Thunder tired of coming up short
The 2012-13 season ended horribly for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals in June of 2012, only to lose to the Miami Heat. They shipped reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to Houston in a cost-cutting move, but the Thunder didn't miss a beat.
OKC finished with the best record in the West and had the No. 1 seed. Optimism brimmed at a chance to avenge their Finals loss.
Then, horror befell the Thunder.
Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley went for a steal as the teams were heading to a timeout and injured All-Star guard Russell Westbrook's knee. He was out the remainder of the postseason with a torn meniscus.
The Thunder's realistic title hopes were dashed. They lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals and regrouped for this upcoming season.
One small problem arose.
Westbrook's meniscus healed properly, but as training camp began, there was swelling in the knee. It was determined a stitch came loose and Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery and will miss four to six weeks of the regular season.
Westbrook is no ordinary "man." He is an All-Star and an elite scorer and plus-defender. His loss is tough, but the Thunder are by no means done.
Who's In/Who's Out
Additions: Steven Adams, Ryan Gomes
Losses: Kevin Martin, Ronnie Brewer
OKC may lose some early ground in the standings, but with Kevin Durant, a legitimate MVP candidate, the Thunder should still be in the top four of the Western Conference.
Rocketing Up the Standings
Trail Blazers (40-42)
In The Hunt
Fighting For Eighth
Solid Young Pieces
But Durant is capable of carrying a team on his back. Don't shed too many tears for the Thunder just yet.
Over the last four seasons, he has finished second, fifth, second and second in MVP voting. He's made four All-Star teams and made four consecutive appearances on the All-NBA first team. He is the game's most gifted scorer, whose rebounding and assist numbers have gone up in the last two seasons. He is the second-best player in the league and has the dumb luck of being in his prime while LeBron James is as well.
Serge Ibaka meanwhile enjoyed a great 2012-13 season just after signing a four-year, $49 million contract. His scoring increased by almost 4.0 ppg and he's already led the NBA in blocks the last two seasons en route to All-Defensive first team honors. Can his scoring go even higher than 13.1 ppg? Probably not, but Ibaka is an All-Star in the making.
And when Westbrook is healthy, he is a top-four point guard in the NBA.
The Not So Good
The loss of Westbrook hurts, but it is only temporary.
A bigger problem that may arise for Oklahoma City stems from a bench loss. Harden has been gone for a season, but his replacement, Kevin Martin, who had a strong season for the Thunder, bolted for the Minnesota Timberwolves via free agency.
Who replaces him and Harden as the bench star is a big question.
So who does take that bench starring role?
The smart money is on Jeremy Lamb, who, like Martin, came over in the Harden deal. He was a capable scorer at UConn and is a good shooter, but is a guy who played all of 147 minutes last season, his rookie one, going to make that huge a leap?
What To Expect
Any team with Durant is a title contender. The Thunder had a legitimate chance to go all the way with a healthy Westbrook last season.
The Martin loss will hurt. There is no one on the bench who is a proven scorer. Sefolosha is a premiere defender, but sometimes, in crunch time, Brooks will need someone else who can put the ball in the hoop out there. Maybe Lamb becomes that, or maybe Jackson's scoring increases with the confidence he gains as an early-season starter.
Don't look for the Thunder to reclaim that No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Westbrook will miss too much time in the beginning for that to remain an attainable goal.
But OKC will be there in the end. The Thunder should be among the four or five teams with a realistic chance to win an NBA title. The bench could use some help, but the nucleus, led by Durant, is still excellent.