OKLAHOMA CITY —The Oklahoma City Thunder is counting on a promising youth movement to build on some momentum from last season.
The roster features four players chosen among the top five overall picks in the past three drafts, with Kevin Durant the high-scoring centerpiece.
Durant is just 21, but he speaks like a grizzled veteran as he notes that for all the potential the Thunder have with himself, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, there also comes peril.
"You're going to have highs and lows, especially with us growing as a team, us being young. But we've got to make up for that with working hard and playing hard in games," Durant said. "I think that'll limit that. It starts with me being a leader."
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Entering his third season, Durant has heavier responsibilities. He has suddenly been with his team longer than all but one other player.
Beyond being the player who averaged 25.3 points — sixth in the NBA last season — Durant is now captain of a team trying to eliminate the bad habits that caused the Thunder to lead the league in turnovers and allow opponents to score 103.1 points per game last season.
The glimmer of hope comes from the end of last season, when Oklahoma City finished 20-30 finish after a horrid 3-29 start.
Included in the second-half turnaround were a win against Dallas and two against San Antonio that showed the Thunder had developed to the point they could compete with playoff teams. Yet blowouts against Portland and Indiana revealed how much improvement was still needed.
"You see the great teams stay at one level the whole game. They never go from up to down," Durant said. "They stay at one level. If things start to go rough for them, they don't break down."
Scott Brooks was brought back as the coach after serving in that role on an interim basis following the firing of P.J. Carlesimo, and he directed his first training camp with a focus on improving on-the-ball defense.
"We want to shoot for the playoffs because it's one of those like, 'Shoot for the stars and end up on the moon,' " said guard Shaun Livingston, the fourth overall pick in 2004 who was out of the league after a gruesome knee injury.
"We have to get better. It starts, the mental capacity of it, with knowing that we can compete, knowing that we can make a push to be one of the better teams in the West."
Center Nenad Krstic signed as a free agent at midseason, and guard Thabo Sefolosha came over in a trade shortly before the February deadline. Livingston earned a tryout with the Thunder's NBA Development League affiliate in Tulsa, then proved he was healthy enough late in the season and during summer league to stay on.
The offseason brought in Harden and fellow first-round pick Byron Mullens, a former Ohio State center, along with veterans Etan Thomas and Kevin Ollie.
"The talent is there. There's no question about it," Livingston said. "These guys are young, they know how to play, the guys have got a big heart on this team. It's just we have to pull it together. This team isn't about one player. It's about guys coming together and forming chemistry."
The trick for a team with 11 players age 26 or younger is learning how to avoid the kind of lulls that led to ugly defeats and losing streaks a season ago, even before the team relocated from Seattle last summer.
"Until we're consistent with our play and we avoid bad stretches in games and bad stretches in seasons, we're not going to be as good a team as we want to be," said forward Nick Collison, the only player who has been with the franchise longer than Durant. "It's kind of who we've been and who we're trying to not be anymore."