The Miami Heat proved beatable in 2013. The Pacers almost did it in the East finals, and the Spurs were an incredible Ray Allen jumper from beating them in the NBA Finals. With Dwyane Wade ailing and LeBron James carrying a strong majority of the load -- just like the ol' days -- Miami was totally beatable.
The Thunder didn't make it that far on account of Russell Westbrook's devastating injury. Once Russ went down, OKC's first-round matchup with Houston immediately became a struggle. The Thunder survived, but Memphis capitalized in the next round. And that's how OKC's third run at a title ended.
How will the fourth run end in 2014? If it doesn't end in Kevin Durant hoisting the Larry O, Serge Ibaka donning ski goggles in the champagne supernova and Westbrook getting Clay Bennett to wear capris and a kimono in the championship parade through Bricktown, the tenor of questions will change.
The result in 2013 turned attention to Sam Presti, the wunderkind GM who built the squad. With Westbrook out of commission, the absence of James Harden -- traded before the season for a cornucopia of picks, prospects and Kevin Martin -- hung over the Thunder's defeat like a cumulonimbus. (The fact that the Thunder were playing Harden's new team did not help matters.)
There have been critics of the Harden deal since it happened, but the second-round exit became a strong arrow in their "Presti messed up" quiver. And that's not going to change, unless Harden falls off hard, which looks incredibly unlikely. More likely is that OKC has won itself a new legit rival in Houston, given Dwight Howard's decision to sign there and OKC's cap-related inability to improve much. Presti made one big effort in free agency, to nab Mike Miller after losing Martin to Minnesota. Miller instead signed with the Grizzlies.
Provided Westbrook returns to the court in December as scheduled, if the Thunder do not win the West -- as they did with Durant, Westbrook and Harden in 2012 -- Presti will face questions. And so long as Harden excels and OKC struggles to find an above-average bench scorer, those questions will get more and more uncomfortable.
But there's long been another ready fall guy in Oklahoma City, and while he was largely absolved last spring, he's always in danger of being targeted, especially by the local media. And he's the guy who started Kendrick Perkins in every single appearance last season: Scott Brooks.
The historical knock on Brooks is that he's overmatched late in games, his schemes get basic, predictable and rely too much on Durant and Westbrook overpowering the opposition. That works during the regular season, but not so much in the playoffs, where consistently excellent opposition and elongated study time find ways to slow even great players. The Westbrook injury made OKC's eventual defeat a foregone conclusion last season, so Brooks's supposed lack of chops didn't get a whole lot of notice. But Perkins's role did, and it doesn't appear anyone in the basketball world -- in OKC or not -- is willing to continue to give Brooks a pass for playing an obviously overmatched player so much.
We all understand what Perkins as a teammate means to the Thunder. But because of advanced metrics, we also know what Perkins means as a player, and it's not good. If Brooks can't recognize that or fails to change how he uses the team's frontcourt, the calls for a new coach will continue to increase in volume. That in itself is a problem, a distraction.
Maybe it's good that the likely targets of ire in OKC will be non-players, though. It could keep the heat off of the guys on the court. At the very least, Westbrook should get less criticism now that we've seen how much worse the club is without him.
But I'm afraid that's little comfort for Presti and Brooks if the Thunder don't win it all this year.