TO BOLSTER his bond with a group of youngsters that averages a mere 3.6 years of NBA experience (the Baby Bolts, perhaps?), Scott Brooks packed his roller bag and hit the road for his first summer since taking over as coach from P.J. Carlesimo last November. Brooks toured the far reaches of the U.S., making a point to visit each Thunder player at his off-season home, even if it meant picking up the tab at a swank L.A. eatery—where the diners included Cindy Crawford—just to get some face time with second-year point guard Russell Westbrook.
Star sightings aside, the most satisfying moment on Brooks's tour came in Austin, where he visited with the sixth-leading scorer of 2008--09, Kevin Durant. At season's end Brooks had left the 6'9" small forward with this message: "You're going to be a terrific player in this league; the next step is to show more leadership." Two months later Brooks watched Durant take charge of a group of Texas players and alums, organizing invite-only games that included 2009 All--Big 12 forward Damion James and pros T.J. Ford, Royal Ivey and D.J. Augustin. Durant would chat up Longhorns coach Rick Barnes to find out which of Barnes's returning troops required more of a heavy hand. When it came to his fellow NBA players, Durant cracked the whip for crack-of-dawn weightlifting sessions.
Brooks has stressed to Durant how important it is for him to continue showing those same leadership skills if Oklahoma City is to make a playoff run for just the second time in the franchise's past seven years. "We're all young, and we want to win right away," says the 21-year-old Durant. "But you have to go through the ups and downs. We can't rush this process. We have to do it the right way, stick together and be patient."
In other words, pencil in the Thunder as a playoff contender ... in 2010--11.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics
JAMES HARDEN (R)
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G-F Thabo Sefolosha, 8.5 PPG; G Shaun Livingston, 7.8 PPG; F-C Nick Collison, 6.9 RPG; F D.J. White, 8.9 PPG • New acquisition • (R) Rookie, college stats
COACH: Scott Brooks (second season with Thunder) • 2008--09 RECORD: 23--59 (fifth in Northwest)
POINTS SCORED: 97.0 (24th in NBA) • POINTS ALLOWED: 103.1 (23rd in NBA)
Times that Kevin Durrant scored at least 20 points before his 21st birthday. Now 21, he ranks second alltime in that category to LeBron James, who scored 20 or more points in 131 games.
ENEMY LINES | A RIVAL SCOUT ON THE THUNDER
Last year Kevin Durant had more freedom and at the same time he showed he wasn't going to abuse that freedom. Will he be a great player? I think it's going to be another three years before we find out. Durant is like Kevin Garnett was when he was young—you see a lot of talent, but the body isn't ready.... Russell Westbrook has a chance to be a star, because of his strength and athleticism and potential for defending. Now we'll see how good his court vision is and how fast he can learn.... Jeff Green appears to have found his niche at power forward, where he can cause problems with his outside shooting. He fits the up-tempo style they want to play because he's going to run the floor better than most of the big guys he faces. I see toughness in him. He doesn't back down and he's not always looking for the refs to bail him out.... I'm looking forward to seeing how Shaun Livingston fits in. Maybe he can be used in that Don Nelson point-forward role because he can really pass.... Nenad Krstic was a great signing. He's a piece they can build with, a good young big man who can shoot it and has a bit of post-up in him.
GREG NELSON (DURANT)
KEVIN DURANT On a team of kids, this one has to grow up fast.
ROBERT BECK (WESTBROOK)