By now there should be no question about the authenticity of the bond among the Oklahoma City Thunder players.
Even in the rather contrived scenario of a NBA media day, the relationships that this team has built were evident just in the manner they joked with and about one another. Aside from sharing a few laughs about Nenad Krstic's chair throwing incident this summer, they also exchanged barbs about FIFA Soccer video game prowess and the University of Texas's loss to UCLA this past weekend.
"He said we're the worst team in college football," said University of Texas alum Kevin Durant when asked after todays practice about whether UCLA alum Russell Westbrook continued to give him a hard time'. "He said we're gonna make the McDonald's Bowl. All that kind of stuff."
The bond - which contributed to the "Oklahoma City is a brotherhood" mantra posted at the Ford Center -has formed as a result of a combination of competitiveness, enormous potential, the youth of the team's primary players and of course a city that multiple players described as "quiet". And when a group of young, competitive people comes to a quiet city with a passion for playing basketball, strong relationships are bound to form.
However, after experiencing some succcess this season, the question is whether that bond that the players have formed off the court can be leveraged for success on the court. As nice a story as it makes to talk about the closeness of the team, it won't mean a whole lot if the team doesn't continue to win and improve. And yet that doesn't mean it's not worth talking about either.
Talking to players over the last few days, it's evident that what that close-knit unit might represent is the team's continuity and selfless focus on what each individual can contribute to the unit. As the team embarks upon a new season with a clean slate - last year's playoff performance is already a thing of the past - their bond is transforming from fun to an asset.
As Jeff Green said, "Playtime is over."
We've probably seen teams at all levels of sports that have shown this sort of outstanding interpersonal chemistry only to fall short of lofty expectations - strong friendships don't necessarily translate to successful units on the court. Sometimes comraderie turns into a smug overconfidence and other times the happy-go-lucky attitude that began as an endearing quality becomes grating once the team faces adversity.
So while it sounds weird to say, this Thunder team is not necessarily focused on wins and losses and has shown no ill-effects - neither anxiety nor cockiness - from last post-season in anticipating further playoff success some 82+ games into the future. A focus on continuity has defined the tone during media day and the first two days of practice for the Thunder - not only continued improvement from their young players, but also continuing to focus on maximizing their strengths while smoothing out their weaknesses.
"We got more continuity after another year of being together and that helps a lot," said veteran center Nick Collison. "Our principles and things we're teaching are the exact same as last year so that helps a lot to be able to jump in and just try to get better at it as opposed to trying to learn something. I think we're better off than last year - it's only been a couple of days - but the key is you've got to do the work every day. And it's a long year and most teams in the league have had two really good days of practice. So the key is to have 100 days or however many days we get."
If there is any way in which this brotherhood supports the intense focus on improvement, it's that not one of these young players has reached their potential and all of them have something to gain by doing it together as a unit.
"People are real eager to just take others in," said Collison. "People are pretty genuine, straight-foward around here and it's about doing the work and there's not a lot of egos. There are - it's just we're professional athletes, we're young guys trying to have good careers and so there are egos. But for the most part we're about trying to come in here and get our work done and there's not a lot of other stuff to deal with."
There is little doubt that the selflessness that Collison spoke about begins with the team's unquestioned leader: Kevin Durant. In a sports culture where LeBron James has been vilified for epitomizing a narcissistic celebrity culture, Durant seems immune to the sort of inflated ego that results from rising superstardom.
"Kevin needs to improve," said coach Scott Brooks on Monday's media day. "He did lead the league in scoring last year. But that's not his focus, that's not my focus. My focus is Kevin continuing to get better on both ends...He's a talented kid that really, really pushes himself every day to get better. That's what makes players - you don't just wake up one morning and be a good player; you've have to put a lot of time in. He really thinks of himself as a guy that has to work extremely hard just to make a team. He has that mentality and that's what champions are made of."
As silly as it sounds to suggest that Durant is just another player trying to make the team, there are times listening to Durant when you wonder how difficult it must be to so deliberately deny that he is far beyond the pressure of someone fighting to make the team - it's almost as if he refuses to acknowledge his growing stardom and visibility at all. Even on his birthday.
"I'm not a hard guy to please," said Durant when questioned about what he might want for his 22nd birthday today. "I just want people to think about me a little bit on my birthday."
Durant's actions on the court during today's scrimmage more than reinforced the narrative of selflessness. And yet multiple observers noted that being more vocal on the court among the ways that Durant has grown as a leader.
"This ain't pickup," Durant shouted, visibly frustrated with the team's defense while walking to the free throw line for two shots during the scrimmage. "Get back!"
Fittingly, it was Durant who took the lead in raising the level of defensive intensity for the black team - on the following possession, it was the 2009-10 MVP candidate snatching a rebound out of the air as Green flew towards the rim for a putback dunk. On the next possession, it was Durant with an assist. During a defensive drill at the end of practice, Durant stripped second-year player James Harden of the ball and dove to save it before it rolled out of bounds.
While the vocal aspect of Durant's leadership would certainly be a noticeable change for Durant, there is no question that the general tenor of his leadership will remain unchanged.
"I'm the type of guy that is kind of lead by example, but I think it is good at some times to be vocal and telling my teammates what to do," said Durant when asked about being more vocal this season. "What makes it easy here is that everybody listens. So it's a great dialogue between everybody."
When the league's leading scorer and the just-turned-22-years-old 2010 scoring champion leads by setting the example of aggressive defensive rebounding, passing, diving on the floor, and a work ethic that suggests a focus on just making the team, it becomes much more obvious why this particular interpersonal chemistry might yield another successful season - Durant is indeed among the most talented players in the league, but also among the hungriest.
"He's up there with the other guys," said Morris Peterson when asked about how Durant stacks up against some of the other stars he's played with. "You look at Chris Bosh, Vince, CP, those guys. I think he's done a lot more in his career now than even those guys so he has the chance to be something special. And I think he understands that. He's a tremendous talent. The thing that really strikes about him compared to a lot of other people is that he's hungry. And that's something that you really look for."
It's hard to imagine someone fitting into this group without trying to match Durant's hunger -- just hearing him talk about the game it's clear that he is a basketball junkie who lives the game in a way that most of us basketball geeks can hardly imagine. And if there's anything that makes this bond worth talking about it's the fact that it's led by this anti-superstar that has already set a tone of hard work, focus, and selflessness through two days of practice.
Durant is a player who aims to not just beat you, but play harder than you on every possession. When you combine the tone set by Durant with the bond that has developed on this team over the last few years and a collective focus on contuity in how they played - not necessarily what they accomplished -- the outcome is an underlying sense of accountability to the unit that seems so devoid of ego that it's almost too good to be true.
That, not the playful relationships, is what will make this team successful.
"I told the guys first day when I met: the biggest respect you can give your teammate is challenge them," said Brooks. "You can't play buddy basketball and improve. It helps the team get better, it helps you get better, and it helps your teammate get better if you challenge him."