Thursday July 22nd, 2010

LAS VEGAS -- The scene was familiar, one repeated in the cavernous Oklahoma City practice facility often. On one end of the floor, Thunder forward Kevin Durant ran through shooting drills with an assistant coach. On the other end, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook hoisted a few jump shots and swapped a few jokes with each other. Observing from the baseline was coach Scott Brooks, the NBA's reigning Coach of the Year, who soaked it all in from his baseline perch.

Only the USAs printed across the players' chests enforced the reality that this wasn't a typical Thunder practice, that indeed this trio was playing for something different. No team is better represented at this summer's USA Basketball camp than Oklahoma City. Durant is a lock to make next month's world championships roster and is considered the face of this new crop of American talent. Westbrook is considered a strong candidate to join him in Turkey while Green's chances of making the team were enhanced when Robin Lopez and David Lee were forced to withdraw with injuries and the Knicks yanked Amar'e Stoudemire out after they couldn't properly insure him for the tournament.

"It's great, isn't it?" said Brooks, who was on hand to observe his young trio. "It's a great experience for everyone."

A lot has changed since Oklahoma City's gut-wrenching first-round loss to the Lakers in April. The core of the team has remained intact, supplemented by rookie center Cole Aldrich and veteran sharpshooters Morris Peterson and Daequan Cook. The sting of losing is still there -- "what we realized was that the Lakers were better than us," said Brooks -- but there is a burgeoning sense of optimism for the future.

Needs were addressed in the offseason. The Thunder's athletic front line of Green, Nenad Krstic and Serge Ibaka were matchup nightmares most nights but were exposed against more formidable fronts. Enter Aldrich, a 6-foot-11, 245-pound bruiser who averaged 9.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game at Kansas last season.

"You could see in the playoffs, when we lost, Pau Gasol was all over the rim," said Green. "Another rebounder like Cole could put us over the top."

Said Brooks, "I like Cole. He's a defender, a screen setter, a ball mover. We already have some pretty good scorers. We want him to learn our system as quickly as possible. He is going to have to come to camp in shape and ready to play."

Shooting was an issue, too. The Thunder were a prolific scoring team last season, averaging 101.5 points per game. But they did most of their damage inside the three-point line: Oklahoma City finished 25th in the NBA (34.0 percent) in three-point percentage last season. The additions of Cook (a career 35.8 percent three-point shooter) and Peterson (37.4) bolsters their arsenal and should help open up driving lanes for Durant and Westbrook and keep double teams off of Green in the low post.

Of course, the Thunder's biggest advantage going into next season is that its Big Three should be better. Brooks says the players have been working out for weeks -- "we're in game shape right now," said Brooks -- and that he is expecting to see significant improvements from his talented troika. After making major strides defensively last season, Durant will be asked to take even more this season. Offensively, Brooks will try to employ the rangy Durant more at the top of the circle, where he would pose Dirk Nowitzki-like matchup problems, and work with him on being more in control when he comes off screens.

Green will be asked to become a better facilitator -- the Thunder place a premium on sound passing big men -- while the coaching staff has impressed on Westbrook the importance of competing on every single possession.

"These guys are mature for their age," said Brooks. "They are all level headed. They are all humble. They understand expectations are going to be raised this season. But they understand we have to focus on what we do and how we do it, and that means sacrificing own personal gains for the team. If we do that, I see us continuing to get better."

There won't be many off the court distractions, either. Had Durant elected to play out his existing contract and become an unrestricted free agent in two years, his availability would have created a LeBron-like circus around the team. Every city the Thunder visited, Durant would be peppered with questions about his future, a constant distraction for a young team. But by signing a five-year, $82 million extension earlier this month, Durant answered all questions about his future, redirecting the spotlight to the team's on-court success.

"I have no regrets at all," said Durant. "I like being with our team. When I first came to the league, I wanted to be on one team my whole career. I love our team, we're moving in the right direction."

Of course, there will be some issues. Green is eligible for an extension and he told SI.com on Wednesday that he was holding out hope one could still get done. But the Thunder are expected to wait until next summer to deal with Green, who will be a restricted free agent (giving Oklahoma City the right to match any offer) and under a new collective bargaining agreement, one that will likely lower player salaries significantly.

The Thunder won't sneak up on anyone, either. The presence of Durant and the team's strong showing against the Lakers in the playoffs ensures they will get everyone's best shot next season.

"If you want to be at the level our team wants to get to, you have to be ready to play hard every night," said Brooks. "We can't take possessions off. We can't go into arenas and expect to win. If you do, you're done. But we won't get to that spot. Our guys respect the league and respect it to know they have to go into each game and give everything they have. Every one of our guys is ready to play and excited for next season."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.