Quick Links

Thundering up for a first NBA title?

Thundering up for a first NBA title?

Before the Los Angeles Lakers acquired big man Dwight Howard from Orlando this summer, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the odds-on favorite to return to the NBA finals. The runners-up to Miami, the Thunder bring their big guns back in all-stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and sixth man of the year James Harden. Oklahoma City certainly will be a major factor but they have some seriouscompany now in the western conference.

As long as the Thunder have Durant in the mix they have as good a shot as anyone to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy. The silky smooth swingmanaveraged aleague-high 28 points and 8 rebounds last season as Oklahoma City went 47-19 and earned the second seed in the playoffs. Durant is quickly becoming one of the best closers in the game with the knack to hit big shots. In fact, Durant hit three game-winners alone in the 2012 playoffs, two of them against the Lakers in the second round.

The 6'-9" Durant can go inside and out to score and that's what makes him so tough to defend. Durant hit 133 three-pointers in the regular season last year, tied for third best in the league.With the soon-to-be 24-year old Durant back, the Thunder are not only a serious contender this upcoming season but for years to come.

If there was ever a dynamic duo in the league it would be the Durant-Westbrook combo.The scoring point guard Westbrook had his best season as a pro, averaging 23 points and 5.5 assists a game for the Thunder last season. Westbrook's decision-making got better and his constant attacking style kept opposing defenses on their heels. Like Durant, Westbrook is only 23 years-old with his best basketball likely still in front of him.

Durant, Westbrook and Harden kept their games sharp by playing for the gold medal winning United States men's basketball team at the 2012 London Olympics.Harden scored 16 points a game in the regular season and was a sharp-shooter off the bench, but he slumped in the Finals against Miami, averaging only 12 points a game.

Oklahoma City extended Serge Ibaka with a huge four-year, 48 million contract in the off-season. Ibaka averaged a modest 9 points and 7 rebounds but a whopping 3.7 blocks per game. Ibaka brings a physical presence at the powerforwardposition that electrifies the get-it-and-go offensive style the Thunder love to play.

In this summer's draft, Oklahoma City snatched 6'-11" Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Once projected as a top 10 pick, Jones slid down the draft board with a knee issue and there were concerns about his overallcommitmentto the game. Jones hopefully adds depth to the already deep front court led by centers Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Cole Aldrich and the recently signed bust so far, Hasheem Thabeet -- the former 2 overall pick by Memphis in 2009.

Oklahoma City also added former Georgetown shooter Hollis Thompson as a free-agent. Thompson will stick with the team if he can stick the outside shot.

Oklahoma City has the superstars and the supporting cast to be contending for many years to come and this season won't be any different.

Quick Links

John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

The Wizards in recent years have made a habit of trying to speak things into existence and then not having them actually exist. They have talked the talk and then sometimes haven't walked the walk.

A few instances come to mind, including Bradley Beal saying of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers that "they didn't want to see us" in the playoffs. Beal also said in November that the Washington was the best team in the East, just hours before James scored 57 points in the Wizards' building.

John Wall has made similar proclomations in the past, usually about himself, including how he is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Now, these statements were all relatively normal for professional athletes who pride themselves in always feeling like they are the best player on the floor or the field. It's part of the mindset that makes them who they are.

But when those statements are made and then not backed up, they can be tough to defend, and especially for a Wizards team which last season seemed to overlook the lesser teams and suffered a down year because of it.

Wall insists all that is about to change. In his 1-on-1 interview with Chris Miller on our Wizards Tipoff podcast, Wall said the message this year will be much different, much more muted than it has been in the past.

"We want to go out with a different mindset and a different focus. We're not trying to go in and think we're a team that has already established something and got respect from people. We have to earn that respect and that means going out and competing every night against the good teams or the bad teams," he said.

That doesn't mean Wall isn't confident. His belief in himself hasn't wavered and, in fact, he may believe in his team more now than ever. That's because he is happy with the offseason the front office has produced.

They signed Dwight Howard and Jeff Green in free agency, traded for Austin Rivers and drafted Troy Brown, Jr. in the first round. All should help the Wizards improve between Howard representing an upgrade at starting center and the others providing much-needed depth.

When Wall was asked by Chris if this is the most complete team he has played with in Washington, Wall left no doubts.

"Yeah, for sure. I definitely think so," he said. "I think it gives us the opportunity where we don't have to play as many minutes. That's the key. At the end of the year, you kind of fall short because you're fatigued. Nobody uses that as an excuse. You play and try to get into the best shape possible. But if you're playing 24 minutes, the whole half, and then 24 minutes and the whole half, you kind of get tired at some point. I think those guys can take a little of the burden and pressure off of us at times."

Listen to Wall's full 1-on-1 interview on the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Quick Links

Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

When asked at his introductory press conference for how he will fit on the Wizards' roster from a basketball perspective, guard Austin Rivers didn't first cite his three-point shooting, his ability to affect games scoring off the bench or his speed to run the floor with John Wall and Bradley Beal. The first thing he point to was his defense.

That may have surprised some people out there as Rivers has long been known for his scoring ability and not so much his skills on the other end. It's not that he can't play defense, it's just that most of the highlights he's produced over the years have been due to his high-flying finishes at the rim and wicked pull-up jumper from three-point range.

Defense, though, is something Rivers takes pride in and he hopes to continue developing as a defender in Washington.

"With how much Brad and John have to do every night, for them to not have to always guard the best guard on the other team, that's something I can come in here and do. Try to bring that competitive spirit and be one of the defenders on the team," Rivers said.

Rivers' defensive ability has produced some controversy among Wizards fans and media members on social media. Some insist he does not bring value on that end of the floor, while some numbers suggest he does have some defensive potential.

Last season, Rivers averaged a career-high 1.2 steals per game. He was tied for fifth on the Clippers in defensive win shares.

However, his 113 defensive rating was his worst since 2013-14. It was an outlier on the Clippers and not in the good way. He also ranked nowhere near the top of the league in deflections or contested three-point shots, two hustle stats that guys like Wall and Beal fair well in.

Rivers points to two attributes that he believes make him a strong perimeter defender. One is his versatility and the other you could call scrappiness.

"On defense [the Wizards] can switch one through three or one through four. I think that gives us a lot of dangerous options," he said.

As for his scrappiness, Rivers says it comes from the early days of his career.

"I had to figure out ways to be effective without [a jumpshot] and that's how I became a defender. I guess everything happens for a reason, right? I'm happy I did have those early career struggles because it made me find a side of me that I didn't do [early on]. Because I promise you I didn't play any defense at Duke," he said.

The last line drew laughter from those gathered at his introductory press conference. Rivers insists that he now takes that end of the floor very seriously. The Wizards certainly hope he can back up his words.

NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!