- J.A. Adande, NBA
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SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- The sounds coming out of the gym from the most boisterous shootaround I've ever heard were nothing compared to the sight that came afterward: Nearly all of the Oklahoma City Thunder's players and coaches walking the four blocks from Santa Monica High School back to their seaside hotel together.
"How many teams do you see do this?" wondered assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, looking around at the players in hooded sweatshirts, some with ice bags still wrapped around their knees, strolling down the street.
The answer is the same number of teams that treat days off like mandatory workouts, the number of teams that could collectively be nominated for "Most Improved," the number of teams whose general managers are quick to spit rhymes from The Roots. The answer is one: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
If you can't get with this team, your phone number must begin with 206. (Seattle residents are free to seethe at what's happened since their erstwhile SuperSonics left town in 2008. Just remember to direct your anger at owner Clay Bennett and NBA commissioner David Stern, not the players and coaches.) This group is everything you could want from an NBA team, regardless of the location. Professional skills, collegiate attitude. Actually, I'll go one step past that. They're like the Carver High team in "The White Shadow" (though coach Scott Brooks looks more like Dudley Moore than Ken Howard).
"We're so close. It's so fun to be around each other; it's really like brothers," Kevin Durant said. "Just growing as a group and getting more comfortable with the game. Our coaches do a great job of getting on top of us, never letting us slip and always wanting us to get better. I think we do a great job of responding to our coaches and not getting upset."
Yes, it's rare to hear a team's star offer unsolicited praise of the coaches. Whatever Brooks is telling them is working, though. They're 39-24 and on pace to win 51 games, a 28-game improvement from last season.
But at shootaround, as he gave instructions on how to exploit all their options off the high screen, I was reminded of just how much talent he's working with: The three players he used to illustrate his points were Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. Durant is second in the league in scoring. Westbrook ranks sixth in assists. Green does a bit of everything. Two 21-year-olds and a 23-year-old, as promising a young trio as you'll find in the league.
Those are the most identifiable players on the squad, even if they didn't draw many gawkers or horn-honkers during their post-practice walk in Santa Monica. The rest of the team was slickly put together by general manager Sam Presti, who has trafficked in draft picks, manageable contracts and trade exceptions. One league source still marvels at how Presti was able to get three first-round picks in Kurt Thomas trades: two from the Phoenix Suns for taking his salary off their hands in 2007, and another from the Spurs for sending him to San Antonio in 2008.
Presti is as surprising as his team. The bespectacled 33-year-old, who comes off as more MIT than NWA, keeps his car's satellite radio on the old-school hip-hop station Backspin and can drop rap lines in an instant. Now the question for Presti comes straight from a Jayo Felony album: "Whatcha Gonna Do?"
The Thunder will be about $12 million under the salary cap this summer, at a tier just below the teams shopping for the big-name free agents. Presti showed his interest in acquiring a center last season when he traded for Tyson Chandler before rescinding the deal when Chandler didn't pass the team's physical, and big men Brendan Haywood and Jermaine O'Neal will be on the market this summer.
Or they could try to import some knowledge to the NBA's youngest team by adding a veteran, the type of guy who can help the team get to the next level. The Los Angeles Lakers did it with Ron Harper and John Salley to begin their three-peat run. And it's no coincidence that the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers won their first playoff series after they added Sam Cassell.
But older players would be a short-term solution for a team built for the long haul. There aren't many of those older players with championship rings who are willing to sit and play Yoda. Upcoming free agent Derek Fisher is from nearby Arkansas, but if he hasn't volunteered to come off the bench for a championship contender in Los Angeles, would he want to do so for a team in transition?
It's quite possible that most of that $12 million will go into the bank to get ready for the contract extensions of Durant and Green, which would begin in 2011. That means the Thunder will probably have to get there with what they have. And they do have Durant, who's just four-tenths of a point away from averaging 30 per game this season. Since 2004, the only players to do that were named LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. Superstar? Check. And he isn't making any rumblings about leaving.
"I want to have the opportunity to win, and I think we have that here," Durant said. "It's not about the market; it's about getting better. We're all blessed to play in this league and to be getting the money we're getting. Trying to get to a bigger market is the last thing I worry about."
If that sounds more like Tim Duncan and the homegrown San Antonio Spurs than some of the big acquisition plays made by the Celtics, Lakers and Pistons over the past six years, that makes sense. Presti got his start as an intern with San Antonio in 2000, so that's as good a place as any to look for a blueprint of how he will manage this team.
You couldn't ask for a better group to make in-house improvements. This is basically the same roster that started last season 3-30.
"We said we would come back with a different mindset," Westbrook said.
It's most evident on defense, on which the Thunder have gone from 23rd in points allowed and 27th in opponents' field goal percentage last season to eighth and third, respectively. They notice the respect factor increasing.
"When we come in, they know it's not a pushover," Westbrook said.
Durant loves the feeling of walking into an arena and knowing, win or lose, it's going to be a game in the fourth quarter. Thirty-five of their games have been decided by single digits; 14 by three points or less.
If you followed Durant's Twitter feed last summer you kept seeing the word "work" pop up. And he kept talking about his teammates as well. You could usually find at least half of the squad practicing together, and the full group (minus the guys who were overseas) was back in Oklahoma City a month before training camp. Even when they went back to Maryland for Durant's birthday, they got in a workout in the morning before they left and a workout after they arrived.
"They understand they have an obligation to themselves to get better," Brooks said.
On an off day last week, coming off back-to-back games, 12 players showed up at the practice facility. Brooks jokes about changing the fingerprint-entry system so he can actually lock guys out.
The team is so tight you'd have to throw the players in solitary confinement to keep them away from each other. When they're in your town, keep an eye out for a bunch of tall guys in hoodies on the sidewalks. It's Carver High, without anyone having to leave by graduation.
"I like being here," Durant said. "I like being with these guys. I like walking from shootaround to the hotel with these guys. I like just being here, man. It's just fun."
As long as they remember to look both ways before stepping off the curb in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder are not your typical team.