By Ryan Costello
When the three players were first assembled two seasons ago, Kevin Durant and Jeff Green as Seattle-departing sophomores, and Russell Westbrook as the first draft pick to wear a Thunder uniform, Oklahoma City’s very own ‘big three’ where tabbed as the foundation of a successful franchise.
After a shaky campaign in their first Ford Center foray, the Thunder triumvirate blossomed in 2009-10.
Durant made the jump from star to superstar after becoming the youngest scoring champion in league history and then leading what was considered to be an undermanned Team USA, one that until late cuts included each member of the OKC big three, to gold in the FIBA Worlds.
Westbrook put to rest claims that he was a two guard in a point guard’s roster spot, and in a year that saw his numbers regress from the season prior, Green amassed a legion of his own detractors and is now going into 2010-11 without a contract for 2011-12.
This campaign will be one of intense expectations, and while each pro’s career may be on separate paths, all three are pulling in the same direction.
Big Three Preview: Kevin Durant
There is little more to be said about Durant that hasn’t already been, but that in itself speaks volumes for the small town small forward.
Perhaps the league’s clubhouse leader in positive press going into the season, Durant has been cast as the league’s best player, a shoe-in MVP, the future of the association, and the humble antithesis to larger-than-life LeBron James.
His responses were traditional Durant: He’s flattered, he’s not the best in the league, though he’s working really hard to be, and LeBron’s not a bad guy.
The natural reflex to Durant’s reaction to all the praise is to continue to pile it on, but the season’s less than a week away, so let’s talk basketball, shall we?
Not surprisingly, Durant has shown no signs of decline in his game. His release is still lightning quick, he still moves like a gazelle, and draws fouls in droves with his swift cuts.
But there is something new in there. Durant was given his homework by the Thunder coaching staff for the offseason; get some rest and make better decisions in the passing game.
He failed the first part, but that’s no surprise. The good news is that he seems to have learned a thing or two about distributing the orange.
Though preseason stats can sometimes mislead, at present it’s the only sample that exists to identify Durant’s development. What Thunder fans and league analysts alike saw of Durant in the Thunder’s exhibition games was a substantial increase in assists and a rollback on turnovers. Durant upped his assists from 2.8 in 39.5 minutes per game last season to 4.0 in 28.3 minutes this preseason. His turnovers dropped from 3.3 to 1.83.
Those totals add up to 5.7 assists versus 2.6 giveaways per 40 minutes. Apply that to this year, and his assist to turnover ratio will climb all the way from .84 to 2.2. If Durant can even come close to that kind of improvement, he, and by extension the Thunder, will only be that much more dangerous.
“[Durant] has a good understanding of the game,” Head Coach Scott Brooks waxed after his young star’s best passing performance of the preseason, an eight assist, zero turnover effort in their final contest against New Orleans.
“He does a great job of getting his teammates open shots and open looks. He’s a terrific scorer, and he’s going to demand a lot of attention, but you can’t always use it for your own self, and Kevin doesn’t.”
What can you say? When the kid works on something, it gets better.
What’s more, making plays on the court isn’t the only way he’s bringing his teammates even further into the fold.
The most recent issue of Sports Illustrated included the iconic publication’s yearly NBA season outlook, and the front cover was graced by none other than Durant, but he wasn’t alone. There were two other players, one to his right and another to his left in the picture.
But, wait, who were those guys…?
Why, it was fellow league fixtures Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic. Both are in the Thunder starting lineup, and neither is widely celebrated.
Sefolosha, Oklahoma City’s defensive-minded shooting guard specializes in a craft that highlight reels rarely show appreciation to, and Krstic is known for little more than a certain chair-throwing incident at the very same summer FIBA tournament that Durant led his to team to the top of.
But why were these two on the cover of one of sports journalism’s holy grounds, the cover of SI?
Because Durant, their young teammate with seemingly infinite star power, wouldn’t do it without them.