By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Oct 25 2010 1:56PM
MVP-in-waiting Kevin Durant could come out tomorrow declaring that the NBA is going to be his for the next decade and few outside of South Florida would be shocked.
Beat his chest and proclaim to the world that the Thunder are on the verge of greatness and not afraid of anyone. Bring it on Kobe. You too, LeBron.
"Oh, no. That's not us," said Russell Westbrook, the third-year point guard staring at stardom. "I think with the type of players we have, and what Sam and Scott have put around us, we're all just cool, calm and collected. We all try to stay that way around here."
General manager Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks echo the same stance of modesty, hard work and team. Everyone else down the line just falls in line.
Never mind that Durant, the defending scoring champ, was picked by league GMs to claim the NBA's highest individual honor despite being all of 22 years old. Oklahoma City was also predicted to win the Northwest Division despite being an eighth seed last season.
This is a team of homegrown talents coming together to take the basketball world by storm. They've moved past the feel-good story stage, and now reside in an area code reserved for franchises with June aspirations.
"All we can worry about is getting better every day," Westbrook said. "We know we've been under the radar for a while. People know us a little better now, but we've got to stay humble and stay with what we're doing."
Westbrook could easily call more attention to himself. He's got the outgoing and engaging personality that the public loves and media eats up. He's got frightening athleticism and first-class court awareness, earning a spot with USA Basketball this past summer at the World Championship.
In a league stocked with elite point guards, especially young ones, Westbrook is poised to be one of the best at both ends of the court. Whether he admits it or not.
"We're just trying to make the next step, make the next jump," Westbrook said. "That's what coach emphasizes to us and that's what they're stressed to me since Day 1 -- take that next step each and every year."
Westbrook's inclusion in a group that's led by Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose is another of those steps for him and the Thunder. Westbrook spent the summer learning from Rose and another top-flight playmaker, Chauncey Billups, on the USA Basketball national team.
That gold-medal experience included plenty of leadership training from USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, which Westbrook and Durant (the World Championship MVP) took to heart. Westbrook is up to the challenge of taking more ownership in the team and exerting his will.
"Just trying to make my team better," he said. "I think that's the key for any point guard."
He's coming off a breakout season of averaging 16.1 points, 8.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds. The assists were good for eighth in the league. The only other current players to average at least 16-6-4 during their sophomore years were Paul, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Gilbert Arenas.
Heady stuff. But that comes with the territory in Oklahoma City these days. After posting a 50-32 record -- a league-high 27-game improvement over the previous year -- and pushing the defending champion Lakers to six games in the first round, expectations are through the arena roof.
"Expectations always are internal," Brooks said. "It is fun and we are a team that's getting recognized, but we really believe that expectations you have to have them for yourself. You have to expect yourself to bring it every day and you have to expect yourself to be a team guy every day."
Brooks returns the top nine from his rotation. Steady power forward Jeff Green, a USA Basketball tryout, averaged 15.1 points and started all 82 games alongside Durant, Westbrook and off guard Thabo Sefolosha. Nenad Krstic started 76 games at center, giving Brooks the luxury of a consistent first unit throughout the season.
Krstic, currently recovering from finger surgery, and Sefolosha could be pushed for their starting spots. Second-year upstarts -- big man Serge Ibaka and guard James Harden -- are in that mix. Rookie center Cole Aldrich also factors into the center equation.
The bench has also been strengthened with much-needed shooters Morris Peterson and Daequan Cook joining backup point guard Eric Maynor and frontcourt veteran Nick Collison. If it seems Brooks has an overflow of talent, he's not complaining.
"There's no doubt we're a good team," he said.
That's about as close as anyone in clad in Thunder gear will get to beating his chest. Take what you can.
1. STAY HEALTHY
Same starting lineup was trotted out 76 times last season, allowing for remarkable consistency and clearly defined roles. That's key for a young squad.
2. DON'T GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF
Cautionary tales of teams not being able to handle their new success and teams gunning for them abound. See: Hornets, 2008-09.
3. FIND MORE SHOOTERS
Other than Durant, jump shots were an adventure last season. The additions of Morris Peterson and Daequan Cook should help in that department.
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LAST YEAR: 50-32, 4th in Northwest
FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs
2009-10 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2009-10 Stats|
RUSSELL WESTBROOK, GUARD
16.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 8.0 APG
Coming into his own as one of the league's all-around best at both ends. Owns triple-double skills and isn't even 22 yet.
THABO SEFOLOSHA, GUARD
6.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.18 SPG
Lockdown perimeter defender could be challenged for his starting spot. Must improve his outside shot to keep defenses honest.
KEVIN DURANT, FORWARD
30.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.8 APG
Spent the summer working on ball-handling and his post-up game while somehow finding tome to bring home the World Championship MVP. Watch out.
JEFF GREEN, FORWARD
15.1 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.27 SPG
Even if he's tad undersized (6-foot-9, 235) and out of position, Green battles and is the glue that makes the starting five click.
NENAD KRSTIC, CENTER
8.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 22.9 MPG
Recovering from a finger injury, the starting job belongs to the sweet-shooting Serbian until taken away. At 27, most senior of last year's first teamers.
|James Harden||6-5||220||G||Expanding his game from being a spot-up shooter could expand his role from sixth man.|
|Eric Maynor||6-3||175||G||Gained valuable experience backing up Westbrook as a rookie. Owns all the tools.|
|Serge Ibaka||6-10||235||F/C||Physical specimen gaining better grasp of the language and the NBA game. Awe-inspiring potential.|
ADDED: Craig Brackins, Quincy Pondexter, Royal Ivey, Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson, Cole Aldrich
LOST: Etan Thomas, Mustafa Shakur, Craig Brackins, Quincy Pondexter
JAMES HARDEN, GUARD
The Thunder could have taken Tyreke Evans with the third pick back in 2009. Imagine that one-two punch with Kevin Durant. Scary. Instead, OKC selected Harden and the front office hasn't looked back. Last year's leading scorer off the bench (9.9 PPG) is the right fit for the Thunder culture. He blends, knows his role and is willing to put in the work.
|Through The Lens: USAB Practice|
Watch the USA Basketball practice as they prepare to play Finland through the slow-motion phantom cam.
|USAB: Stephen Curry And Anthony Davis|
Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis address the media as they prepare to play Finland.
|USAB: Coach K On Playing Finland|
Coach Mike Krzyzewki addresses the media as USA Basketball prepares to play Finland.
|USAB: Coach K Interview|
Coach Mike Krzyzewksi speaks on the USA's team identity and being "worthy of winning".
|NBA Rooks: Nik Stauskas' Summer|
Sacramento Kings rookie Nik Stauskas talks about getting his career off to a good start as a Las Vegas Summer League champion.