For 84 games last year everything was going according to the script for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They won 60 games, had the number one seed in the Western Conference and were on track to have another meeting in the Finals with LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Roll the calendar forward to this season and Westbrook won't be starting the season with the team, needing knee surgery once again. For at least the first few weeks of the season the Thunder are going to have to primarily rely on Durant to provide the scoring load and hope one or two of the young guys can step up to provide some support.
Head Coach: Scott Brooks is back to lead the team on the bench. Hopefully his play calling and offense has developed in the offseason.
One of the big questions on Brooks has always been his offense or lack there of, especially in big game, high intensity moments. His saviors in Kevin Durant and on the special occasion Russell Westbrook have prevented Brooks from being put into unemployment line.
My overall impression of Brooks as a coach isn't very good. His schemes seem to be more street ball based, allowing the Thunder to play organic basketball. Which is good in theory, but there is never a go to move that can get them a basket outside of a turnover. That's not a play, just poor execution by the other team.
At the end of the game it's going to be a Durant isolation play. Rarely is there any variation and rarely is there any imagination. The only reason this works is because it's Kevin Durant.
Last Season's Record: 60-22
Player Losses: Kevin Martin was in a sign in trade with Minnesota once it became clear that he would not return to OKC. Ronnie Brewer left in free agency and DeAndre Liggins was waived because he is a despicable human being.
Player Additions: The Thunder drafted Steven Adams and Andre Roberson in the first round of the 2013 draft. During free agency they added Ryan Gomes, Diante Garrett, Rodney McGruder and the only man still alive from when James Naismith invented the game of basketball, Derek Fisher.
Best Player: Kevin Durant. Period. End of discussion.
Worst Player: Daniel Orton and it's not even close. Not quite sure how he's still in the league.
Player due to breakthrough: Last year it was Reggie Jackson, this year it's going to be Jeremy Lamb and only because he has to be. Lamb has the skills to be a very, slightly above average player off the bench and to keep minutes low on Durant and company he has to be a big scorer off the bench.
The Starters: Jackson will start at point guard while Westbrook recovers from knee surgery, Thabo Sefolosha is going to be back as the starting two guard, Durant has the lockdown on small forward until he retires, Serge Ibaka is at power forward and the incomparable Kendrick Perkins will be back at center.
The Bench: Nick Collison is probably going to be the only consistent contributor off the bench for the Thunder this season. You know exactly what you are going to get from him night in and night out; hustle, defense and rebounding. Reggie Jackson will be a solid backup once Westbrook comes back, but that leaves Derek Fisher as the primary backup point guard.
Lamb, Ryan Gomes, Perry Jones, Hasheem Thabeet, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are all going to be relied on to contribute in some fashion. All but Gomes have never contributed on an NBA level before and this is where the Thunder's title hopes lie. They need to develop quickly or Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are all going to have to play 45 minutes a night to give them a shot at winning.
Random Seattle Connection: Well... They used to be here. They used to be the Supersonics.
Best Case Scenario for the Season: The bench steps up big time, keeping the starters fresh and able to carry the Thunder to another number one seed, while Brooks learned to be inventive on inbounds plays at the end of games to keep teams off balance. The Thunder remain healthy and win a championship.
Worst Case Scenario for the Season: Westbrook has knee issues throughout the year and is never 100%, but insists on playing, making himself worse. The bench never comes together and Kevin Durant sets a season record for most minutes played in a season. Because of the bench the Thunder regress and finish fifth in the West.
Most Likely Scenario for the Season: It will be a mixture of best case and worst case scenarios. I can see the Thunder being healthy all year again (they seem to have a magical training staff), Durant once again being in talks for MVP and competing for another scoring title. The bench, however, doesn't come together to provide enough support for the starters, Durant sets a personal best for minutes played in a season.
With the West being as tight as it is, every game is going to count and the Thunder will not be able to rest starters toward the end of the season as they jockey for playoff positioning. They'll finish the season on fumes between the second and fourth seed, prime for a first round upset, depending on their opponent.
Will Sam Presti be able to fortify the bench by the trade deadline? That is going to be the main talking point for OKC right around Christmas to the trade deadline.
Check out the preview from our brothers (and sister) at Welcome to Loud City.