By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
December 1, 2012

There are multiple ways to build an NBA championship contender, but in the past year, basketball analysts have closely examined what now might best be described as the “Oklahoma City model.” During their steady rise from the bottom of the standings to the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder exhibited remarkable patience, methodically constructing a talented roster through the draft. Although Oklahoma City was very fortunate in the draft lottery to pick in the top four for three consecutive years (2007-09), the Thunder also pulled off a rare feat by hitting pay dirt on each pick. It would be extremely difficult to match a three-year draft haul of standouts Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but that’s what it might take to duplicate OKC’s path to NBA prominence.

The Hornets, who host the Thunder on Saturday (7 p.m. in the Hive), would love to someday join OKC in ascending to the elite of the Western Conference, but have used a slightly different approach to fortify their talent base. While New Orleans benefited greatly from landing Anthony Davis with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Hornets GM Dell Demps has also obtained several young veterans who haven’t yet entered their prime. For example, New Orleans’ roster includes four players who are in their fifth NBA season, including Ryan Anderson, 24; Eric Gordon, 23; Robin Lopez, 24; and Jason Smith, 26.

The Hornets received an up-close look at how potent the Thunder’s attack can be during a Nov. 16 matchup here in the Crescent City. The Thunder piled up 36 points in the first quarter, en route to a 66-37 halftime advantage and eventual 110-95 final margin. Durant and Kevin Martin – the player brought in to essentially replace Harden, who was traded to Houston – both scored 27 points.

Intriguing matchup: New Orleans bench vs. Oklahoma City bench
Behind a superb shooting night from Martin (27 points, 6-for-11 from three-point range), the Thunder’s backups blitzed the Hornets on Nov. 16, particularly in the first half. The Hornets fought back in the second half to make the final score more respectable, partly behind bench production from Ryan Anderson (15 points, 3-for-3 three-point shooting) and Roger Mason (11 points, 4-for-7 from field).

Days before the 2012-13 season began, the Thunder traded supersub James Harden to Houston, causing many to believe the departure would negatively impact Oklahoma City’s chances of defending its Western Conference crown. In the first month of the campaign, however, the Thunder have barely skipped a beat, winning 12 of their first 16 games. After starting 1-2, Oklahoma City reeled off victories in 11 of the next 13 outings, including a 110-95 triumph in New Orleans on Nov. 16. On paper, the Thunder’s schedule has been relatively soft; their most impressive result to date was an OT win against the Clippers on Nov. 21.

What’s new
Reserve shooting guard Kevin Martin, who was acquired in the Harden trade with Houston, is off to an outstanding start, as OKC’s third-leading scorer at 16 points per game. Martin has always been a feared perimeter marksman, but by connecting on nearly 50 percent of his three-point attempts, he’s shooting at a career-best rate. The Hornets received an up-close look at Martin’s effectiveness with his new team on Nov. 16, when he poured in 27 points, including six three-pointers. The only other new OKC face receiving notable playing time is backup center Hasheem Thabeet, a former No. 2 overall draft pick. Rookie first-round picks Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones have only made brief cameos.

Thunder star
Kevin Durant is the NBA’s three-time defending scoring champion, a threat to put up 30-plus points on any night. Early in 2012-13, Durant was in a tight race with Kobe Bryant for the league’s No. 1 spot. The Texas product also topped the NBA in minutes played and had upped his rebounding average to a career-high level.
On the rise
A defensive force since the day he entered the NBA as a rookie in 2009, 6-foot-10 power forward Serge Ibaka appears to have greatly expanded his offensive game in 2012-13. The native of the Republic of Congo has never averaged double-digit points in his career, but was putting up about 15 points per game through the first month of this season.

Opposing defenses can’t focus exclusively on Durant, because Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is also ranked in the top 10 of the NBA in scoring average. On the surface, Westbrook struggled offensively in New Orleans on Nov. 16 (3-for-11 shooting, 10 points), but he handed out 12 assists.

On the sideline
Former scrappy NBA point guard Scott Brooks is extremely popular among his players and has guided the Thunder from the basement of the standings (23-59 in 2008-09) to the elite echelon of the league (NBA Finals appearance in 2012).

Did you know?
Valuable reserve forward Nick Collison, 32, is the only Thunder player in his 30s. Martin will turn 30 on Feb. 1.

Players the Thunder want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Thunder need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Career FT percentage (through Nov. 29)
Led NBA in made free throws after first month.
At career-best 94 percent early in 2012-13.
Like Durant, ranks in NBA’s top 10 in most makes.
Career three-point percentage (through Nov. 29)
Went 6-for-11 from beyond arc at NOLA on Nov. 16.
Off to best start percentage-wise of six-year career.
Playing career-low minutes in a return from ACL injury.