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.
"Sam Presti [the Thunder general manager] never has wavered on this, as far as expectations," coach Scott Brooks said in an interview last week. "We're going to look at every day as an opportunity to get better. We understand that we have young guys who are going to improve. They're very athletic and skilled. But we can never stop stressing to these guys how important it is to bring work ethic to the gym every day.
"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 James Harden, the No. 3 pick in the June draft, turned 20 on Aug. 26 after two years at Arizona State, the second as the Pac-10's Player of the Year and a first-team All-America. Harden joins a core that includes forward Jeff Green, who turned 23 on Aug. 28; Durant, who will be 21 on Sept. 29; and guard Russell Westbrook, who will celebrate his 21st birthday between Oklahoma City's seventh and eighth regular-season games (Nov. 12). Even the Thunder's old guys are pretty young (Thabo Sefolosha is 25, Nenad Krstic is 26, Nick Collison is 28).
"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 P.J. Carlesimo fired in November, 2-17 over the next five weeks under Brooks.
"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, Chauncey Billups, Steve Nash, those guys can do both. I'm not saying he's going to play like me -- if he ever does change his game to play like me, someone else is going to be coaching him. I want him to use his ability to get to the basket, get to the free-throw line, create double teams so he can kick to open shooters. That's the plan this year, to get him playing really aggressively but also looking for his teammates.
"I had to tell [former teammate] Charles Barkley he wasn't open when he thought he was. I told Russell, 'You can be a point guard in your first year or your 12th year, you're always going to have the same pressure -- four guys and a coach wanting you to give the ball to a certain guy. Kevin's going to want it, Jeff's going to want it, Nenad's going to want it, Thabo's going to want it. You have to figure out what's the best thing at that time.' That part of his game, he improved on a lot during the year."
• 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 Bruce Bowen. Thabo has that same sort of mentality. Plus, his corner three ball has improved a lot.
"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: "Etan Thomas has big-time size, a bigger defensive presence. We've got Nenad. Then we can move Nick down to his natural position at the 4. He's a tough kid who does a lot of the dirty work you need for a team to be successful."
With new additions Thomas and Kevin Ollie as perhaps the only Thunder players north of 30 this season, the real challenge for Brooks, Presti and a coaching staff that now includes Maurice Cheeks will be developing all that promise and potential at once. Think of it as the difference between raising five kids each separated by a year or two vs. quintuplets. Hard vs. way hard.
"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.
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