The Oklahoma City Thunder looked like the NBA’s emerging franchise in 2012 when they reached the finals and even entered the series as favorites against the Miami Heat. An exciting group of young players appeared to have the opportunity to dominate the NBA. However, the 2012-13 season ended in a disappointing defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies. The franchise and its marquee player, Kevin Durant, now face some serious questions entering a pivotal and difficult looking 2013-14 campaign.
Oklahoma City opened up the 2012 NBA Finals with a resounding 105-96 victory in Oklahoma. Four games later, the team’s talented young trio Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook stood on the sidelines and watched as LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s ‘big three’ fulfilled their destinies. Most people thought that they would be back, but they were wrong.
The Thunder made a salary cap based decision allowing sixth man of the year Harden to leave for the Houston Rockets, while hoping to maintain better balance on the overall roster handing big power forward Serge Ibaka a major extension.
Ibaka was never able to live up to the star status expected of him because of that contract. Westbrook went down with an injury in the first round of the playoffs and Durant was unable to get past an extremely tough defensive team in Memphis. The Thunder looked like they were severely lacking in depth and balance, and there were major concerns about the balance side of things even during a regular season which saw Oklahoma City take the West’s top seed.
There were reasons for the Thunder struggling during the 2013 postseason. However, are there any reasons to expect an improved output in 2013-14? Head coach Scott Brooks will not have the services of useful scorer Kevin Martin coming off the bench with no obvious replacements for that scoring output. Durant has said publicly that he expects Westbrook to be back for the beginning of the season. Still, the starting point guard has always relied heavily upon his athleticism and there will be some concerns about his ability to bounce back from what was a serious injury. There will be (and should be) plenty of concerned eyes on Westbrook in training camp, preseason and early season. Last year’s playoffs have made it very obvious that this team is not especially competitive without Westbrook.
Concerns and questions remain over the big man tandem on the inside. Kendrick Perkins and his problems are well-documented. Meanwhile, 23-year old Ibaka wasn’t able to be the reliable go-to player that was expected of him last season. He was still able to dominate defensively and picked up more than three blocks per game for the second straight season. Ibaka needs to be a consistent star player. He needs to bring a better all-round defensive game and he needs to provide something at the other end of the court as well.
The competition isn’t getting any easier for Oklahoma City in the Western conference either. The San Antonio Spurs might still fancy one more season and one more postseason run after coming so close in June. The Houston Rockets have added Dwight Howard to a roster that was already brimming with talent led by Harden. Houston played like a talented and well-coached team. They now have a second superstar, and Howard should enjoy playing in Houston far more than his most recent stop in LA with the Lakers. Watch out for the Rockets.
Two other young teams on the rise will also feature strongly in discussions about the Western conference’s favorite teams. The Golden State Warriors led by a dynamic back-court duo in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will be looking to build upon an exciting 2013 postseason run, which saw them only stopped by the Spurs in six in the second round. Andre Iguodala adds yet another scoring threat after he joined the team during free agency. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers once again led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be expecting much bigger things after Doc Rivers’ high profile move to take on the head coaching job. Rivers is known as a motivator of men and that could be just what LA’s other team needs right now.
Ultimately, Oklahoma City’s success will come down to one man. Kevin Durant. Can he produce enough in both the regular season and postseason to make this team successful? Only time will tell. It is clear that he has the talent level to make the Thunder the very best in the West and even the NBA. He will need to lead his team’s bounce back in 2013-14 if there is going to be one.