- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook quickly went from being rookies to All-Stars, and now they’re practically veterans on the increasingly youthful Oklahoma City Thunder.

And they are just 23.

Facing a budget crunch as NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden became eligible for contract extensions, the Thunder allowed veterans Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey to walk away during free agency this summer. That leaves forward Nick Collison as the team’s only thirtysomething and one of just three players who has reached their 26th birthday.

Youth has never been an excuse for the Thunder, who went from league laughingstock to Western Conference champion in the four years they’ve played in Oklahoma City. General manager Sam Presti said Wednesday that he’s confident Durant and Westbrook will be able to adjust their leadership skills now that there are fewer veterans around.

“They’re continually evolving,” Presti said. “When you take a look at what it is that they have established, those guys have been through a lot of things. I put Nick Collison in that group, too. I talk a lot about the internal standards that we have, that we work by on a day-to-day basis, and those three guys are part of the first team that ever wore the uniform and ever wore the logo.

“They have a lot of ownership over the culture that’s been established because of who they are and how they approach their jobs.”

They’ll have to do it with a supporting cast that is younger, and less proven, than a season ago. During the run to the NBA Finals, Fisher was 37, Mohammed was 34 and Ivey 30. Fisher had won five NBA championships and Mohammed had won one.

The Thunder’s biggest offseason acquisition was 25-year-old Hasheem Thabeet. Second-year players DeAndre Liggins, Daniel Orton and Andy Rautins will join first-round draft pick Perry Jones III and undrafted rookie Hollis Thompson as newcomers when training camp opens Tuesday.

“We lost three veterans in Nazr, Royal and Fish and we picked up a couple young guys. So, it’s going to be interesting in training camp because guys are really going to be battling for minutes,” said starting center Kendrick Perkins, the team’s third-oldest player at 27. “We’ve got a lot of talent and rookies who are coming in that’s ready to play right now.”

Oklahoma City’s top competitors for the NBA title have rosters filled with veterans, even more so after this offseason. Defending champion Miami added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and the Lakers brought in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. The Spurs, who lost to the Thunder in the West finals, still have their championship-winning trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Presti didn’t have many choices as he tried to keep Oklahoma City’s star-studded nucleus together. Durant and Westbrook already take up a big chunk of the Thunder’s salary cap room, and Ibaka’s new deal throws into question whether the team can afford to bring back Harden even now.

“For various reasons, from a team-building standpoint or a financial standpoint or what it might be, you’ve got to make decisions,” Presti said. “It’s a good situation to feel like you wish you had more spots for everyone, but it’s just not a reality.”

Presti declined to provide an update on the prospects of extending Harden’s contract and said: “I wish I could tell you I knew how it was going to end up.”

“I think James would very much like to be here and he’s a talented guy. I’m sure he’s got to think through that on his end, do the best thing for him and his family,” Presti said. “By no means is anyone in our organization going to judge him by his decision. He’s going to do what’s best for him and we have to do what’s best for us, but at the end of the day you hope there’s a collaborative mutual interest. Sometimes that can happen, sometimes it can’t.”

Presti wouldn’t say if he considered it an option for small-market Oklahoma City to pay the luxury tax penalty in order to afford Harden’s extension. Backup point guard Eric Maynor is also up for a new deal. Both would be restricted free agents after the upcoming season.

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