This is the NBA team non-NBA fans can love.
The Oklahoma City Thunder start training camp Tuesday, knowing anything less than an NBA championship is a step back. They went through media day tasks on Monday at their training facility, knowing the competition in the Western Conference increased dramatically with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joining Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. That sets up a season of clear contrasts — the Thunder’s homegrown roster vs. the Lakers’ collection of stars chasing a title. Waiting in the East is the Heat, which added Ray Allen to the trio of superstars.
The Thunder players talk like college players do — they missed each other desperately over the summer, they’re excited to get back together and the locker room is a big family room. Role players come and go, but the core group remains.
“We’ve built a brotherhood here,” Thunder guard James Harden said. “A brotherhood, from these past years, that’s hard to break. Other teams are just teammates. We’re really brothers. We hang out all the time. We push each other.”
The players say they don’t see the point to worrying about the Lakers in October.
“We’re definitely not going to come to practice and think about the Lakers,” forward Thabo Sefolosha said.
Coach Scott Brooks said: “We’re not going to focus on them. We respect them, but we’re not fearful.”
That won’t change the fact almost everything the Thunder do and say will be evaluated in relation to the Lakers. Oklahoma City’s plan is for its continuity to pay off. The off-season moves included cutting ties to guard Derek Fisher and giving center Hasheem Thabeet a shot to back up Kendrick Perkins. Guard Eric Maynor is back after missing last season to a knee injury. All the other major players are back and they believe that gives them an edge.
The Thunder will even make a stop in Wichita this year, taking on the Dallas Mavericks in a preseason game at Intrust Bank Arena on Oct. 24.
“A lot of different teams are making a lot of changes around the league,” guard Russell Westbrook said. “We have something special here. We have a group of guys that’s been together for awhile. We understand each other.”
Winning the NBA title is the lone step remaining for Oklahoma City, which moved from Seattle in 2008 and won 25 games in 2008-09. It made the playoffs the next season and advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2011 before losing to Dallas. Some of the players say they are over last season’s loss to Miami.
Not all of them.
“I still don’t watch SportsCenter,” Perkins said.
They get back to work hoping the experience of losing to Miami in five games toughens them.
“The Finals was overwhelming to a lot of us,” Perkins said. “We got caught up in just being in the Finals and quit playing basketball.”
Kevin Durant used his time on the Olympic team to forget about the Finals. Later in the summer, he worked out with LeBron James to prepare for this season.
“I thought it was our time,” Durant said. “It was so tough to lose.”
Oklahoma City, already one of the NBA’s youngest teams, got younger with the loss of Fisher and backup center Nazr Mohammed. That gives more leadership burdens to Durant, Westbrook and others. Perkins will miss most of training camp and exhibition games as he recovers from off-season wrist and groin surgeries. That gives Thabeet and Cole Aldrich a chance to play as they battle for the backup spot.
“I have to bring it every single day as far as trying to help my team,” Durant said. “I have to come back more of a vocal leader.”
That doesn’t mean the real life of the NBA never intrudes. Harden is due for a new contract and could leave or be traded if he doesn’t sign an extension. His teammates are counting on that brotherly feel to keep Harden in OKC. He sounded as if he is, perhaps, willing to give the Thunder a salary break and not demand a maximum contract.
“I think everybody on this team has sacrificed, in their own way, for the better of the team,” Harden said. “I’m sure it will be done. I have confidence in my agent and the organization to get it done. They know how important it is.”