Since Sam Presti took over as the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the spring of 2007, the organization's message has been the same: Work hard. Play together. Improve every day. That message was amplified when Scott Brooks became head coach in 2008 and personified by Kevin Durant, the team's selfless, tireless superstar.
But with the NBA in the middle of a lockout and team officials forbidden from having any contact with players, Thunder management has been unable to supervise one of the league's youngest rosters. It can only hope that its players don't fall out of shape or fall into any bad habits.
Durant is determined to make sure neither of those things happen.
"I've checked in with everybody," the 22-year-old All-Star said. "First off, I trust all my guys. They are all working hard and getting ready for next season. We're all family and we're going to keep checking in with each other and make sure we get through this."
For a lot of NBA players, Durant said, "the lockout still isn't real." Players routinely take July to rest and work on individual skills before getting into team workouts in August and September. Durant is doing the same, working out in Miami with a personal trainer. He said "four or five" Thunder players will likely travel to Houston next month, where center Kendrick Perkins is working out. If the lockout is still in place in September, Durant plans to gather the entire team together for workouts. Between now and then, he said he'll travel to several cities to work out with his teammates.
"I like traveling," Durant said. "Working out with the guys, it's going to help us get better. I've talked to a bunch of them and said, 'Make sure the schedule is clear.' "
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"I love playing in the States," he said. "But I want to play somewhere. If you have an opportunity to [play overseas], it's something you have to think about."
While Durant has not been overly active in the collective bargaining negotiations, he is heavily invested in the outcome. He is keenly aware that he will be playing under the rules -- and salary structure -- of the next agreement for the next 10 years.
"I just want to make sure I'm in the loop with everything," he said. "I went to one meeting during All-Star weekend and we were so far apart I knew it was going to take awhile. The owners don't want to give in on the things that we want. As players, we have to stay together. But I really want to get [a deal] done for the fans, the people who enjoy watching the game."
Even if the lockout cost the league some games, the Thunder are one of the few teams well-positioned to make a strong run next season. They are young, so the murderous three-games-in-three-nights stretches that the NBA went to after the 1998-99 lockout won't affect them as much. They have virtually no holes -- the top eight rotation players are under contract next season and newly re-signed Nazr Mohammed, second-year center Cole Aldrich and rookie guard Reggie Jackson will be in the mix -- so there will unlikely be any roster turnover once the lockout is lifted. And the experienced core that has grown together for the last two seasons should prevent any chemistry issues.
Even coming off last season's surprising run to the Western Conference finals, Durant isn't ready to make any bold title predictions. Yet.
"The expectations are something we can't control," Durant said. "I know losing [to Dallas], it hurt. But I had to look at it from the bigger picture. We got better. I wanted to win, but I look at it now like we have to go through some things before we get all the way there. But there is no timetable. With us, there is no limit to what we can do."