Future looks bright for Thunder

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo! SportsFebruary 15, 2011
Future looks bright for Thunder
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have led OKC to the top of the Northwest Division

Kevin Durant(notes) knew what people were thinking. Expectations for his Oklahoma City Thunder had started to grow since they pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the opening round of their first playoff series. A few months later, Durant and Russell Westbrook(notes) helped Team USA win the gold medal in the world championships. By the time this season opened, Durant was a leading MVP candidate. Westbrook was widely regarded as one of the top young point guards.

The NBA's future belonged to the Thunder. And not everyone was ruling out them also taking over the present.

"People kind of anointed us as a team that is going to be a championship team early on," Durant said. "People put that on us. We can't control that. We have to keep pushing."

Nearly four months into the season, the Thunder lead the Northwest Division and are in position to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. No one has elevated them to the ranks of the Lakers, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat as a top championship contender, but no one will be clamoring to play them in the postseason, either.

The big question for the Thunder now is: What's next? Do they try to accelerate their growth process by making a deal at the trade deadline, perhaps in an effort to improve their interior scoring? Or do they continue to stay patient and see where their current roster leads them this season?

Chances are Thunder general manager Sam Presti will remain patient unless he finds a piece that not only fits the team's current makeup, but also one that won't compromise the franchise's future flexibility. Durant just signed a six-year, $85 million extension over the summer, Westbrook will be eligible for his own extension whenever the league's new collective-bargaining agreement is agreed upon and forward Jeff Green(notes) will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. With so much uncertainty surrounding the CBA negotiations, it behooves the Thunder to be careful about seeking a short-term fix that could ultimately hurt them in the future.

"I can't tell you if we'll do something or not," Presti said. "But the most important thing for our team is that we stay consistent in the areas that we've established important to raise our quality of play."

And the reason the Thunder can stay patient is because their two stars are so young and likely years away from reaching their peak. Durant and Westbrook are both just 22. Not since the Detroit Pistons in 1982 with Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka has a franchise had a pair of All-Star teammates so young.

"We are fine where we are," Westbrook said. "We're getting better and we're going to make the next jump as long as we continue to work hard and get better.

"We have good post players as it is. Jeff, Serge [Ibaka], Kevin and I post. Everybody is always worried about our size. We take care of that with effort and how hard we play. That's the kind of team I like."

The big difference between the Thunder and Thomas' and Tripucka's Pistons is that the Thunder are a good team. The Pistons won 39 games in 1982, but didn't reach the playoffs. Nor did they face the expectations that the Thunder have shouldered this season.

"We were still very wet behind the ears," Tripucka said.

Said Thomas: "That was the start of something good in Detroit, and the foundation that we laid there in terms of playing hard and working together."

The Thunder have tried to do the same. Neither Durant nor Westbrook has let their success diminish their work ethic. Both continue to take the first bus over to the arena to work out early for road games – a practice usually reserved for rookies or players who don't receive many minutes. And even though Durant is leading the league in scoring for the second straight season, he says he's still learning how to win and how to value each possession.

So, yes, Durant knows what people are thinking. And he and the rest of the Thunder also are content to continue to grow at their own pace. They don't own the league yet, but give them time.

"We never get complacent with this," Durant said. "This is a great stepping stone for us. Russell knows that. I know that. It's the beginning. We got to keep working."