By Ryan Costello
Autumn is a time of many trademarks. Nature’s palette shifts from summer’s green to fall’s orange, kiddos reluctantly pop off to school, and of course, NBA media days begin to dot the league calendar.
True, there’s no adversity yet, and the answers are mostly corporate slogans and rah-rah lines, but hey, it means the season is that much closer. Here are some of the more noteworthy highlights from the Oklahoma City Thunder’s media day.
Brooks: Defense, Youth, and Pessimism
Head Coach Scott Brooks is now in his second full year on the Thunder bench, and he’s keen on keeping on keeping on with the defensive philosophy that drove last season’s squad.
“Our identity is gonna be the same,” Brooks said. “We have to get better on both ends of the floor, there’s no way around it. We made some improvement defensively last season, and we have to stay with that philosophy of defending the ball, defending the basket, and just being a defensive, tough team.”
With a year of an established defensive persona under its belt, the team figures to be even more ferocious on the boards and in the paint in the upcoming campaign.
The Thunder will return all of the key defensive components of a 2009-10 team that grabbed the third most rebounds and blocked the most shots in the league.
Of course, the majority of that roster is still developing, and as youth abounds on the Oklahoma City roster, Brooks put the burden of its maturation on himself.
“We are not a finished product,” Brooks said. “If we don’t get better as individuals, and as a team, it’s on me,” Brooks said.
The freshest face of the bunch is the eleventh pick in the draft, rookie big man Cole Aldrich, who after averaging 9.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in his final season at Kansas would seem to fit right in with coach’s continued emphasis on boards and blocks.
“We drafted [Aldrich] to be a tough guy that defends the basket. I think he has a chance to be really good,” Brooks said.
“Really good” is a tab that’s been applied to the entire team by basketball pundits around the association. From writers picking the Thunder to contend for a Western Conference title to Dwight Howard’s recent admission that he would rather play with Kevin Durant than mainstay superstars named Kobe and LeBron, the expectations surrounding this team are no secret.
Brooks addressed the pressure of expectation, but not without a sense of humor.
“Call me pessimistic, but I don’t see another 27-win improvement this year.”
In his typically humble fashion, Durant was slow to let the praise following a record-breaking MVP performance in Turkey go to his head.
In fact, the 22-year-old forward was a bit bashful about the whole ordeal.
“I was more shocked at the role I had. [Coach Mike Krzyzewski] had to tell me to shoot the ball, and I was shocked at that, but my teammates did a good job putting me in good position,” Durant said. “Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom, those guys made comfortable with my role on that team and I was able to go out there and just play my game.”
Durant said that he learned from the physical style of play overseas, he learned from Coach K’s tutelage, and he learned from his teammates.
Apparently, he learned a lot this summer.
Just about everything Durant said continued to reinforce his humility and humanity, a personality that national writers were quick to juxtapose against the seemingly egomaniacal LeBron James in light of his decision to take his talents to South Beach this offseason.
But Durant refused to demonize James and the Heat. Indeed, he had his chances; writers and media members weren’t shy to ask his opinion of the Miami ‘superteam’.
“As a fan of the game, it’s pretty cool to see three guys that are all-stars coming together. Of course they’re gonna try for a championship, but as a player on my team, I can’t focus on them. I gotta worry about what I got right here, what we’re working on right here,” Durant said. “But [the Heat] have a great team and a great group of guys.”
Durant went as far to say that as good a player as James is, “he’s even a better person.”
He was even apprehensive about his name being mentioned in tandem with the words “league’s best player”.
“To be honest, as a competitor, as a guy that’s real with myself, I don’t think I’m on LeBron’s level just yet. I’m working, though, I’m working, I can tell you that,” Durant said.
We’re all still waiting for this kid to take a day off.
A “More assertive, more consistent, more focused” Jeff Green:
The lesser known of Oklahoma City’s ‘big three’ is against the wall, and he seemed to be handling it well.
While his friend and teammate Durant was praising the almighty and the Thunder front office for his five year, $82 million extension, Green was left to wonder about his future.
More importantly if would be in a Thunder uniform.
“I was hoping a deal would be done, but you know, it’s none of my concern,” Green said. “My focus right now is to get prepared the best I can for this season.”
But what if it doesn’t happen before October 31, making Green a restricted free agent next summer?
“Then it doesn’t happen,” Green said coolly. “We continue to move on with the season.”
Green asserted that his looming contract situation is planted firmly on his backburner, and that this is just as crucial a year for his team as it is for his pocketbook.
“This is a big year for us as a team. Coming off a great season last year, there’s gonna be a lot of spotlight on us and a lot pressure to try to duplicate that,” Green said.
Whether or not he was going with the oldest script in the contract year playbook, if Green’s commitment to improve his game is any indication, he may yet earn a big payday next summer.
Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Mr. Why Not’ himself, Russell Westbrook:
During a handful of tense moments while the media posed contract questions with Jeff Green, budding star point guard and team personality Russell Westbrook was as usual bringing some brevity to the room.
As Green was poked and prodded about years and dollars, Westbrook was nestled just behind the media screen, eating cookies and quietly mixing it up with members of the fourth estate.
After all, those cookies were for the press.
But there remains a fair amount of ferocity behind Westbrook’s fun and games, and it was displayed in droves in the young floor general’s performance at the FIBA Worlds in Turkey.
“I think I improved a lot [at the FIBA Worlds], especially just mentally getting prepared for games and watching other players and see how they prepare. I sat back and watched a lot of things and tried to learn from them,” Westbrook said.
Westbrook’s performance, arguably second to only Durant’s on Team USA this summer, has only magnified the expectations for both himself and the Thunder.
“We’re just going to go out and be a defensive team, the best defensive team in the league,” Westbrook said.
The growing guard also addressed his growth as a distributor in addition to a slasher.
“I’m gonna just go out and try to continue to get my teammates better and to try to get more wins,” Westbrook said.
Of course, he couldn’t resist getting in a jab at Durant’s Texas Longhorns, the recipients of a 34-12 throttling at the hands Westbrook’s UCLA Bruins Saturday in Austin, TX.
“What game you talking about?” Russell replied with a grin when asked about the Bruins’ upset win. “The one where UCLA beat that ‘other school’?”
That might cost Mr. Why Not a certain long, skinny elbow or two in practice.
* Serge Ibaka will officially be donning a headband this season. In an unsurprising twist, fellow headband-wearer James Harden approves.
* Speaking of Ibaka and Harden, the two prominent bench players were asked if they were bothered about not starting, and both seemed sincerely unconcerned about coming off the pine.
* Center Nenad Krstic was wearing a bulky cast on his injured right index finger and was unsure when he’d be ready to play. He reiterated an apology that he had initially made to national television markets in Greece and Serbia regarding the chair throwing incident during the FIBA worlds this summer.
* The two new shooting guards, Daequan Cook and Morris Peterson, claimed to be ready to drop threes for the Thunder this season. Whoever does that best while also playing solid perimeter defense stands to play the minutes.
* Shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha said he worked on his corner three this summer.
* Ibaka’s linguistic prowess was on display today. His English is nearly fluent now, and he also flawlessly answered one question in Spanish.
* Point Guard Eric Maynor said that Ibaka is, “terrible at FIFA 10.” Ibaka staunchly denied the allegation.
* Aldrich briefly commandeered a camera at the end of Green’s conference. “What do you think of my camera skills?” he asked Green. Though Green said they were terrible, he did note that Aldrich was surrounded by people that could help him out. More than one player said Aldrich was a character of sorts, and he’s yet to disappoint. He’s currently working on a hook shot to improve his offensive arsenal.