Blazersedge staff writer Chris Lucia will be writing team-by-team previews over the next month as we count down to the start of the 2013-14 season. All team previews can be found right here.
2012-2013 Record: 60-22, No. 1 in Northwest Division, No. 1 in Western Conference
Roster additions: Steven Adams (Rookie, No. 12 overall), Ryan Gomes, Andre Roberson (Rookie, No. 26 overall)
Roster subtractions: Ronnie Brewer, DeAndre Liggins, Kevin Martin, Daniel Orton
SB Nation affiliate: Welcome to Loud City
It seems fitting to end the Blazer's Edge 30-team league preview series with Portland's Northwest division rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The two teams' fates will forever be intertwined, for on the 2007 draft night, the Blazers held the first pick, while the pre-Thunder Sonics were slotted at No. 2. Passing on lanky Texas forward Kevin Durant, Portland used their pick to select center Greg Od.....
Ah, nevermind. Let's not get into that again, eh?
Instead, let's first talk about what Oklahoma City and coach Scott Brooks will have to overcome this year in order to defend their regular season Western Conference crown and slide back into one of the top playoff seeds.
All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who turns 25 in a few weeks, tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee against the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, and might not see his first game action until sometime around Christmas. Fans are concerned he may not return immediately as the player who last year averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds a game. Without Westbrook, the Thunder clearly struggled and were dispatched pretty easily by the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the second round.
Oklahoma City also has a pretty clear lack of proven talent on the bench. Who's going to be the sixth-man this year after Kevin Martin bolted for a starting job in Minnesota? Sophomore Jeremy Lamb, who played 7 minutes a game last year in 23 appearances? At 39, Derek Fisher is about five or six seasons removed from his ability to be that guy, and the rest of the second unit looks rather slim featuring the likes of big men Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet and rookie guard Andre Roberson.
Third-year point guard Reggie Jackson will step into a starting role, but he's still pretty unpolished, terrible from outside and is an average finisher and passer.
Shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha will probably see his usage increased this season, and he should be up to the task, as he's seen his three-point shooting trend upward above 40 percent the last couple seasons. If he can maintain that percentage with an increased scoring load -- he's never averaged double-figure scoring numbers as a member of the Thunder -- the team will be much better off weathering the loss of Westbrook and his subsequent reintegration following rehab.
Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka round out the starting front court. Perkins has seen his production take a dive in recent years, while Ibaka is on an upward curve, scoring a career-high 13.2 points per game last season and averaging 3 blocks a night, best in the league. Brooks needs him to continue his ascension, and at only 24 years old and entering just his fifth season, Ibaka certainly could rise to the challenge.
The obvious key to any of the Thunder's success starts and ends with Kevin Durant, one of the best scorers in the world. He can score off the catch or off the dribble, and he's increased his three-point shooting from respectable to excellent within the last two seasons. He led the league in scoring for three-straight seasons prior to last year, with 30.1 points a game in 2010 being his highest output. Considering the current talent level on the Thunder and their lofty playoff aspirations, it probably wouldn't surprise you to see Durant again leading the league in scoring while topping his career numbers.
Everyone else on the roster is either unproven -- rookie center Steven Adams, second-year forward Perry Jones -- or proven to be pretty bad -- Thabeet, forward Ryan Gomes. There won't be much room for error in the early season and even when Westbrook does make his way back to the court, the Thunder will still suffer from a lack of solid depth.
Last year's Oklahoma City defense was among the league's elite, but the starters can't all play 48 minutes a game. Expect their defensive numbers to flatten out a bit from last year's performance when opposing offenses were suffocated from all areas of the court. Still, the Thunder have a formidable starting front court, and Ibaka is a threat to send any shot flying into the third row. Brooks should have the Thunder playing solid team defense, and when Westbrook comes back and rounds into shape, they'll again be defensively sound.
Oklahoma City might be one of the most difficult teams to project, all things considered. Sure, they're missing an All-NBA point guard for the first several weeks of the season, have hardly any depth to speak of and lost some significant scoring punch this past offseason. Even so, Durant might be the best pure scorer in the league and he's already proven capable of handling -- even thriving in -- situations where he's asked to take on a heavy load.
The Thunder may not find themselves topping their 60-win season from a year ago and are by no means a lock to earn one of the top-two playoff seeds in the West, but Durant can captain the ship until Westbrook rounds back into form. Expect Oklahoma City to be in the mix again for a deep playoff run. Even with Durant and a healthy Westbrook, though, they may not have the depth to be title contenders this season barring a lopsided trade that injects some talent into their bench unit. Keep an eye on the Thunder either way, because Durant is going to put this team on his back and should find a way to reclaim the league scoring title from Carmelo Anthony. If Westbrook is back to his old self by the All-Star break, look out, because the Thunder still have a bad taste in their mouths following a second-round dispatching in the 2013 playoffs.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter