are contemplating whether or not Westbrook should play the 2? That’s like playing a high-risk, high-reward dual threat NFL quarterback at wide receiver. Makes no sense to me!

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Russell Westbrook might be the most *talented* point guard in the NBA. I mean, his athleticism at the position is really unparalleled, both in the NBA today and historically. His combination of size and speed and explosiveness render him almost unstoppable in the open court. But that incredible package of skills also seems to dazzle Westbrook at times, and he doesn’t fully know how to consistently utilize those gifts in such a way as to lead the Thunder to titles. Westbrook is an amazing talent, but that doesn’t make him the best point guard in the NBA. Because that person’s name is Chris Paul.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: I think Westbrook stays where he is. Look at Kevin Durant’s numbers — the current league MVP has four scoring titles, with Westbrook playing point-guard. Also, consider this, Westbrook averaged 8.1 apg in the 2014 postseason, only behind Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, both of whose teams did not proceed beyond the second round. How much better can Westbrook or anyone else at point-guard do? Moreover, with Westbrook playing the 2-spot, how often is he going to get the ball, with Durant definitely being OKC’s number one offensive option. OKC’s problems against the NBA’s best remains an overdependence on Durant and Westbrook for their scoring. They need to address that rather than tinker with Westbrook’s position.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: When it comes to ranking point guards, Chris Paul is 1A and Russell is 1B in my book. I think playing him at the 2 is nonsense. Even if you add a another point guard, that’s just gonna cut into the touches and times he and Durant get to bring the ball upcourt. I do like two point guard sets and think Russ could excel in them, but only if you don’t have a point-forward type player like KD. Free Westbrook!

Marcelo Nogueira, NBA Argentina: These days there’s not a huge difference between a point guard and a shooting guard. It depends on the opponent and certain moments during the game, but Russell can play either position.

Blogtable: Knicks a playoff team?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Kobe’s production | Westbrook’s place | Knicks in the playoffs



VIDEO: Defense, says Carmelo Anthony, is going to be a focus of the Knicks

> We’ve seen a lot of changes in New York, and a vow from new boss Phil Jackson that the Knicks will be in the playoffs. Your thoughts? Playoffs? Are they a better team than last year?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Sure, the Knicks will make the playoffs. The East still isn’t the West and I think enough has changed with New York —  driven by Jackson’s arrival, altering the culture sufficiently — that it will be a little better. Carmelo Anthony got an awfully cushy call-out (five years, $124 million) but seems to get it now that his legacy will be limited unless his team wins big. My hunch: New York and Brooklyn share All-Star Weekend, then fight over the East’s final playoff spot

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The 37-45 Knicks missed the playoffs by one game last season, so Phil Jackson’s promise isn’t exactly going to register on the Joe Namath Scale in New York. Carmelo Anthony is re-signed and happy. That’s nice. Jose Calderon is at the point. That’s nice. They’ve swapped Tyson Chandler’s defense for Samuel Dalembert. That’s not so nice.  They’re counting on a resurrection by Amar’e Stoudemire and a recommitment by J.R. Smith. That’s unlikely. Can the sideline combo of Jackson and Derek Fisher get them to .500 if everything clicks?  In a glass-half-full world, I suppose. But hardly any more.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Yeah, I think they will be in the playoffs. They have a very motivated head coach and superstar. They’ve improved at point guard with steady Jose Calderon, and while losing Tyson Chandler in the middle theoretically hurts, he wasn’t healthy much last season and Sam Dalembert is serviceable, and I like the Jason Smith pickup. I really think Tim Hardaway Jr., can give the Knicks a real scoring boost and I’m eager to see Cleanthony Early bring some youthful elbow grease. Above all else, this team can have fun, and that was in short supply a year ago.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: They could be a little better, but the problem is, Cleveland will be a lot better. Milwaukee will be better. The team that finished just ahead of the Knicks last season, Atlanta, will be better. Indiana is a candidate to fall out of the top eight, and Miami will go backward as well, though maybe not lottery backward. New York and the playoffs will be a close call. For an October answer, I’ll say no.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThey’re in the 7-10 range in the East with a decent shot of making the playoffs with good chemistry (especially defensively), or injuries to teams that would otherwise finish above them. Jose Calderon’s shooting should help an offense that was already pretty good. The loss of Tyson Chandler would seemingly hurt the defense, but any cohesion on that end of the floor would be more than they had last season. They certainly have a chance of improving on 37-45, but there are a lot of variables.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Playoffs? We’re talking playoffs? In New York? Listen, nobody loves having the Zen master back in the building more than I do. He is truly great for the game. But I’ll refrain from any playoff proclamation about the Knicks until at least Christmas. We need to see this crew in action before swimming in those deep playoff waters. I don’t know if this a better team than what we saw under Mike Woodson last year. Derek Fisher’s going to have to find his own coaching niche with this group and from a personnel standpoint there hasn’t been enough of an upgrade to automatically vault this team into the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference. It’s way too soon for playoffs chatter from new York.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I do think they’ve built a better roster than they had a season ago. But as my co-host Rick Fox has talked about several times on the Hang Time Podcast, getting a full understanding of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense takes years, not weeks or months. So it might take these Knicks some time to be able to fully grasp how to maximize their offensive system. An for all the talk about the West being better than the East, the East should be more competitive top-to-bottom this season than last. My top seven in no real order are Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Charlotte, Toronto, Atlanta and Miami. Maybe we see Indy and the Knicks fight it out for the eight spot?

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: One thing is for sure, Phil Jackson has the magic touch, so I would believe whatever he says. If Phil says that the Knicks will go to the playoffs, I am expecting the Knicks to go to the playoffs. They have the talent to do so. The things they lacked and are looking to regain this year are chemistry and health.

Guillermo Garcia, NBA Mexico: I think that at this time they’re a real question. It seems to me that they can fight for eighth place to the playoffs, but are not a better team than last year and are going to be left out of the postseason.

Blogtable: Kobe, putting up numbers

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Kobe’s production | Westbrook’s place | Knicks in the playoffs



VIDEO: How far can Kobe pull his teammates along? That’s a big question for the Lakers.

> Kobe Bryant has averaged 25.5 points a game on 45 percent shooting in his career. So take a guess: What should we expect from him this season? Why?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: We should expect Bryant to join an hyper-exclusive club this season, namely, Players Who Averaged 20 Points or More at Age 36 or Older. There have been only three — Michael Jordan (2), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3) and Karl Malone (4) — doing it a total of nine times. Given Bryant’s relentless drive, his Jordan obsession and his shortage of scoring help on the Lakers, I expect him to put up the point totals. Keep in mind, though, that Jordan shot a combined 43.1 percent in his two seasons, averaging 21.2 points with the lowest PER numbers (19.9 combined) of his career.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: You’re asking this without a benefit of seeing a single preseason game, anything?  OK, going strictly on gut and what we know about Kobe, I have a hard time seeing him averaging less than 20 ppg. Maybe the shooting percentage is in the low 40s. Why? Because he’s driven to come back as the alpha dog. Because if his wheels are OK, he’s dead set on proving everyone who doubts him wrong. Because he’s going to get up his shots. Because he’s Kobe.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Here’s the thing, look at the Lakers roster, somebody’s got to score, right? Pau’s not even there anymore for an inside option. This show is going to be Kobe’s and as long as he stays healthy he’s going to get off a lot of shots and get his points. He hasn’t averaged fewer than 25 ppg since the 2003-04 season when he averaged 24. This might not be the same Kobe we’re used to, but honestly, we saw that coming as far back as the 2011 playoffs. This Kobe will still score points, and a lot of them because he’ll have to. He’ll average at least 22.0 a game.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I can’t predict health. But if he plays, he plays well. If it’s a guess you want, let’s say 18 points a game and 42 percent. That’s not bad for a 36 year old coming off two major injuries and most of a season on the sideline. Plus, he will be playing with several teammates for the first time (Lin, Boozer, Randle, maybe Ed Davis and Jordan Clarkson). There will be a lot of timing issues moving forward, which is why the shooting numbers will take a hit.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: With 36-year-old legs, without much help on the Lakers’ roster, and with No. 3 on the all-time scoring list in his sights, I don’t think he’ll be all that efficient, unless Steve Nash can somehow play 1,500 minutes and create easy looks for him. I’ll guess 26 ppg on 43 percent shooting (45 EFG%).

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’m not ready to close the book on Kobe just yet. Not now, not when so many are sure to doubt him. That’s the stuff he thrives on, what’s made him great for so long. A reasonable expectation, as long as he’s healthy, is for Kobe to go for 24.4 points a night on 46 percent shooting on a Los Angeles Lakers team that will need that and more from its best player. There’s no doubt he’ll get all the shots he heeds under Byron Scott and his supporting cast will be eager to defer to a rejuvenated Kobe.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog23 points per game on 42 percent shooting, in about 33 minutes per game. Kobe’s not the player he was a decade, or two decades, ago. But knowing what we know about him, the Mamba will be primed and ready to strike. And I think this season, with experience behind him and trusting Byron Scott, the Mamba will be able to temper himself a bit more and not feel the need to play 40-plus minutes every night. Which, in the long run, benefits everyone.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: The 2014-15 version of Kobe Bryant will be the smartest, more passing…est version of the Kobe we’ve seen. I’m afraid part of his explosiveness is gone (due to his injuries but also his age), but he could still be a lethal weapon. He should share the ball more, play with his teammates and build from there. More or less what he tried to do in the six games he played in 2013-14, averaging 6.3 apg. My guess is 22.5 ppg and 6.5 apg, shooting 42 percent.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: If his body stays right, I think he may average similar points per game (maybe 20-22 PPG) but will be less efficient. I only say this because I legitimately want him to abandon whatever it is the Lakers want to do with their roster full of short-term contracts and genuinely make a run at the all-time scoring record. He’s a chance to pass Michael Jordan for third all-time this season and I’d love to see him have a crack at Kareem beyond 2015. My advice to Kobe, jack it up!

Ball movement high on Westbrook’s list

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the Thunder’s media day

OKLAHOMA CITY — Visions of Pau Gasol, back to the basket, effortlessly tossing passes to cutters and slashers and 3-point shooters as if directing a choreographed ballet certainly danced through the minds of the Thunder, whose ambitions to increase ball movement in their potent, but heavily star-driven offense seem to have only intensified.

“Well, yeah, we had obviously a chance,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Monday of OKC’s summer dalliance with Gasol, a terrific low-post passer who chose to leave the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls. “One thing I look at is I love the team I have. I wished him the best. I had a great meeting with him. But it’s not something I even think about now.”

Brooks does love his team, and he’ll never miss an opportunity to let everybody know it. In fact on Monday he announced, without provocation, that Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the game.

And Westbrook promptly agreed.

“I feel like I’m the best player on the floor every time I step on the floor. That’s just my mindset,” Westbrook said during an exceedingly short and curt media session, perhaps the most telling sign that he’s back to 100 percent from the knee injury that robbed him of the 2013 playoffs and half of last season. “It’s not just this year, not just last year. It’s just how I think when I get on the basketball floor.”

If that’s the case then the Thunder’s desire to move the ball around more, to involve more players not named Westbrook, Kevin Durant or pick-and-pop maestro Serge Ibaka should not be the excruciating exercise it has been, particularly during out-of-timeout or late-game situations when execution is paramount.

But this is also a tricky area because Brooks must also allow his two supremely gifted stars to exploit their own unique skills to create for themselves and score. An over-reliance, however, can lead to over-dribbling, teammates standing around and ultimately either Westbrook or Durant forcing low-percentage attempts late in the shot clock. Memphis, a quality defensive team, has flustered Durant and the Thunder in each of the last two postseasons, winning in five games in 2013 without Westbrook, and forcing a seven-game series last year.

When Westbrook was sidelined during the 2013 playoffs, he watched the games from the suite level and said it helped him see the game differently. He vowed to return a smarter player. He missed half of the regular season and then was sensational in the postseason, averaging 26.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.3 rpg. But he also attempted nearly 21 shots a game and made only 42 percent overall and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

This summer the Thunder added 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow, the type of consistently lethal perimeter shooter they’ve lacked, and emerging second-year center Steven Adams has shown the ability to catch-and-finish in the paint. Westbrook said moving the ball isn’t just more talk, even suggesting we will take notice.

“I think that’s key. Moving the ball is definitely a big part of our improvement as a team,” Westbrook said. “It’s something that we made a conscious effort to be able to go into this year trying to do. There should be something that you see new from us.”

The Thunder have incrementally increased their assist totals over the last three years. In 2011-12, they ranked last in the league in assist ratio (14.7), the number of assists a team averages per 100 possessions. That also happened to the be the lone season OKC advanced to the NBA Finals. That season it also had Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, another rare player capable of getting to the rim almost at will.

The trade of Harden to Houston just prior to the 2012-13 season naturally forced changes that seemed unnatural for a team that had grown together the previous three seasons. In 2012-13, OKC ranked 23rd (16.7) and last year they ranked 15th, although their assist ratio didn’t change (Westbrook’s absence obviously also has to be figured into that). For reference, the Spurs led the league at 19.2 assists per 100 possessions.

“We know what it takes to win games. We know what it takes to get to the top, but we don’t know what it feels like to win a championship,” Westbrook said. “There’s steps we have to make as a unit, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to make those.”

Thunder happy to have fresh KD


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook talk about coming into the season well-rested

OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant turned 26 on Monday. Not exactly old age, but he’s also no longer the kid leader of the 25-and-under Oklahoma City Thunder fun bunch climbing the rungs of the NBA ladder.

He is on the climb to 30 now and things have become a bit more serious as titles have become more elusive. Human frailty has twice sabotaged potential championship runs in successive seasons and Durant’s upcoming eighth season in the league — and who knows, perhaps his penultimate season in OKC — presents another excellent opportunity to finish first. So with age comes a sharpened perspective, a narrowing of time and thus, a wisdom to make different decisions than one might have made previously.

Durant made one such decision in early August and not everybody appreciated it. After committing to play for Team USA and participating in its July training camp in Las Vegas, Durant exited it conflicted. He wanted to uphold his commitment, but his fatigued body was pushing him the other way and his head was telling him training camps would open two short weeks after the six-week World Cup odyssey with Team USA.

“He had actually texted me before he actually made it public that he was going to take a step back from it,” Thunder teammate Kendrick Perkins, a Durant confidant, said Monday. “He asked me what I thought about it. I said it’s what’s best for you. KD did a lot. He carried the load when Russell [Westbrook] was out, he was averaging a lot of minutes, played a lot of time on the court. Going through the season he kept it going to win his MVP and he played at a high level. And we’ve been playing damn near to June every year since I’ve been here. So it’s well-deserved.”

Durant’s decision to leave Team USA three weeks before the start of the FIBA World Cup in Spain came as a surprise to everybody, including chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski. Durant had made a well-intentioned commitment to play even when many of the NBA’s other superstars had not. The 2010 world championship MVP and 2012 Olympic gold medalist put his employer and Thunder teammates ahead of country this one time. He’s been clear he plans to play for Team USA in Brazil 1n 2016.

Yet when Durant offered a well-reasoned explanation for leaving the team on short notice, some called him a quitter, suggested he was being selfish during a summer in which he reaped millions in endorsement deals and said he unfairly left the team in a lurch. The next day, Rudy Gay happily accepted an invitation to replace Durant and the U.S. cruised undefeated to another gold medal, without even having to face Durant’s Thunder teammate Serge Ibaka and might Spain, thought to be Team USA’s toughest foe.  The Americans won their semifinal and championship games by a combined 65 points.

If only they had KD.

“I think it was more so that I didn’t want to be in full-season mode in August or July,” Durant said during the Thunder’s media day on Monday when asked about his decision not to play. “I just wanted that time to just free my body and my mind of it all and just go out there and workout and work on my game and just enjoy the rest of the summer. Because I know how long the season is, and I just wanted to be fully prepared for that.”

Durant has led the Thunder to at least the Western Conference finals in three of the last four years. No player logged more minutes than he did last season and his workload over the last five seasons is beyond reproach.

“I’d rather have a guy tell the powers-to-be, ‘you know what, I can’t give you my 100 precent effort both mentally and physically,’ because if you don’t you’re not going to help your team,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I have a lot of respect for Kevin stepping up. That was not an easy decision, but he stepped up and said, ‘I wasn’t mentally and physically ready to compete with the 12 guys we had.’ He played a lot of basketball. He’s entitled to have a summer off, right?”

Westbrook also pulled out of Team USA to properly rest a right knee that had been operated on three times in the span of eight months and sidelined him for half of last season. Both players had as restful a summer as they’ve had in years. Ibaka is back at full strength from the calf injury that forced him out of the first two games of the West finals against the Spurs. There is a lot of optimism entering camp that OKC is equipped to get back to the NBA Finals.

“I was glad to see him make a decision he felt like he needed to do,” said Nick Collison, Durant’s teammate since his rookie season in Seattle. “He felt that he needed to step away and I was glad he was able to make that decision because I know that was a tough decision. So, yeah, for our team, for us, I think it’s a positive that those guys [Durant and Westbrook] are coming in fresh.”

Gallinari seeks return to All-Star-level form

Danilo Gallinari hopes to return to his 2012-level of play (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty).

Danilo Gallinari hopes to return to his 2012-level of play (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty).

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — On April 4, 2013, when Danilo Gallinari drove past Dirk Nowitzki and planted his left foot just above the restricted circle, he figured he was going up for layup or maybe a dunk, and on his way to another big game — the basket would have given him 11 points with more than four minutes left in the second quarter — while putting the Denver Nuggets on course for an 18th consecutive home win.

At the time, the 6-foot-10 forward was averaging career highs of 16.2 ppg and 5.2 rpg, and was shooting the 3-ball at a 37.3-percent clip. The Nuggets, under coach George Karl, were 52-24, third in the Western Conference standings and top-four in the NBA in offensive efficiency with the postseason just two weeks away.

But when Gallinari planted his left foot, he never made it off the ground. His knee buckled. He immediately grasped it with both hands and hopped to the baseline and dropped to the floor. Soon he would be helped up and would disappear into the darkness of the tunnel. Gallinari has not been seen in uniform since.

So much has changed. Karl was fired and Brian Shaw was hired. Gallinari missed all of last season following surgery and the Nuggets, besieged by a slew of other injuries, missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003, the year before drafting Carmelo Anthony.

After extensive rehab, Gallinari, 26, is excited to make his return. He expects to play in the Nuggets’ first preseason game at the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 6. In an interview with NBA.com on Thursday, he said he anticipates a quick return to his pre-injury level of play that he says was deserving of a spot on the 2013 All-Star team.

“I was playing very well,” Gallinari said. “I thought at that point right before the All-Star Game, I should have been called for the All-Star Game […] because we were one of the best teams in the league, and so I think you have to call, you have to call somebody from the Nuggets to represent a great franchise and a franchise that was doing very good. I thought that me and Ty Lawson, we were the two that could have, should have been called for the All-Star game. So I thought I was right at that level, and so my goal is to get back at that level, if not better.”

Gallinari said he believes he has conquered the challenging psychological aspects of returning from an injury of this magnitude. Physically, he said he is happy with how the knee has responded as he’s incrementally increased his workload. He said he will be close to participating in all aspects of practice when training camp opens next week.

“I’m not at the same level that I left basketball because I haven’t played a game in a while,” Gallinari said. “The more I will play games the better I will feel. I’m very excited. I think I will be ready for the first game of the preseason; we are very close. Everybody is very excited. We all cannot wait to start this season.”

Blogtable: Up-and-comer in the West

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Rondo’s future | Rising in the West | Camp showdown


> Which team has made the biggest offseason leap in the West? How high can they go?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Did San Antonio sweep the sidewalks and trim the hedges outside the AT&T Center? Winner! That’s plenty of improvement for the champs. … OK, I’ll play along. I would say Denver given the return to health of key guys (JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson), the emergence for Team USA of Kenneth Faried and the addition of Arron Afflalo. But the Nuggets overachieved through their setbacks last season, in my view, so their improvement might not be easily discerned in the standings. That’s why I’ll go with the trendy pick, New Orleans. Health matters to the Pelicans, too, and a crunch-time front line with Anthony Davis and Omer Asik protecting the rim could be as good as gargoyles on the glass, swatting away shots.

Anthony Davis' gold medal turn may pay dividends this season in New Orleans. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Anthony Davis’ gold medal turn at the World Cup may pay dividends this season in New Orleans. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I’ve got an eye on the Mavericks. The addition of two Chandlers — Tyson and Parsons — could make them a threat. I don’t see Dallas as a championship contender, but if all breaks right the Mavs could make a run at a top four seed.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Mavericks added the most talent with center Tyson Chandler and small forward Chandler Parsons around Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. I really liked bringing in steady vet Jameer Nelson to run the point, eliminating them leaning heavily on Raymond Felton as a starter. That’s three new starters, which could mean some initial growing pains, but all these players are team-oriented, so it shouldn’t be too tough. They added some interesting depth with Al-Farouq Aminu and Richard Jefferson. They’ll miss Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, but both players are well past their primes. If they stay healthy, Dallas could push for a top-four spot.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Nuggets or Pelicans. Denver won 36 games last season and now expects to get Danilo Gallinari back after he missed all 2013-14, JaVale McGee back after all of five appearances, and adds Arron Afflalo in trade and first-round picks Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris. That’s the possibility of three new starters and the certainty of much better depth. That’s worth the 12-14 extra wins it will take to make the playoffs. New Orleans won 34 and now not only gets Anthony Davis fast-tracking to stardom, but also Omer Asik next to him at center. Good luck scoring inside on the Pels. One of the keys is what they get from Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson coming off injuries.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Dallas has the potential to be a top-four team in the West with the additions it’s made. The Mavs already had an elite offense, which should be enhanced by the addition of Chandler Parsons. And Tyson Chandler and Al-Farouq Aminu should help them get back to being an above-average defensive team again. Rick Carlisle is a great coach, these guys gave the Spurs a scare in the first round, and Dirk Nowitzki still has some gas in the tank.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: While I didn’t agree with all of the moves they made, there’s no question the Dallas Mavericks were the most fearless and aggressive outfit in the Western Conference during the offseason. Bringing back Tyson Chandler. Snatching Chandler Parsons. And doing it all while making sure Dirk Nowitzki remained on board and believing in the resurrection plan. That’s a master class on how to stay true to your core superstar while changing nearly everything else around him (not named Monta Ellis). The Mavericks will go as far as the new pieces will allow Dirk and Monta to go as the offensive catalysts for this bunch. No offense to Parsons, but the Mavericks didn’t need another superstar. They needed another role player with superstar potential willing to sacrifice all of his ambitions for the greater good, right now. I think they definitely put themselves back into the playoff mix in the Western Conference and somewhere far north of the No. 8 seed they earned last year.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I really like what Dallas did this summer. As Mark Cuban pointed out yesterday, they’ve picked up six players who started for other teams last season. They got a rim protector in Tyson Chandler, they got wing scoring in Chandler Parsons, two point guards in Felton and Nelson, and they add all those guys to a core that already included Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. And having Rick Carlisle on the sideline is a pretty good way to bring them all together. Last year they were a lower playoff seed that in the first round gave San Antonio their toughest postseason test. This just feels like one of those teams people forget about … until it’s too late.

Blogtable: Rondo’s future in Boston

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Rondo’s future | Rising in the West | Camp showdown


Rajon Rondo has appeared in only 68 games for the Celtics in the past two years. (Brian Babineau/NBAE)

Rajon Rondo has appeared in only 68 games for the Celtics in the past two years. (Brian Babineau/NBAE)

> You’re Danny Ainge: Why are you hanging onto Rajon Rondo? What would it take for you to part with him?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Ainge hasn’t traded Rondo yet because he hasn’t gotten a good enough offer. Rondo is completely out of synch with the Celtics’ current blueprint, in salary, in demeanor, in his career arc. He totes baggage, too, as far as coachability and his freedom to sign elsewhere next summer. This is a job for Ainge’s old buddy Kevin McHale (and McHale’s boss, Daryl Morey). Picks and/or prospects would get ‘er done, if I were Ainge, no marquee names necessary.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: He’s an All-Star level point guard. He’s 28 years old, certainly not at the end of his rope. As you’re trying to build a new generation Celtics team, it doesn’t hurt at all to have a point guard with his talent and experience to show the way. He wants to stay. What would it take? Another All-Star in his prime or a young talent capable of getting there.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: For me, I always hate to part with an All-Star player. I would much rather try to build around that player. It rarely happens where a team trades its best player and gets better. It’s just not a concept I understand. To part with him, I would have to get back a player with clear star potential, such as Minnesota managed to do in obtaining Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I am not hanging onto Rajon Rondo. Definitely not giving him away either, because Rondo has value, but I am absolutely entertaining offers and initiating calls. Marcus Smart is in place as the projected successor (though needing to answer some doubts about his ability to distribute and shoot). Rondo is 28 years old and has championship experience, making him a fit on a team looking to win big now or build into something in a season or two. The obvious hurdles to getting what I want in return are the concerns from other teams over health and the request for a massive payday that will be coming soon. If I’m the Celtics boss, though, and I can get a young-ish starting center as part of the trade package, let’s talk.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Trading Rondo is a lot easier said than done. First, almost every good team already has a good point guard. Second, since Rondo is in the last year of his contract and the 2011 CBA has basically taken away non-rookie-deal extensions, any team that trades for him would risk losing him (and whatever assets they gave up for him) next summer. Third, Rondo made no impact on the Celtics upon returning from knee surgery last season. So other teams should want to see how he looks this fall. Even if he looks great, it would be hard for Ainge to get much in return (while also maintaining his team’s future cap space) for a guy on an expiring deal.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’m hanging on to Rondo because I don’t yet know what I have in Marcus Smart, who might be my point guard of the future … I said might. There is no rush for me to do anything where Rondo is concerned. There is plenty of time to work the market and see what an elite point guard in his prime can fetch. Also, I want to make sure and do right by a guy who, no matter what kind of mess we had to deal with when he was coming of age in this league, brought a warrior’s mentality to the building every night. He played through all the aches and pains you could ever ask a guy to play through, so we’re not going to cast him aside for whatever we can get now when we can survey the landscape until the trade deadline and make a shrewd decision for both sides and make sure he lands some place where he can chase his championship dreams in return for a significant piece (or various other assets) that benefits our ongoing rebuilding effort here in Boston.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: If you’re willing to dangle an All-Star level talent on a rookie contract in exchange for Rajon Rondo, I’ll give you my cell phone number. If you’re willing to slide a couple of first round picks my way, I’ll actually answer your calls! Or maybe I don’t answer anybody’s calls because we’re in the era of the point guard which is as good a position to build around as any — you simply have to have a premium point guard to compete these days — and with a bunch of salaries coming off the books next summer, if I’ve got to sign someone to a max deal, why not reward Rajon Rondo?