As Durant grows, so do the Thunder
Kevin Durant knows what you think about Oklahoma City. Minor-league town, major-league wannabe. Great place if you like college football, a cheap steak and slow nights. Want to watch a high-level NBA game? Head three hours south on I-35 to Dallas. Better yet, don’t exit until you get to San Antonio.
Kevin Durant also knows what you think about his Oklahoma City Thunder, provided you even realize they exist. Bad uniforms, bad team. Their carpet-bagging Okie owner stole them from Seattle. For Durant, this has to be basketball purgatory. A place to get his shots up, collect his millions and wait until the big markets come calling in 2011 or ’12. For the love of the Big 12, he’s a Texas Longhorn sentenced to work in OU country.
No wonder someone started a web site, iwantoutofokc.com, that counts down the seconds until Durant becomes a restricted free agent. Tick … tick … tick … tick… Guaranteed salvation is just a few short seasons away.
So, yes, Kevin Durant knows what you’re thinking. He also wants you to understand this:
“Hopefully,” he says, “I’ll spend my whole career here.”
Durant sees a future with the Thunder, and, as unlikely as that seemed even a month ago, he’s building a case for why everyone else should also see the skies clearing over OKC. This week, the Thunder moved out of the NBA’s basement for the first time since early November. The upgrade in accommodations, as potentially short-lived as it may be, came on the heels of a stretch in which the Thunder won six of their past nine games – four more victories than they totaled in their first 26 outings of the season.
The success, though modest, appears to have caught even the team’s followers by surprise. The Oklahoman, which only weeks earlier had contemplated running a story asking Chicago Cubs fans for advice on how to support a floundering franchise, instead recently questioned whether the Thunder had begun to win too much. The more victories the Thunder accumulate, the fewer ping-pong balls they’ll likely have in May’s draft lottery. And the fewer ping-pong balls they own, the less chance they’ll have of winning the No. 1 pick to use on Oklahoma forward and local hero Blake Griffin.
Landing Griffin would be a coup for Oklahoma City; front-line toughness is increasingly harder to come by in the NBA these days and no marketing department ever turned down an opportunity to cash in on civic pride. But if the Thunder seem a little less dependant on lottery luck than they did in those brutal days of November, it’s because they appear to already have the makings of a promising youth brigade. Durant, still just 20, continues to grow his game into his endless wingspan. Versatile second-year forward Jeff Green, 22, has become an increasing matchup problem for opponents and 20-year-old rookie guard Russell Westbrook has validated his selection as the fourth overall pick in last summer’s draft.
The Thunder have begun to win some games. More important is how they’ve won: Durant, Green and Westbrook have done the heavy lifting. Wednesday’s victory over the Memphis Grizzlies offered a snapshot of both their potential and their growing pains. The Thunder dug themselves a large hole, rallied, blew a sizeable lead late then scored the final 12 points of OT to win. Durant, Green and Westbrook combined for 74 points, 21 rebounds, 15 assists and five blocks.
The reality: The Thunder aren’t even mediocre yet, let alone good. They’re just as capable of starting a six-game losing streak Friday in Utah. But they’re better than they were and they think they can get better than they are.
“There’s no other place to go,” Durant said, “but up.”
Considering how their season started, the Thunder have already made up a lot of ground. The team lost 11 of its first 12 games, costing coach P.J. Carlesimo, who was nearly let go over the summer, his job. Carlesimo had softened his image during the five seasons he served on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio, but those Spurs teams were stocked with veterans. In Seattle and Oklahoma City, Carlesimo found himself helping oversee a tear-down project. The losing quickly wore on him. His own sourness wore on everyone else. By the end, the players had tuned out his rants. Westbrook, in particular, was a popular target of Carlesimo’s.
“Sometimes it’s not the players’ fault, sometimes it’s not the coach’s fault,” said Thunder guard Desmond Mason, who was lost for the season after suffering a hyperextended right knee on Wednesday night. “Sometimes it’s just not a good fit.”
Assistant coach Scott Brooks was given the job to guide the Thunder for the remainder of the season. He told the players the tough times wouldn’t last forever if they kept working. Then, to help ease those tough times, he shifted Durant from shooting guard, where Carlesimo had played him, to small forward.
Durant instantly benefited from the move. He scored 30 points in his first game under Brooks, and has had at least 21 in all but five of the 33 games since the change. In January, he’s averaged 27.7 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Moving closer to the basket has helped Durant, who can put his 6-foot-10 frame to work on the post against smaller defenders. But he’s also become a smarter, more selective scorer. For the season, he’s shooting 47.2 percent overall and 42.1 percent from the 3-point line. That’s a noticeable spike from last season, when he failed to make even 30 percent of his 3-point attempts and was considered little more than a one-dimensional chucker.
“He can pretty much get a shot any time down the floor, and he pretty much did that all last season,” Brooks said. “Now he understands that one more swing, one more hard cut can get you a better scoring opportunity.”
Durant has also put his length to better use on the defensive end, though he’s not a stopper by any means. He’s whisker-thin, needs to continue to strengthen his upper body, and even then he’ll still have trouble scaring off the playground bully.
“It’s hard to be good if you’re not strong,” one Western Conference scout said. “I compare him to what Dirk [Nowitzki] went through. He’s a hard cover because of his length and awkwardness or gangly size, but it took him a while to get there. I was skeptical about Durant and I think he’s gotten a lot better, but he’s still got a long ways to go.”
Durant has played well enough to already merit All-Star consideration. He says he needs to win more to measure up to the other reserve candidates, but this much also is true: If All-Star rosters were expanded to 14 players each, he’d be a near-lock on his numbers alone. Regardless, he has a ticket booked to Phoenix to play in the rookie-sophomore game with Green and Westbrook.
Sharing the court with his two teammates is good enough for Durant. He calls Green and Westbrook “my brothers” and the three, along with 22-year-old rookies D.J. White and Kyle Weaver, spend much of their time off the floor together. The group frequently gathers at White’s house because White’s girlfriend is a good cook – and because White’s home is one of the few equipped with a washer and dryer.
“A lot of time, looking from the outside in, you never know about guys,” Westbrook said. “But once I got here, I saw everybody likes to joke around the same as me.”
Green joined Seattle about 20 minutes after Durant. On the night of the 2007 draft, the Sonics started their rebuilding process by trading Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics for a package that included the No. 5 pick. After taking Durant No. 2, Seattle added Green. Like Durant, Green has improved significantly from last season to this. He’s hiked his scoring more than six points per game and is making better than 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. Brooks has occasionally flip-flopped Durant and Green at the two forward positions, depending on matchups.
“If Jeff is as good as he’s shown, they could really have something there,” one scout said. “Last season I thought he was a borderline bust.”
Westbrook was another pick of Thunder GM Sam Presti’s that initially drew some criticism. Several teams had Jerryd Bayless or Eric Gordon – or both Bayless and Gordon – ranked ahead of Westbrook on their draft boards. But after watching Westbrook’s workouts, Brooks said, “you could just see he was committed to being tougher than his opponent.”
So far, Westbrook has rewarded the Thunder for their faith. He was the league’s Rookie of the Month for December and has averaged 16.3 points and 5.8 assists in January, numbers comparable to those of fellow rookie guards Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo.
It’s not a coincidence that Durant (Texas), Green (Georgetown) and Westbrook (UCLA) all came from accomplished college programs. Before Presti was hired as GM, the Sonics’ three previous drafts, two of which included lottery picks, yielded Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Mouhamed Sene, a trio of big men who ultimately proved too injured or too raw to contribute. The Sonics also were failing financially. With Rashard Lewis hitting the free-agent market (and ultimately landing a staggering $118 million contract from Orlando), Presti decided to trade Allen and begin rebuilding through the draft rather than continue to put a middle-of-the-pack team on the court.
Presti and his staff have taken a disciplined approach to reshaping the roster, valuing high-character, tough-minded players. The team could be flush in salary-cap space over the next two summers and will have three first-round picks in this season’s draft and two in the next, including Phoenix’s unprotected selection in 2010, a pick that could gain in value if the Suns start their own rebuilding effort. Veterans Joe Smith, Earl Watson and Chris Wilcox also could attract varying degrees of interest from contending teams as the Feb. 19 trade deadline approaches. The Thunder, who now have one of the league’s better business models, insist they’ll be selective with how they use their assets.
“We feel like we’ve positioned ourselves well, and one of our goals was to build an organization that could sustain itself and continually grow along with some of the young players we’ve accumulated,” Presti said. “And that’s a challenge.”
Durant and Green have realized as much. After the franchise’s hurried relocation from Seattle, players and coaches alike had reason to wonder if the team had picked up a truckload of bad karma in the move. Of the 24 losses the Thunder have suffered under Brooks, half have been by six points or less. Detroit’s Allen Iverson and Denver’s Carmelo Anthony beat Oklahoma City with last-second shots.
“I felt like Eeyore,” Brooks said. “I felt like there was always a rain cloud over my head.”
Mason and Smith have given the Thunder a veteran umbrella to shield the younger players. The two have preached patience while advising their teammates not to get comfortable with the losing. Oklahoma City also has warmly embraced the team. The Thunder sold their limit of 13,000 season tickets in a little more than four days and the Ford Center has averaged more than 97 percent capacity, 10th-best in the league.
“Even when we couldn’t win we were treated as if we had an undefeated record,” said Mason, who attended Oklahoma State and also played for the New Orleans Hornets while they were displaced to Oklahoma City by Hurricane Katrina. “When I was with the Hornets, people around the league would always say, ‘Let’s see what it’s like when the honeymoon is over.’ Well, the support has never changed.”
Durant likes OKC’s collegiate feel. Win or lose, he can go to dinner after a game without getting hassled. A larger, more-hardened city might not be as accommodating to a franchise in the throes of rebuilding.
“It fits my personality,” Durant said. “I’m a laid-back kind of guy. I just like to relax, chill, and this is really laid-back. It’s quiet. This is where I want to be.”
Durant could always change his mind. If the Thunder don’t turn into consistent winners, the losing will wear on him, too. Eventually, the losing gets to everyone.
For now, though, Kevin Durant isn’t looking at his watch. He sees a bright future with Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook at his side. Good friends, cheap steaks, slow nights and, some day, the NBA playoffs. Even a Longhorn in Sooner country can dream, can’t he?