I suppose it is possible, if you weren't paying attention last season or you were sitting halfway around the globe in Hong Kong, that you might have confused the Oklahoma City Thunder with a team you'd encounter in the CBA or the D-League. With all due respect to one of the league's hottest markets, the skyline, the airport and the Ford Center all could feel, to a newcomer who'd grown accustomed to the Space Needle, Sea-Tac, Puget Sound and KeyArena, like something you'd sample preseason-style in October rather than experience 41 times through the regular season.
But anyone with more than a casual NBA interest is well aware of the Thunder these days. Maybe too aware. Expectations already may have gotten out in front of the Thunder players' and coaches' experience. The reach for them in 2009-10 might, in fact, exceed their grasp.
Unless they know their sleeve length better than we do.
"I kind of like what people are saying about us because it's pretty accurate: We have a talented team that is on the younger side. But that doesn't mean you can't win basketball games. Our guys don't feel, 'We can't beat these guys because I'm only 20.' Our guys go into every game with a swagger that 'We've earned this because we've worked hard and we're getting better.' "
Getting younger, too, even as they get better and more experienced. Shooting guard
"There's a plan there and they've pretty much tried to stick with the plan, which is very much long-term," one NBA assistant coach said. "They've drafted well. Their players seem to like playing there. Now they've got to develop their young guys. They're kind of like Portland -- there was great pressure on Portland last year to make a big jump. Oklahoma City has kind of been anointed that way now."
All it took was a 20-30 finish from New Year's Eve on to inflate (some might say overinflate) ambitions for the Thunder. It was heady stuff, compared to the 3-29 start -- 1-12 that got
"The shining light during that 3-29 stretch was the guys brought it every day in practice," said Brooks, a longtime NBA backup guard and assistant coach. "I knew, I just knew, if we could avoid pointing fingers and keep working hard, things would turn around."
Brooks said his team seems happiest right in the gym. Actually, that's something a lot of coaches say. But Brooks can say it without lying.
"And they all get along -- normally you'll have a clique here and clique there," he said. "After practice, these guys are constantly drinking Gatorade together in a corner of the gym. I'm like, 'Get out of here. Go home. You've been here for two hours already.' But it's like they're programmed, all of 'em. I don't need to put expectations on these guys -- 'Hey, guys, summertime, you've got to work out' -- because they're doing it."
How will Brooks manage the challenges and expectations? Here are a few clues regarding how Brooks sees the Thunder at this time:
• On Durant and his lofty upside: "Kevin is unlimited. He has a great basketball body, 6-10, long arms, very athletic. Can handle the ball, shoots the heck out of it. And he has a big-time will -- every morning he wakes up, it's another day for him to get better. He's great for me, having a player like him where his attitude matches his talent.
"Numbers-wise [25.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 47.6 FG%], he was having a season last year that was off the charts. People said he probably wouldn't make the All-Star team because we weren't doing well. He was the first to come out and say, 'I don't deserve to make it. All-Stars have to put their teams in position to win more games, and I haven't done that yet.' That's huge for a guy who's just 20 years old and just starting to taste what the NBA is all about. He doesn't come in here and get all the credit, take all the glory and all the commercials. He works. He's a great teammate and guys like to be around him."
• On Green's willingness to be OKC's wallpaper: "You should be 'not as familiar' with his game because he's so steady, and he fills up a stat sheet but he does it so under the radar, and he kind of likes that. At the end of the day, he's got 17 points or 17 rebounds and his shooting is getting better -- he's just real content on plugging in and being a glue guy on our team."
• On Westbrook's role as a point guard with off-guard scoring skills: "He thinks like a 1. Can he score? Absolutely. A lot of the good ones now,
"I had to tell [former teammate]
• On midseason acquisition Sefolosha as a defensive stopper, maybe even defensive leader (the Thunder ranked 27th in opponents' field-goal percentage): "Having him the whole year will help. The way he plays is contagious. Some guys can change the game and not score a point, and he can do that. He can defend the 1, 2 or 3, and he has a good knack for -- and this is a talent -- getting scored on and coming down the next time exactly the same way, giving the same effort, like it never even happened. Those are the great defensive players, like
"We have to definitely improve from the perimeter. I've talked to Kevin about getting better and he improved some last year, especially rebounding and contesting shots. If he shows commitment on the defensive end, it all trickles down."
• On OKC's need for size up front: "
With new additions Thomas and
"I have to get better, too," Brooks said. "These guys are all doing the right thing and saying the right thing, but my job is to continue to build 'team' and keep us on the same page to execute what we've talked about."
The fans in OKC apparently are listening. The Ford Center got a summer makeover, and the Thunder broke ground on a state-of-the-art practice facility for 2010-11. Brooks noticed a change the other day, all based on fat expectations.
"People love their football here and they should, the teams are great," he said. "Last summer, you'd go around town and see two or three of our hats or T-shirts. But I was at lunch today and I saw four right there in the restaurant, someone wearing a Thunder hat."
Today, downtown Oklahoma City. Tomorrow, who knows, maybe even Hong Kong.