Forecast: Thunder 

Last season, Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti sent a clear message when he pulled the trigger on a trade that essentially exchanged Jeff Green, the under-performing forward he said he loved like a son, for the Boston Celtics’ defensive juggernaut Kendrick Perkins.

That message? “We’re going for it.” The move suddenly shifted the fate of the young team Presti so carefully assembled atop Perkins’ very large knees, one of which suffered considerable damage in the 2010 NBA Finals.

But when a trimmed-down, faster and more agile center showed up in training camp almost two weeks ago, sans knee brace, every head turned.

“We make an issue about the above way he’s come back into camp this year,” head coach Scott Brooks said at Thunder Media Day last week. “But just looking back at it, Perk’s always been a worker. He’s always been a guy who does the little things, who helps his team win.”

right, a bulkier Kendrick Perkins attempts a shot against Nene, of the Denver Nuggets during the 2010-2011 NBA season.

Said starting point guard Russell Westbrook, “It’s great to see he’s committed to us and to winning.”

“He’s still physical,” backup forward Nick Collison said. “He’s just more mobile than he was before. He looks like a different player right now.”

Perkins’ hard work proved a surplus of motivation for a franchise that experienced little roster changeover from last season. While others in the league scramble to fill open spots vacated by finished contracts and players lost to foreign teams in the lockout, the Thunder remain insulated, growing together into an even closer, more efficient unit.

“It’s a good advantage,” Westbrook said. “We all have everybody in camp, and everybody’s healthy. And everybody’s in shape, and that’s definitely an advantage to have at this point in the year, especially with such a condensed season.”

Perkins said it reminded him of the 2008 season, comparing the early training camp vibe to when he won the NBA Championship with the Celtics. Veteran center Nazr Mohammed said the same thing about his 2005 run with the Spurs.

The compacted season (there are multiple stretches where the Thunder will play seven games in 10 days or fewer) will try teams’ endurance, but a slimmer Perkins, a deep bench and two-time-running NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant’s (pictured) work ethic all have the Thunder headed for a deep playoff run.

“I never tell KD this, but I think he set the bar high for me personally. Practice starts at 10 and he’s up here at 7:45 every morning,” Perkins said. “KD’s a guy who leads by example. When I first got here, I never seen a superstar work as hard as him, and that’s the honest truth.”

Thunder cracks

Scott Brooks on Russell Westbrook’s contract negotiations:
“We love Russell. But Sam [Presti] handles the roster. I coach them.”

Westbrook, on his contract:
“It’s not a distraction at all.”

Kevin Durant, on being back:
“I feel like a rookie just getting dressed.”

Durant, on Westbrook’s future with the team:
“I think he’s gonna be on our team for a while. He wants to stay here.”

Cole Aldrich, when asked about the shiner under his right eye:
“Ask Kevin that.”

James Harden, on his beard:
“I haven’t cut it in a long time. It’s just starting to grow wild. I don’t think I’m gonna touch it any time soon.”

Kendrick Perkins:
“We’re not the young Oklahoma City team that’s gonna sneak up and surprise people ... there is a target on our back.”

Serge Ibaka, on his on-court priorities:
“My offense be coming after my defense.”

Photos by Shannon Cornman

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