by Lang Whitaker

ATLANTA — Last night, I went down to Philips Arena to see the Oklahoma City Thunder lose to the Atlanta Hawks. As a Hawks fan, I’d looked forward to this game for a few days. The Hawks could use the win, and the Thunder generally oblige every other team in the L.

Today, the morning after the Hawks’ 99-88 win, the Thunder are 3-26. This puts the Thunder on a pace to go 8-74 for the season, which would be the worst record in NBA history. Which probably isn’t the way Clay Bennett imagined things going his first year in charge of the franchise.

Again: The Thunder are on pace to finish with the worst record in the history of the NBA. They’re not just bad, they’re historically bad.

When I walked into the Thunder locker room last night, I found my main men Nick Collison and Kevin Durant sitting side-by-side in their lockers, watching a tape of the Hawks being projected against a far wall. We exchanged handshakes and greetings, but when Collison asked how I was doing, the only thing I could think to say was, “I’m guessing better than you guys.” I wasn’t kidding, but they understood.

DurantHawksSee, losing sucks. Believe me, I know. As a sophomore in high school I started on our junior varsity and helped lead our team to an 0-12 season. No, really. We were horrible, and there was nothing we could do about it. We enjoyed playing together as a team, and we never quit on our coach or ourselves. We just weren’t as good as everyone else we played against.

Welcome to the world of the Oklahoma City Thunder. They play three or four games a week, and they lose about ten times as many games as they win. Ten times! Not exactly a great rate of return. If the Oklahoma City Thunder were an investment fund, they’d be managed by Bernie Madoff.

The OKC guys seem to play hard and, more importantly, play well together; if these guys hate each other, they fooled me. Reports out of Oakland say things in Golden State are even worse behind the scenes than their 8-22 record indicates. Behind the scenes in OKC, at least from what I saw, things aren’t awful. More importantly, the key cogs in OKC seem to understand that this is supposed to be a learning experience.

And they weren’t embarrassingly bad against the Hawks. They kept the game close throughout and made a couple of nice runs in the first half that forced Mike Woodson to call timeouts.

Still, you know how a bunch of team’s benches stand throughout the game, or at least at the end of the close games? When Durant nailed a 19-footer with 3:18 left to pull the Thunder within 4, 85-81, I looked over at the Thunder bench and didn’t see a single person — no coaches, no players, no trainers, nobody — standing up and cheering. It was almost as if they knew what was looming ahead, that they might get it close but they had no real chance to actually win it. These Thunder were determined not to get fooled again.

So if the Thunder all get along and have wildly talented players like Kevin Durant, why aren’t they winning games?

They just don’t have the experience, for one. The Thunder are so young that the team serves Similac instead of Gatorade during games. A minute after Durant hit that jumper to make it a 4-point game, the Hawks made it a 7-point lead and OKC took a timeout. Out of that timeout, the Thunder got the ball to Kevin Durant at the top of the key and he immediately jacked up a three-pointer — no passes, no picks, just shot it up — and missed. Good teams don’t waste late game opportunities, especially out of time outs. The miss from Durant pretty much ended the game.

Scott Brooks, who saw his record as coach drop to 2-15 with the loss to Atlanta, was circumspect about his team’s chances for improvement. “We just have to continue to get better, continue to believe in each other and trust each other on the defensive end,” prescribed Coach Scott Brooks after the game.

And for two, there’s Blake Griffin. The Oklahoma native is likely to be the first pick in the 2009 Draft, and I’m sure Clay Bennett wouldn’t mind pulling a Cavs this season in order to end up with the amazing local kid. After all, it’ll only be their “opening” season in OKC once.

The worst team in NBA history was the 1972-73 76ers, who finished their campaign a comical 9-73. The best player on that team was Fred “Mad Dog” Carter, who’s probably better known these days from his work on ESPN and, more recently, on NBA TV.

A couple of years ago, I spoke to Carter about his season in the stink with Philly. “We were all put together at the same time to fail,” Carter recalled, “and it’s amazing because I’ve seen teams through history that have played with dissension. We had no dissension, but we lost together. We went down with the ship. Now, we don’t want someone to break the record. Hall of Fame or Hall of Shame, at least spell my name right. It’s our mantle, our mantle.”

Perhaps not for long. After the game, as Kevin Durant was getting dressed, he realized he’d forgotten to bring any lotion. He walked across the locker room to the locker of Kyle Weaver, a rook out of Washington State, presumably to jack some Right Guard. Weaver asked, “What do I look like to you, Walgreens?”

Weaver then handed over his deodorant to the reigning Rookie of the Year.

Durant returned, slipped on his monogrammed dress shirt and turned to face the media. As he did, Jeff Green reached over from two lockers down and smeared a handful of lotion on the back of Durant’s neck. Durant chuckled, recoiled and reached for a towel. As rookie Russell Westbrook grinned, Green got him as well.

As Durant left the locker room, I wondered if the humor between the guys after the game was more a coping mechanism rather than a representation of their ineptitude.

“We laugh and stuff because we get along, but it’s also just that we can’t dwell on it, man, we can’t dwell on all the losses.” Durant said. “There’s too many games to play. What we have to do is learn from the losses and play better every night. And if we dwell on them, it’s just going to make it worse.”

“We still have a lot to learn. We have to get stops, stop letting teams make runs without us making a run back at them. We have to improve. And we will improve.”

The Thunder were born to be bad, built to be winners somewhere down the line but not in the here and now, and thus far they have lived up that birthright thus far in stunning fashion. The Thunder aren’t hopeless. They’re going to improve. They’ve got money and fans, and they’ll eventually add better pieces to their futility puzzle. The Thunder might be bad, but they’re on the way up instead of on the way down.

For now, though, the Thunder come to play every night, knowing they’re basically coming to a knife fight armed with a safety pin. Still, they play hard and do what they can. And in the meantime, whether they like it or not, they flirt with history.

In the worst way possible.