by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree

You saw Lang’s great take on the Hawks version of our new cover. Here’s some added thoughts from our Thunder cover story writer, Nima Zarrabi…—Ed.

An NBA locker room can be a strange place for a writer.

It’s considered a sanctuary for players and often times, it’s the world that we must step into as temporary visitors in order to speak to the cats we’re covering, whether we’re wanted there or not. Thankfully, NBA rules call for the locker room to be open to the press before and after games—all players are required to be available for interviews, but it doesn’t always work that way.

okc3Pre-game usually provides the best opportunity to interview players, just as long as they’re cool about it. Some players don’t like to grant interviews when they’re trying to get dressed or hyped up for a game, which is very understandable. Post-game offers opportunity as well, but at that point you’re battling a full press core for access. Furthermore, I’ve always believed that road teams are in a serious rush to bounce after games in LA, since many players have family or friends waiting on them with post-game passes—everyone it seems, has people here. That means getting quality quotes or any serious interview time is a true hustle, an exciting and nerve-racking aspect of the job.

So, when Ben called me about doing a cover story on the Thunder, my initial excitement was quickly remixed with a dose of anxiety—the nerves that accompany the chase for access. Our cover was going to feature Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook—the Thunder’s co-captains and floor general. My goal was to try and get decent time with all three.

When I caught up with the Thunder in LA after their thorough dismantling of the Clippers, I sought out their PR team: Director of Basketball Communications Brian Facchini and Manager of Basketball Communications Michael Ravina. Just like GM Sam Presti, Brian and Michael and are some of the coolest cats in the biz. When I asked them if our cover trio conducted interviews before games, there was a little bit of laughter. “Yeah, they’re not like that,” Ravina said.

And so it began—I spent the next couple days following the Thunder on their Cali swing—two games, a practice and a SLAM photo shoot. It was a wonderful opportunity to lurk around a young and vibrant team peaking much earlier than many expected. I quickly learned that everyone on the squad gets along and the young guys, most notably—Durant, Green, Westbrook, James Harden and Eric Maynor—are extremely close.

Translation: a very pleasant work environment for me. I enjoyed talking fashion with Westbrook, who claims his style has changed dramatically since his rookie year. Nick Collison filled me in on the rules for Iowa’s famed 6-on-6 basketball and we also discussed our fondness for the Michael Vick Project. I talked PF Flyers with Serge Ibaka and beard maintenance with Harden.

I told Etan Thomas that I enjoyed some of his columns on HoopsHype and he laughed. “Got me in a little bit of trouble,” he said. My response: “That’s what happens when you tell the truth.” He smiled and thanked me before getting on the bus.

Having the opportunity to spend some time with a humble superstar like Durant at this stage in his career, was awesome. He is on the verge of entering the Kobe-LeBron discussion, but laughs off any comparisons. “I’m a long way from being the player I want to be.” His remarkable example sets the expectation level high for the entire team: hard work is a way of life. Durant has been pretty much unstoppable this season, averaging nearly 30 points per game, battling for the scoring title with LeBron. His 40 points last night against the T-Wolves brought his season tally to 2,258 points—setting a new team single-season record, surpassing the mark set by former Sonic Dale Ellis during the 88-89 campaign.

Durant, Green and Westbrook all grew up with SLAM and were very excited to be selected for a cover. “The photo shoot was fun, especially being on the cover with those two guys,” Green said. “It’s a good opportunity and a good look for us. I was never in SLAM growing up, but I read all the articles and checked out the shoes in the back.”

Westbrook, a SoCal native who had his jersey retired at his high school a few days prior to the shoot, joked about not being able to afford a SLAM subscription as a youngster. “I read it when I had the opportunity in the stores,” he said.  “I never really had an issue come to my house. Cost too much—can’t get that SLAM issue every month. I got that Eastbay, though.”

durantokcDurant described the cover as a special moment for the state of Oklahoma and the entire Thunder organization. “When we first came here, nobody really knew who we were and nobody thought we were going to do anything these first couple years,” he said. “But we’re starting to turn some heads and that’s just a testament to how hard we’ve worked and how hard everyone in this organization pushes us to get better. This is just the beginning for us.”

My story focused on the Thunder’s three superstars, but it’s important to note that the team’s role players have been critical to their success as well. Thabo Sefolosha has started every game at shooting guard this season and is considered the team’s best perimeter defender, often drawing the opposition’s best player. Nenad Krstic and Collison are serviceable big men who do much of the dirty work for Oklahoma City and are capable of running some pick and roll with Westbrook. Krstic starts at center, posting about 9 points and 5 rebounds per game, while Collison comes off the bench to add another 6 points and 5 rebounds per.

The Thunder bench is led by a trio of rookies—Harden, Maynor and Ibaka. All three players have been key contributors this season. Presti shocked many draft experts when he passed on Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry for Harden in the 2009 Draft. Presti’s instincts have paid off. Harden has proved to be a worthy selection, providing instant offense off the bench, averaging 10 pts per game in about 23 minutes of action each night. The 6-10 Ibaka, a native of the Republic of Congo, has been a pleasant surprise, averaging about 6 points and 5 rebounds per in about 18 minutes of action. Ibaka was the 24th pick overall in the 2008 draft. Following his selection, the Thunder opted to keep him in Europe for another year before bringing him into the mix this season. His game has flourished of late, with some of his vicious dunks and blocks showing up on SportsCenter.

Presti scooped up Maynor earlier this season from the Utah Jazz, who had opted to give him up in a salary dump. A 1st round pick from VCU, Maynor was traded along with Matt Harpring (a player with an expiring contract that is sitting out this season due to injury) for the rights to Peter Fehse, a 2002 second-round pick who is currently playing in Germany. Veterans Kevin Ollie and Etan Thomas round out the rotation. They have been used sparingly this season, but can be counted on to play quality minutes in the playoffs if needed.

Coach Scott Brooks is the likely NBA coach of the year, with a playoff spot clinched and a 48-28 record—marking a 25-game improvement from last season. Brooks emphasized strong defensive principles during training camp and the Thunder has responded. Currently, OKC is the No. 6 seed in the West with six games left on the schedule, including games this week against Utah and Denver. The Lakers hold the No. 1 seed in the West and all of the playoff teams that follow are within a game or two of each other.

How this young team will respond during their first playoff test is anyone’s guess, but at the very least, we know they will be exciting.