THERE WILL be no shortage of references to a certain Rogers and Hammerstein musical when the Oklahoma City Thunder, a transplant from Seattle, begins play as a long shot to even improve upon last season's 20--62 record. So let this be one of the first. Thunder coach P.J. Carlesimo could call upon this lyric from Oh, What a Beautiful Morning to describe last year's SuperSonics defense: All the cattle are standin' like statues/They don't turn their heads as they see me ride by. Thus, Carlesimo spent most of the preseason concentrating on that more bovine end of the floor.
What that means to franchise standard-bearer and reigning Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant is hard to say. Carlesimo has been impressed with Durant's defensive improvement—"Kevin doesn't have to prove himself as a scorer," says the coach—but it's hard to imagine the 6'9", 215-pound swingman, who averaged 20.3 points in his first season, ever being a stopper. Yet he'll need to try to become just that if he is to join the fraternity of elite all-around players in the league.
Point guard Earl Watson thinks that Durant is already there. "[He] has not only the ability but also the personality to be a superstar," Watson told The Daily Oklahoman. The personality interests Carlesimo less than the ability, which Durant showed plenty of when he scored 20 points in the fourth quarter to lead Oklahoma City to a 110--104 win over the Rockets on Oct. 13.
Still, that was only the second time in the preseason that the Thunder reached triple figures, and the team shot under 40% twice. The new fan base had best understand that, beyond Durant, there's not much O in Oklahoma.
A rival scout on the THUNDER: I see Kevin Durant ultimately as a small forward, because he doesn't defend as well on the ball. If you pump-fake, he reacts so quickly that it basically takes him out of the play. But on the weak side he has such awareness, timing, athleticism and length that you might think your man is open only to see Durant closing down the passing lane in a hurry.... I'm not sure Jeff Green can be a straight power forward because he doesn't have great ball skills or great feet. I like him as a combo guy and a rotation player, but not necessarily as a starter.... Russell Westbrook is going to be terrific. He's quick and confident, a great finisher in traffic, and he's fearless—he'll take the ball to the rack no matter who's there, and he'll take the big shot if something breaks down.... Of their trio of young centers, the guy I like best is Johan Petro. He plays hard, he's athletic and he runs the floor. Mouhamed Sene is too raw. Robert Swift is agile and can pass, but once he gets near the basket he's a nonentity because he's so frail.
Only two players have scored more points in a season as a teenager than Kevin Durant did with the SuperSonics last year (1,624) at age 19: Carmelo Anthony (1,725) and LeBron James (1,654), both also at 19.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Russell Westbrook (R), F Joe Smith*, G-F Damien Wilkins, G-F Desmond Mason*, C Johan Petro
Record: 20--62 (15th in West)
Points scored: 97.5 (16th in NBA)
Points allowed: 106.3 (27th)
Coach: P.J. Carlesimo (second season with Thunder)
SOPH TOUCH Durant led his team—and all rookies—in scoring, but he must shore up his D to become a superstar.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES