Life as a young Western Conference power on the verge of collecting championships for a decade was pretty short and sweet, wasn't it?
It's fair to wonder that about the Thunder and whether the team's outlook has changed. Is Oklahoma City worse off than two years ago when Kevin Durant and friends found themselves leading the Heat 1-0 in the best-of-seven NBA Finals? The easy answer: Yes. But things are, of course, more complicated.
The preseason will begin to unlock some clues about where the Thunder are going, what shape they're in and if they're still in the title mix or will need more help to remake themselves into a team built for late June.
You could argue that no championship contender suffered more in the last 12 months than OKC, unless the Lakers and Celtics fit the "championship contender" description, in your opinion. The Thunder lost an All-Star in James Harden, won't have Russell Westbrook until December after a second knee scope, are coming off a second-round elimination, are watching Kendrick Perkins age rapidly and didn't add any proven help in the offseason. These turn of events rarely happen to a team with such a young nucleus; usually, only old teams (like the Celtics) crumble this quickly. But honestly: Isn't OKC inspiring a lot less fear around the league nowadays, especially if you were among many NBA watchers who felt the Thunder were assembling a juggernaut for a mini-dynasty before the sucker-punch landed in their gut?
No team with Durant is ever in danger of caving -- if nothing else, OKC should win 50-plus games and get home-court advantage at least through the first round, even in the tough and deep West. Durant is that good and with OKC needing help, the table is set for him to win the MVP award should voters get weary of giving it to LeBron James the way they did with Michael Jordan (when Charles Barkley and Karl Malone won). Plus, Westbrook isn't expected to miss more than a month of the season. He should return strong, because his injury wasn't as serious as Derrick Rose's. There's still a lot to like here as far as a winning team, a little less to like in terms of an NBA champion.
"We're a man down right now," said coach Scott Brooks, referring to Westbrook, "but we're not down. This team is built on toughness. We're still a good team. We have players who understand the situation we're in. We're going to continue to move forward as an organization and as a basketball team. We're excited about what we have."
The perplexing issues for OKC involve finding a replacement for Harden, if that's possible, and a presence in the post. In the meantime, they must hold steady for as long as Westbrook is out. In a best-case scenario, they'll be better in the playoffs than regular-season, where Westbrook's absence could kill any chance of winning 60 games, which they did last season even without Harden. How deep they go in the postseason is another story.
Until then, OKC needs to learn if Jeremy Lamb can confirm those raving scouting reports from college and if Reggie Jackson is more than a three-month wonder.
Lamb's development will be crucial because OKC has no reliable perimeter offense besides Durant and Westbrook. Lamb is long and athletically smooth at 6-foot-5 but nobody has any idea if he can play substantial minutes in the league or be a threat from the outside. GM Sam Presti preferred to role the dice on Lamb rather than re-sign Kevin Martin, and given how much Martin got from Minnesota (four years, $28 million) that was an easy call.
"It's an opportunity and I look forward to helping out as much as I can," said Lamb, who averaged 21 points in the D-League as a rookie but only brings 147 minutes of NBA experience. While OKC sees him as a rotation player, he's probably too green (only 21) to have a breakout season. Three years ago, Lamb was a hot property coming out of UConn. Now we get to see if the hype was real and if he can at least have a breakout preseason.
Jackson was a major find for Presti last year and played well late in the season and when Westbrook went down in the playoffs. He'll share Westbrook's spot with Derek Fisher. The only glaring downside to Jackson is he's more of a scoring point guard, and while OKC will need those points with Westbrook out, he doesn't offer much in terms of creating shots for teammates.
Curiously, the one thing almost nobody in the organization worries about is Westbrook. When it was discovered he needed an additional procedure to repair what was termed a faulty stitch in his knee and would be out 4-6 weeks, most of the alarms went off around the league. Anytime a player who relies on cutting and quickness suddenly suffers a knee injury, there's reason for some doubt. But Presti said Westbrook's knee won't be an issue going forward. The faulty stitch didn't hamper Westbrook's repaired meniscus and so the most recent surgery means Westbrook's recovery and rehab will just take a month longer than planned. Nothing structural was harmed.
"We've been through just about everything," said Durant. "But I'm confident in the team we have. We hang our hats on being resilient."
Playing in OKC's favor is that nobody in the West is free of issues. The Spurs are a year older, Memphis has a new coach, the Rockets (even with Dwight Howard) are a work in progress, the Warriors could use more seasoning and the Nuggets had an awful summer. The Clippers did add Doc Rivers and some shooters, but Chris Paul hasn't gone beyond the second round yet. All that's a long way of saying no one is threatening to run away with the conference.
Plus, you have to really like Durant this season. Without Westbrook, he could go on a scoring tear and eventually beat the 30.1 points he averaged four years ago. He's one of the few players who can carry a team and win games.
A championship, however, will require a little more help. Does he have enough in Oklahoma City to win one? We shall see.