Kevin Durant might return to his home town as a most valuable player candidate on a team with the NBA’s best record, but he didn’t exactly begin his career in the best environment to succeed.
Drafted second overall by a mediocre Seattle franchise that was rumored to be on the move, surrounded by players who weren’t focused on winning, Durant won just 20 games as a rookie.
The franchise moved to Oklahoma City and Durant started his second season winning three of his first 32 games, but he wasn’t going to allow the losses to define him or let a culture of losing permeate. So Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook — basketball junkies all — decided to change their plight by getting better and establishing a situation where hard work was the norm. New additions either got on board or weren’t around for long.
Players would arrive at practice three hours early or be looked upon as outcasts. Days off from practice were considered challenges from the coaching staff to still find ways to work on their individual development and improvement.
“That’s what we hang our hat on is being hard workers,” Durant said, adding that when players join the Thunder through the draft or trades, “those guys come in and see us working, and they’re kind of shocked, because we come in and want to get better every day, no matter how long the season is. Everybody is learning with each other and we got better as time went on. That’s how it is now.
“Coming in at 18, to an NBA franchise and being counted on as one of the main guys, it’s kind of tough,” he said. “But the best thing about it, everybody wanted to listen, everybody wanted to learn. I’m excited I’m a part of this great organization.”
The Thunder (12-2) is considered one of the league’s model franchises, with Durant at the forefront, but it didn’t record back-to-back 50-win seasons and reach the Western Conference finals last season without hard work — and some painful losing stretches that came from a lack of experience.
“It’s no secret. I wish I could say it was because of me, but it wasn’t. Guys just worked,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said. “Kevin is a special player. No question, he is a talented, special kid. He believes in work. He believes in team. He believes in the spirit of the group and Russell is the same way. And we just added pieces along the way and we’ve developed all of our guys. Veterans and young guys alike are receptive of coaching, and that’s pretty important.”
Through it all, Brooks never let the age of his players become an excuse for the early gruesome results. “I never talked to our guys about being young, because that’s an easy out. That’s an easy crutch to fall on. We were young, but we’re still young, we’re going to be young for like seven years,” Brooks said with a chuckle. “I’ve always told them, we’re not losing games, we’re learning how to win games. That was pretty important, because we were 3-29 at one time but we still came and did our job. It was tough at times, there were times when you don’t feel good because you’re not winning. Everybody is down on you. You have to keep believing in the process.
“When you have a young team that has good habits and good character and believes in the team, eventually, if they work hard every day, it’s going to improve,” Brooks said. “It’s hard for teams and coaches and players to think big picture but you have to. If you’re doing all the right things and you have the right pieces, you’re going to get better. It’s just going to take time.”
As players have matured, General Manager Sam Presti has added more veterans to expedite their growth, but the collegial, fraternity-type atmosphere remains — a rarity in most NBA locker rooms. When backup point guard Eric Maynor went down with a devastating season-ending injury, James Harden dedicated the season to him. Durant has also dedicated his season to his longtime friend Green, who was traded to Boston for Kendrick Perkins last season and recently had surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.
“If you like your teammates, it’s going to be easy to play with them on the court,” Durant said. “That’s the kind of organization we built here. Give credit to Sam and those guys in the front office, who bring in guys that are character guys first and come in and buy into what we do here. Every guy that came through here has helped build this foundation. I think right now we have a good group of guys.”
Brooks said his team can relate to the frustrations of the Washington Wizards, who have the league’s worst record (1-12) and are on a pace that would have them finish with the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
“Three years ago, they thought we were going to end up with the worst record of all time and I wasn’t sleeping very well,” Brooks said. “It’s hard to go through it. You don’t think it’s ever going to end, but it does end and when it does, you get to enjoy it and keep working with it and keep getting it better and it does.”
John Wall has observed that the Thunder took time before its players matured and the team found the right mix, but he doesn’t know how the process will play out for the Wizards. “It don’t make it easier because you want it to come as soon as possible, but at the same time you never know if they will come later down the road or not,” he said. “It depends on how you build as a player, how your teammates build, and how they do a great job of adding people to the team.”
When asked what advice he would give Wall, Durant said: “Keep faith, man. You’ve got to go through tough stretches. I’ve been through that for two years in this league, losing a hundred games in two years. Just keep faith in your hard work and things are going to change. They have the right talent here, the front office is doing the right thing. In no time, they’ll be pretty good.
“Rome isn’t built in a day,” Durant said. “You hear that a lot. But it’s true. It takes some patience.”
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