Thunder Re-Establishing its Identity on Day One
In that breathtaking moment when Russell Westbrook jumps a passing lane to make a steal, every eye in the arena is captivated. Heading into his sixth NBA season, the Thunder's All-Star point guard is looking to not only influence his teammates by what they see, but also what they hear and think.
Westbrook wants the Thunder to be a "smarter" team, using his vocal leadership to help guide the squad. Over the last four months, Westbrook has been diligently working through the rehab process to heal a knee injury he sustained in the 2013 Playoffs. With the time he has spent off the court this summer, Westbrook spent it analyzing the game and looking at it from a different perspective.
"I could kind of sit back and just watch each individual player," Westbrook explained. "I could sit back and pinpoint one guy and watch him up and down the floor and see how he reacts to certain plays, to different things. That helps me out as a point guard to be able to know how guys react to certain things and different play calls."
As a member of this organization's core and one of four players who has been with the team through every minute of the Thunder's history, Westbrook understands what it takes to build a team. The task of breeding success and sustaining not only over the course of a season but over a stretch of years falls on the entire roster to commit to a common goal.
Westbrook said the process of developing a strong, resilient and unified team starts in the preseason. It continues by each player finding his niche and putting the work in every day throughout the year to perform their duties to the best of his ability.
"In training camp it starts from Day One," Westbrook said. "You have to find a way to make sure everybody understands their role and understands what we're trying to do as an organization and as a team."
"If we have a great team and everybody does their job and does their role, we should be alright," Westbrook concluded.
The echoing hum of basketballs bouncing, coaches directing, players cheering and sneakers squeaking was a welcome sound on Saturday afternoon. In a spirited session, the 2013-14 season officially began with the Thunder's first practice of training camp.
It had been over four months since the team had a true practice at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center. With a roster built with continuity, veteran leadership and some fresh blood in the form of young talent, a buzz pulsated through the facility. The ability to reach that fever pitch of organized and purposeful activity in such short order is due to the culture that has been created over the past five years in Oklahoma City. Led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison, the Thunder has a brand of basketball that it sticks to and tries to perfect each time on the floor.
"We know what our identity is, but we have to let the new guys know," Durant said. "We have to re-establish that on our own as veterans."
"We're reinforcing a lot of the things that we already know," veteran guard Derek Fisher explained. "We're stepping up our level of accountability with the nuances of what we know."
Under Head Coach Scott Brooks and with seasoned players like Fisher and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder has built a defense-first mindset in Oklahoma City. In fact, out of the two-and-a-half hours spent on the court this afternoon, Fisher said that all but 15 minutes were devoted to defense. Even on the very first day of camp, the Thunder was able to re-install certain aspects of its system because so many of the players are already well-versed in its details. With each day planned out, the coaching staff has created a curriculum to help the team get up to speed as quickly as possible.
"There's a purpose to every single day," Fisher said. "Our coaches have obviously spent the whole summer coming up with things that they want to make sure, right from the start, that we're good at."
"We want to continue to improve and work on the things that got us to the position that we're in right now," Brooks explained. "That's just to continue to play together, continue to build our basketball principles of sharing the basketball, helping each other out on defense."
With two-a-days scheduled for Sunday and Monday and a week-long trip to Istanbul and England right around the corner, the Thunder will have plenty of opportunities to hammer down some of the finer points of Brooks and his staff's plans. Joining Brooks on the coaching staff this year will be stalwarts Rex Kalamian, Mark Bryant and Brian Keefe, along with newcomers Robert Pack and Mike Terpstra. As a group, the staff has a unified philosophy that by winning on the margins and by doing the small things that breed success, the Thunder can continue forging the identity that will pervade for years to come.
"I thought today's practice was a great example of that," Brooks said. "Paying attention to the little things, the little details is what is going to continue to improve our chances of winning game-in and game-out."
At this point in the preseason, roles are still being ironed out and players are battling to make the team, but above all, the team as a whole is setting the standards for how hard it will work for the entire 200-plus days it will spend together this year.
"It's a little early to know rotations and who is going to do what," Durant said. "But I think we can establish how hard we're going to work every single day…We have to keep plugging away and building the foundation for what we want to get to."
"The thing I love about our guys is that the first practice all the way down to the last practice is going to be the same type of effort and focus that our guys always have displayed," Brooks echoed.
Day One is in the books. Players will get some rest, prepare their minds and bodies and get ready for two intense practices tomorrow. With just over a month before the regular season begins, the Thunder's only focus is improving as a unit and re-establishing its identity with every rep and every drill.
"We have to try to build on it and stay consistent," Durant concluded. "Hopefully we'll have a good day tomorrow."