Remember the Thunder? The reigning Western Conference champions almost got lost in the shuffle this summer, with the Lakers' acquisition of two future Hall of Famers. Rest assured that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook & Co. won't forget being forgotten: If anything, being overlooked during the off-season will be motivational fuel for a return to the Finals.
Not that Oklahoma City should need it; a sense of urgency already hangs over the team. Unless general manager Sam Presti—who signed forward Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million extension in August—can also extend guard James Harden before the Oct. 31 deadline, the uncertain future of the reigning Sixth Man Award winner will color the Thunder's season. Harden will most likely get a max offer from at least one team as a restricted free agent, and OKC isn't in a position to match it and ignore the luxury tax like, well, the Lakers. But that's a worry for next July.
COACH: Scott Brooks (5th season with Thunder)
2011--12 RECORD: 47--19 (1st in Northwest)
OFFENSE: 103.1 ppg (3rd)
DEFENSE: 96.9 ppg (17th)
PICK-AND-ROLL OFFENSE: 28.2 ppg (4th)
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE THUNDER
Miami, the Lakers and other teams got better—but the Thunder didn't make any moves that will affect their team this year. You could say they're counting on their young players to improve, but I don't know how much better Kevin Durant can get. Kendrick Perkins isn't getting any better. I think Serge Ibaka has hit a ceiling—even though he's young. And the same thing goes for James Harden. The one guy who can really improve is Russell Westbrook, in terms of making decisions.... Durant can be a great defensive player, and I'm sure that's something they've talked about this summer. He could be dominant at that end of the floor because he's so long and athletic.... I love Westbrook, but I still don't know if he is a point guard, or if he is someone who needs to take too many shots? You put Westbrook on a bad team and he'll make them decent. But obviously he hasn't proved that he can play with the discipline you need to win in the Finals.... Another question has been whether they should invest long-term in Harden. I think if he went to another team as a starter, they'd realize he isn't good enough to take them far into the playoffs.
The new-look Lakers crumble, and the Thunder—having locked up Harden—exacts revenge against the Heat in the Finals.
Harden doesn't re-up, the Durant-Westbrook feud becomes real, and OKC gets rolled in the first round.
Shots blocked per game by the Thunder, the most in the NBA in 18 seasons and the fifth highest since blocks became an official stat in 1973--74. Serge Ibaka had a league-leading 3.7 swats per matchup.
GREG NELSON (HARDEN)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (WESTBROOK)
GREG NELSON (DURANT)
TWO WAYS ABOUT IT Durant, who averaged 30.6 points per game in the Finals, could exploit his length to take a bigger leap at the other end of the floor.