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On most mornings Kevin Durant, the best NBA player most people never get to see, drives his extralong conversion van 10 minutes from his house in the suburbs of Oklahoma City to the Thunder's practice facility, which if not technically in the middle of nowhere is at least on its outskirts. He passes sagging power lines and idle oil derricks and vast fields of brittle yellow grass pocked with snow before turning onto a two-lane road and, just past the John Deere factory, pulling into the parking lot of the practice center, a converted roller rink. Unfolding his 6'9" frame from the van, Durant ambles past the odd rabbit lounging in the shrubbery and enters the gym for another day of work, all the while engulfed by the scent of ... well, what is that exactly?
"Dog food," says Durant. "And it stinks, man; it really stinks." As it turns out, there is a hulking Purina plant just down the road, churning out untold tons of pet chow weekly, but Durant takes the, um, ambience in stride, just as he does many other not-so-glamorous elements of playing in the smallest market in the NBA. These include the weather (cold), the nightlife (hello, Denny's!) and the TV exposure (two national appearances this season, or 27 fewer than the Cavaliers), all of which are supposed to be of great importance to NBA players, who are commonly envisioned as a flock of 7-foot homing pigeons all hatched in the same sweaty South Beach nightclub. But Durant claims not to mind. He says that he "loves it here," and once you spend some time around him, it becomes clear that he is not only sincere but also talking as much about the franchise as the city itself.
This is not to say that the jokes don't get old. Like last week, when Durant and a few teammates were at a mall in Dallas and a man walked up to the group, which was outfitted in matching gray Thunder sweat suits, and said, "Oklahoma City—is that a semipro team?" and then started giggling. Last year, when the Thunder began a Nets-like 3--29, such a crack would have at least made sense. This year, however, it merely betrayed ignorance, for the Thunder are not only respectable but also on the verge of being downright good. Despite a nine-man rotation that could be described as the March Madness Traveling All-Stars (average age 23) Oklahoma City finished the week with a 22--18 record, just behind eighth-place Houston in the ultracompetitive Western Conference.
This has led to a natural curiosity about the team and especially the 21-year-old Durant, who heretofore was known primarily for two things: being the national college player of the year as a freshman (at Texas) and scoring a ton of points for a bad NBA team (first the Sonics and then, after the team moved in 2008, the Thunder). The latter leads to pejorative labels, whether deserved or not: Gunner, Guy Who Gets His, Volume Shooter. These days, however, Durant is scoring a ton of points for a winning team, and that is regarded as a different thing entirely. Players who do that are tagged All-Star and Franchise Player and have names like Kobe and Carmelo and D-Wade and Dirk.
While Durant has not reached their level just yet, there are nights when he comes pretty damn close. Take last week against San Antonio, one of the better defensive teams in the league. The Spurs' game plan, in the words of one assistant, was to "double-team the s--- out of Durant." San Antonio also fronted him and jumped screens and sent help defenders from the baseline rather than the top of the key, a flurry of activity generally reserved for the Kobes of the world. This came on the heels of a game, earlier in the week, when the Knicks broke out that old high school staple, the box-and-one, to defend Durant. ("Never seen that in this league," he says, shaking his head.)
The Spurs' scheme worked for about three quarters. Durant shot mainly contested jumpers, many of which rimmed out in agonizing fashion, and at one point was 7 for 19 from the field. A year ago—even two months ago, he says—he would have stopped shooting. "But I learned that's not the remedy," Durant says. "I knew I had to be aggressive for us to win." So he kept launching jumpers, focusing on releasing the ball before the defense closed, and eventually he began sinking them, finishing with 35 points on 14-for-31 shooting in a tough overtime loss. To give you an idea of how uncommonly common this output was for Durant, consider that through Sunday he had more games of 30 points this season (22) than not (18), while averaging 29.1 (third in the league). His consistency has not gone unnoticed. "The most difficult thing to do in this league is to carry a team every night, especially a team that is winning," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "You can count the guys who can do that on one hand. Durant is right below those guys right now, and the only reason is because he's young."
If this sounds like the type of player you might want to construct a franchise around, well, you are not alone.
Meet Sam Presti, the Thunder general manager. At 32, his résumé includes: four-year career as a scrappy guard at Emerson College (he once took six charges in one game), Rhodes scholar nominee, seven years working his way up the Spurs' organization to assistant G.M. and now three at the helm of the Oklahoma City franchise, where he remains the youngest G.M. in the league by a wide margin. From an office next to the practice court—where he sits hunched over a laptop surrounded by an iPod dock, a whiteboard with a color-coded list of every player in the league and a stack of books that includes biographies of Harry Truman and Thelonious Monk—Presti has modeled the Thunder after his old employer. San Antonio's strategy over the last decade-plus, greatly simplified, was to assemble complementary pieces around one lynchpin player (Tim Duncan) and a couple of very good ones (most recently Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker), then win with defense, discipline and smarts.
Since taking over, Presti has drafted a core of young talent—in addition to Durant, there is point guard Russell Westbrook, forward Jeff Green and shooting guard James Harden—and surrounded it with high-character, high-energy specialists such as forward Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha, a versatile 6'7" guard he pried away from the Bulls last season who is being mentioned as a potential Defensive Player of the Year. From the top down Presti stresses a culture of humility and hard work and incremental gains, and he likes to use words like sustainability. The franchise ethos, which the players buy into, is apparent at the practice facility, where the posters are not of players but of ideals: the arm of one Thunder player reaching down to help up a fallen teammate, a player's hands grasping his shorts from exhaustion.
The piece that holds it all together is Durant, who is Presti's Tim Duncan. And while Durant is most often compared with Tracy McGrady in terms of size and ability to handle the ball, he may have more in common with the Spurs center. Both are team players, both shy away from the spotlight and both are quietly confident. "You never see Durant pumping his chest, for the most part, or pointing at people, or saying, 'Look at me, look at what I just did,'" says Popovich. "He goes and dunks or knocks down the jumper like, That's what I'm supposed to do, I've done it before and I'm going to keep doing it. That's what Duncan does. And in that sense they're very, very similar."