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Thunder's Ibaka not just about defense anymore

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Thunder's Ibaka not just about defense anymore

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) After the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder faced a difficult question: If they couldn't afford to keep both league blocks-leader Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, which one would stay?

The Thunder ended up securing Ibaka with a long-term extension this offseason, providing the first signal that Harden's days in Oklahoma City might be numbered. With Ibaka's deal done, there wasn't enough salary cap space left to come close to Harden's demands and he was shipped off to Houston in a trade just before the season.

Meanwhile, Ibaka has quietly been giving Oklahoma City its money's worth. As one of the NBA's most accurate shooters, he's averaging a career-high 14.3 points and leading the Thunder in rebounding (8.5).

``I work hard. I try to do my best I can, getting better and better,'' Ibaka said. ``I don't want just to be like people used to know Serge Ibaka four years ago.

``Now is my fourth year in the NBA, so I try to get better at everything.''

When Ibaka first joined the Thunder, the expectations for the Republic of Congo native were minimal. Coach Scott Brooks repeatedly said his role was simply about playing defense and providing energy. That was a starting point after Ibaka was the 20th pick in the 2008 draft and spent an extra season playing in Europe to develop before heading to the NBA.

Since then, he's growing - not only developing his game but learning English. He earned an endorsement deal with Sprite around the time the player nicknamed ``Air Congo'' appeared in last year's slam dunk competition and threw one down after taking off from the free-throw line.

He moved into the starting lineup and led the league in blocks two straight years, even more impactful because of how his defense helped trigger Oklahoma City's fast-break offense with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Now he's getting more offensive chances with the departure of Harden, the NBA's top-scoring reserve last season. So far this season, Ibaka is averaging about five more points and his 2.9-block average is behind only Milwaukee's Larry Sanders.

``Obviously, his offensive game is expanded and he's still blocking shots and rebounding,'' said veteran Nick Collison, Ibaka's backup. ``But I think his focus is a lot better. Defensively, he's where he should be. He's not getting lost. He's been great for us.''

Ibaka's biggest offensive impact comes from offensive rebounds and springing free for mid-range jumpers when defenses crowd Durant and Westbrook on the pick and roll. It's a shot Ibaka has mastered over the past few years, taking dozens of them at the end of practice.

``He's a machine,'' Collison said. ``He's been that way since he's been here. He works and he puts in as much time as anybody. He's very serious about his work and it shows. He's improved a lot since he's been here.''

Earlier this season, Brooks said there may be no one on the team he'd rather see shoot a mid-range jumper. The statistics back him up. Ibaka is tied for fifth in the NBA, making 56 percent of his shots, and he's working toward improving his range to where he can reliably make a corner 3-pointer.

While he may never be the focal point for Oklahoma City, Ibaka is developing more ways to contribute to the NBA's highest-scoring offense.

``I know when you have a team with Westbrook and Kevin Durant, one of the best scorers in the league, every night you will not touch the ball but just be ready whenever it comes to you and try to make plays,'' Ibaka said.

Some of Ibaka's top performances have come in some marquee games for the Thunder. He matched his regular-season high with 25 points and had 17 rebounds in a Western Conference finals rematch against San Antonio and had 23 points and nine rebounds in Harden's much-anticipated return to Oklahoma City with Houston.

He has four 20-point games already this season, after having just two in his first three NBA seasons - along with a few in the playoffs.

``Now we expect it from him,'' Durant said. ``When he has a double-double, it's not like, `Breaking news: Serge had a double-double!' It's normal for him now. He's playing well for us, and we're going to need that from him all season.''

The Thunder went into the weekend percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers for the NBA's best record, with a difficult stretch ahead featuring 11 of their next 13 games on the road. It starts with a back-to-back set Sunday at Toronto and Monday at Washington.

``He's playing well. Teams are playing small against us, so he's hurting them on the offensive glass and he's making teams go big,'' Durant said. ``That's to our advantage when we've got the big fellas in there. He's doing a great job on the offensive boards, shooting the basketball well and he's just playing with a lot of confidence.''

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Uncertainty over NHL salary cap has Caps GM Brian MacLellan frustrated

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Uncertainty over NHL salary cap has Caps GM Brian MacLellan frustrated

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had a number in his head. It is the most important one for any NHL executive heading into the offseason: $83 million. 

That was the expected salary cap for the 2019-20 season and – with some small margin for error – the amount MacLellan and his staff used to formulate their offseason plan. But it is June 20 and the number that was originally at $83 million could drop to as low as $81.5 million, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. 

Given that Washington has some carryover for bonuses and overages from last season worth about $1.150 million, it could be working with a cap number as low as $80.35 million. That is not ideal for a team where every dollar could spell the difference between upgrading its middle-six forwards or adding a veteran fourth-line player. 

The NHL is expected to come to an agreement with the NHL Players’ Association soon and let teams know the number by Saturday, the second day of the entry draft in Vancouver. That’s a few days later than normal, however, and forces GMs to make decisions during the draft regarding trades and picking prospects they otherwise might not.   

"It's frustrating. We've been projecting using that 83 (million dollars) number for the last part of the year,” MacLellan told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “At some point, we switched back to the 82.5 because there was some rumblings there, and now it seems to be going back a little further. I know it seems like it's not a large amount of dollars, but it does impact teams that are right at the number as far as salary.”

On an $82 million cap, the Capitals have about $9.7 million in room according to the great web site CapFriendly.com. But they need to sign restricted free agent Jakub Vrana and add four other bottom-six forwards and a depth defenseman. That is an extremely tight fit and might rule out some free agent options MacLellan had interest in. 

The free-agent “interview” period begins Sunday when teams can talk to agents of pending free agents and gauge what their demands will be and if they are a fit when the market opens on July 1. 

That, in turn, effects negotiations with Vrana and any other RFAs (Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos) that Washington might want to bring back. Burakovsky is likely to be traded at the draft this weekend, according to multiple NHL sources with knowledge of Washington’s thinking. A further budget crunch would seem to seal his fate.  

MacLellan wouldn’t confirm that and even said “we like the player.” But Burakovsky is due a $3.25 million qualifying offer by Monday so the decision might have been made for them. If the cap is the worst-case scenario ($81.5 million) the Capitals are in a real bind. But they’d like to know for sure.   

“When you see it go down to maybe 81.5, I think there's a pause on our part,” MacLellan said. “We want to see the number before we move forward because it's going to affect our roster decisions even on the bottom end - on fourth line and what we have to do going forward because the margins are that slim for us."

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MacLellan provides injury updates on Oshie, Kempny and Alexeyev and the news is all good

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MacLellan provides injury updates on Oshie, Kempny and Alexeyev and the news is all good

The Capitals' season came to an end earlier than expected with their first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The end of the season came even earlier for Michal Kempny and T.J. Oshie due to injuries, but the latest updates on their recovery is all positive, according to Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan.

Kempny tore his hamstring during a regular season game against the Tampa Bay Lightning when he was taken down to the ice by Lightning forward Cedric Paquette. He underwent surgery in April and was given a timetable of about four to six months which would put him in danger of missing training camp, the preseason and even perhaps the start of the regular season.

MacLellan said Thursday, however, that he expects Kempny ready for training camp.

“It's wait and see, but we're expecting him to be available for camp,” MacLellan said via conference call. “He's progressing well. I haven't got an update over the last week or so, but before that he's on target to play in training camp.”

Kempny’s absence in the playoffs forced the entire defense to reshuffle. It was not until Jonas Siegenthaler was bumped into the top pair in Game 5 of the series that the blue line found any sort of consistency at all. Kempny's presence at training camp will be important for the defense to get off on the right foot.

The prognosis is even better for Oshie who MacLellan says is already back to working out.

“I think he'll be ready for start of training camp,” MacLellan said. “Last I heard, he was healthy and working out at our practice rink and doing well. But yeah, he'll be ready for training camp for sure.”

A nasty hit to the back from Carolina forward Warren Foegele in Game 4 of their playoff series knocked Oshie awkwardly into the boards fracturing his clavicle. Oshie underwent a surgical procedure in April and was said to be out indefinitely.

The news was also good on the prospect front as MacLellan said 2018 first-round pick Alex Alexeyev had avoided major injury after a scary looking knee-on-knee collision ended his WHL season in March. The young defenseman had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher following the play.

Just three months later, however, MacLellan says Alexeyev will be healthy for Washington’s development camp that will be held from June 24-29.

“[Alexeyev’s] healthy,” MacLellan said. “I don't think it was as bad as initially expected. He'll be at development camp here and fully healthy.”

That is a major bullet dodged for the Caps as Alexeyev is widely considered one of the team’s top prospects. In its futures edition, The Hockey News ranked Alexeyev No. 2 among Caps’ prospects behind goalie Ilya Samsonov. A serious knee injury would have been a serious blow to the future of a potential star player.

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