Thunder Sharpening its Fundamentals, Building Trust


When a team’s general manager says that a player “represents what we want to be about,” that’s the highest of compliments. When Thunder General Manager Sam Presti used those words about Nick Collison last week, it wasn’t a surprise.

Collison, the team’s longest-tenured member and one of the three players who has spent every minute of the Thunder’s five-year history with the squad, is a crucial part of the core. Part of what has made the Thunder perform at a higher level each of the past five years and what will help it moving forward has been the familiarity the players have with one another, facilitated by Collison’s steady presence.

“With us, it’s a huge advantage that we have; the continuity that we have with most of our guys,” Collison said. “We can jump right in and get back to work and try to get better at the things we need to do to be a better team and try and get over the hump.”

As a team leader, Collison will ensure that the Thunder abides by its process-based, rather than outcome-driven, mindset. Being aware of how the team is playing as opposed to what the result on the scoreboard says in an important distinction because by sticking to the principles and standings, the Thunder knows it will have success in the long term.

“The key is to take the temperature of the team and really look at ourselves and how we’re playing,” Collison said. “Are we playing the right way? Are we playing in a way that’s going to help us win that tough series down the road? Are we building toward that? I think that’s the challenge in a long season, to always keep pushing to get better at some of those things.”

By focusing on the little things and putting in the work to stay consistent, Collison and the Thunder can build confidence day-by-day.

“We need to realize that in the long run we need to be able to really execute as a team down the stretch,” he said. “I think the subtle things in how we execute, in attention to detail -- those are the things that are moving us up.”

After a number of swishes in a row, the basketball hit the front of the rim, then bounced off the back iron before lipping out. In an instant, a cavalcade of Thunder players, coaches and basketball operations staffers were sprinting down-court, stopping on a dime at the opposite baseline to turn and race back.

Monday’s end-of-practice free-throw shooting game implemented by Head Coach Scott Brooks isn’t revolutionary, but it’s an important part of the Thunder’s dedication to both sharpening fundamentals and building camaraderie. Each player stepped to the foul line in succession, needing to knock down two consecutive free throws to move on. With each miss, the entire Thunder squad, including coaches and staff, had to complete a pair of full court sprints.

The team unity that is bred from the understanding one man’s success is everyone’s success and one man’s missed shot is everyone’s missed shot is an essential tool to creating a unified bond.

“We take pride in our free throws and spend a lot of time shooting free throws,” Brooks said. “Those are just a few of things that we do to enhance chemistry here.”

Free throw shooting has always been one of the many crucial fundamentals the Thunder takes very seriously (the Thunder was a league-best 82.8 percent at the line last year) but it’s a slow and steady process to reintegrate all of the core concepts at the beginning of training camp. Whether it be solidifying shooting form, tightening ball-handling or more intricate parts of the team’s offensive and defensive philosophy, there will be a time and place for all of it within Brooks’ preseason plan.

“You can’t put everything in all in the first few days,” Brooks said. “You still have a systematic approach that you have to be able to manage through one day at a time.”

One area where the Thunder has primarily been focusing is in its team-wide defensive strategy. Led from the top of the key by point guards Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson and anchored on the back line by Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, the Thunder has a great foundation to defend the pick-and-roll and other common NBA offensive schemes.

Along the wings, perimeter players like Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb join their guard and forward counterparts to fill in the rest of the defensive shell. When opponents penetrate into the lane or swing the ball with the pass, Thunder players must know where to be and where their teammates are supposed to be. As the 2013 Training Camp moves along, the team will be increasingly better equipped to rely on one another as a part of a full five-man defensive unit that works cohesively.

“We have to know rotations,” Lamb said. “We’re trying to build trust in each other, knowing that if you help your man, somebody has your help. Just those little things, that’s the biggest emphasis during camp.”

A major benefit the Thunder has as it works through the early season review of the team’s core tenets is the number of returning players it has on the roster. With a young and dynamic core in place along with veteran leadership, the learning environment at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center is pure and comfortable. The vast majority of players wearing Thunder jerseys are simply reviewing material they already know, while they help bring along some of the younger players on the team. The balance in training camp that exists, of security and excitement, familiarity and freshness, is one that builds positive energy toward the upcoming season.

“There’s a feeling of continuity, but at the same time the spirit is really high,” Sefolosha said. “The confidence is there from Day One. It’s nice to be around those guys again and working hard.”