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Art Garcia

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Kevin Durant remains the centerpiece of a still-building team in Oklahoma City.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Young, talented Thunder try to build something that lasts

By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Sep 9 2009 9:47AM

This summer wasn't about fireworks in Oklahoma City. There wasn't a big, splashy trade or head-turning free-agent signing to be made by a franchise with the ability to do both. No big-name coach burst through the door ready to turn the whole thing around.

But to assert that all was quiet on the prairie isn't fair. The Thunder front office is working. A plan is in place to build a Playoff contender. You've just got to listen.

"We're always looking to evaluate our team," Thunder general manager Sam Presti told NBA.com. "We're working very hard to create flexibility for ourselves from a cap standpoint. But that being said, we're also being very methodical and process-oriented as we acquire pieces because our chief focus for our franchise is to build a team that's sustainable.

Reversing Fortunes
NBA.com's experts review the teams that didn't make the Playoffs last season and what they'll need to do to avoid the Lottery next season.
Date Team
Aug. 23 New Jersey Nets
Aug. 24 Toronto Raptors
Aug. 25 Oklahoma City Thunder
Aug. 26 Phoenix Suns
Aug. 27 Charlotte Bobcats
Aug. 28 Minnesota Timberwolves
Aug. 31 Memphis Grizzlies
Sept. 1 Washington Wizards
Sept. 2 Sacramento Kings
Sept. 3 Golden State Warriors
Sept. 4 New York Knicks
Sept. 7 L.A. Clippers
Sept. 8 Indiana Pacers
Sept. 9 Milwaukee Bucks

"We feel the team that we have in place needs a chance to continue to play and grow, understanding that there are going to be peaks and valleys ahead."

Translation: Now is not the time to go on a spending spree. The Thunder are not ready to win just yet. The rebuilding process, going back to the franchise's lame-duck season in Seattle, is barely two years old.

The GM Handbook for teams with wads of cash says go after the biggest names on the market. Presti had about $10 million at his disposal this summer. A play could have been made for Utah's restricted free agent Paul Millsap, a power forward many projected as a logical fit in OKC's undersized frontcourt.

But why spend now when it isn't clear what exactly is needed? The $10 million now should be about $15 million in a year, even though the league's cap is expected to shrink. And while there's a bumper crop of free agents on the horizon next summer, Presti also has the Thunder's stable of young studs to re-sign in the coming years.

"As we continue to watch them play and grow," Presti added, "we're going to have a better idea as to what direction and pieces we need to add as we evolve as a basketball team."

Kevin Durant is the lynchpin, but hardly the only piece. Point guard Russell Westbrook and forward Jeff Green emerged last season. Lockdown guard Thabo Sefolosha and center Nenad Krstic were added during the season, giving the Thunder a hungry and hard-working group that improved under now full-time coach Scott Brooks.

The Draft brought lottery pick James Harden, a versatile guard that Presti believes is the perfect complement to the group in place. "We feel that James is a player that's capable of doing several different things from the backcourt and rounds out our perimeter," Presti said. OKC also picked up center Byron Mullens late in the first round to join a big man rotation that includes Nick Collison, second-year power forward D.J. White and veteran Etan Thomas.

Durant is back in the gym determined to take his budding All-Star talents to the next level. He took part in USA Basketball's summer camp, along with Westbrook. Durant has worked to improve his strength and conditioning. It isn't so much about bulk or sheer bench-press power with him as it is about balance and durability.

"He's once again taken a very focused and professional approach to building his game this summer," Presti said.

There's a growing sentiment to tab the Thunder as a possible surprise team in the Western Conference based on the last season's second-half improvement and the presence of Durant. As Presti cautions, though, there is a process in play. The Thunder were last in the Northwest Division and 13th overall in the 15-team West at 23-59.

The process is going to take years, just as it did in Portland, Atlanta and with other franchises that had to tear everything down before becoming relevant again. Minnesota, Sacramento, Memphis and Charlotte are going through many of the same growing pains with varying degrees of success. In some ways, OKC lost a year going through its final season in Seattle.

Franchise stability can't be ignored. Making a home in Oklahoma City and allowing roots to grow are vital to the team's future. Renovations are under way at the Ford Center, which include a new locker room. Ground is being broken this week on a state-of-the-art practice and training facility to open in a year. Players not only need to know where they stand, but where their team sits in relation to the other 29.

Among the other positives: Brooks will have a full training camp, the young guns are a year older and more experienced, next June brings another two first-round picks (five draft picks total) and the Thunder still have financial/roster flexibility if one of those big, splashy moves makes sense.

So if some of the Thunder players start talking Playoffs, try to understand their enthusiasm.

"Everyone's goal is to make the postseason and I would never put any limitations on our players in terms of their goals and drive," Presti said. "Those are the reasons we have them in our uniforms."

If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an e-mail.


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