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Sekou Smith

In a short time, the Thunder have risen from a young team to a viable title contender.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Thunder continuing to grow, mature before our eyes

Posted May 9 2012 11:28AM

The questions will be asked more frequently in the coming days as the eyes of the basketball world focus their attention on the Oklahoma City Thunder again when the Los Angeles Lakers (or the Denver Nuggets) come to town for the Western Conference semifinals.

How did they get here so fast, with players so young? What's the secret?

The answers are a bit more complicated than what you might expect.

What's going on is about more than just star power, though they have plenty in MVP candidate and three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook, leading Kia NBA Sixth Man Award candidate James Harden, the league's shot blocking king Serge Ibaka and others.

It's about more than just an absolutely adoring fan base supporting a young, talented and extremely hard working group through all of the growing pains and milestones that come with this territory.

And it's about more than a brain trust, headed by general manager Sam Presti and head coach Scott Brooks, that purposely operates in the shadow of the spotlight so as not to draw any unwanted or unwarranted attention on a championship-building process that has its roots in San Antonio, where Presti cut his teeth in the league.

It's about all of those things, and more, being combined into a cosmic gumbo of success that goes against conventional NBA wisdom -- a group whose core is barely old enough to purchase adult beverages doesn't normally have a seat at the table of the league's elite.

"We all know this is a process," said Durant, the transcendent 23-year-old star upon whose slender shoulders the Thunder's renaissance project rests. "Our front office does a great job surrounding us with not only good basketball players but great character guys. And we work hard. Sam Presti and our ownership do the job of setting the table for us. And it makes it easy to come to work everyday."

Five years ago no one was sure exactly where this project was headed, even with the blueprint in hand and Durant in the fold.

This isn't the first franchise to believe it had the right plan to make the leap from the bottom to the top with a young core.

The Portland Trail Blazers were on the same path, selecting Greg Oden with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 Draft, one spot ahead of Durant, to pair with budding stars Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge under the tutelage of Nate McMillan, one of the league's top young coaches at the time.

They blew it up at the trade deadline this year, unable to climb from under the rubble of a string of devastating injuries and circumstances that ravaged the fabric of that team.

The Thunder's rise during that same five-year span, however, has been nothing short of remarkable. Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka were added to a mix that already included Durant and Jeff Green, who was traded last year to Boston so the Thunder could add a much-needed rugged, veteran big man in Kendrick Perkins.

For all of them to come into their own simultaneously, though, isn't so much a coincidence as it is a product of a group work ethic that makes first-time observers shake their heads in disbelief.

Starters and reserves, veterans and youngsters, journeyman and superstars alike, they all work at the same relentless, fever pitch in this organization. There are no exceptions, no excuses, for anyone.

The focus, as Brooks explained during the Thunder's first-round sweep of the defending champion Dallas Mavericks last week, when the sideshow of he-said-he-said between he and his old CBA roommate Rick Carlisle created a buzz, is always locked in on the ultimate goal.

"It's about the players, it's always about the players," Brooks said. "And that's always been. I want our players to play as hard as they can, respect what they do and do it every day. It's never about me. We win, it's about family. We lose, it's about how we can get better as a group. That's always what I've believe in ... it's not about coaching."

Coaching obviously has plenty to do with it. Brooks won Coach of the Year honors in 2010 and coached the Western Conference All-Stars in Orlando in February. Clearly, the job he and his staff has done developing their young talent has been stellar.

They've already been to the Western Conference finals, last season, and held the top spot in the Western Conference standings for most of this past season before ceding that spot to the Spurs over the final month of the season.

And there may be no tougher job in coaching than molding teenage talents into NBA superstars. Many have started the process but didn't last long enough to see it through.

The refusal to handle their young stars with kid gloves might be the masterstroke that helped the Thunder buck the odds and make their way to this point in such a short period of time.

"Four years ago when I started coaching them, Kevin was 19, Russell was 19, they all seemed to be 19 or 20. We never talked about them being young," Brooks said. "We talked about the fact that we're all professionals. We have a job to do and we have to do it every day. If we used that young card, they were still going to be young the next year, two years, three years and four years. Three years from now Kevin is going to be 26, which is still young for a NBA player. We never wanted to use it as an excuse."

And despite what you see on the court and on the practice floor, Brooks said his team is far from perfect.

"They do act their age, trust me, they do," he said smiling. "I act calm and cool, but they drive me crazy at times . But it's fun. They are a good group. They love the game. They love each other. And that's all we talk about."

Well, all that and what comes next.

And in this case, that's a potential rematch with a Lakers team that helped baptize them into the postseason three years ago with a first-round series that lit the fire for Durant and his teammates.

"We're not satisfied," Durant said after the Thunder finished off their sweep of the Mavericks, answering the question without it being asked.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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