The darlings of the NBA came up just short of the championship in June. You'll be glad to know they are back ... and virtually identical to the team you saw last year.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
Oklahoma City had the league's second best offense in 2011-12 ... despite turning the ball over more frequently than any other team. That's how slick the team's shooting (No. 3) and foul drawing (No. 1) were. They were also good on the offensive glass (No. 11). On defense, the Thunder weren't quite elite -- they finished No. 11 overall, with the No. 4 shot defense in the land balanced by poor showings in turnover creation and defensive rebounding (No. 23 in each). But the offense usually allowed Oklahoma City to win, even in the playoffs. Don't forget that after knocking out the champion Mavericks and the Lakers, OKC ended San Antonio's long winning streak and won the West finals 4-2.
The Thunder boast the NBA's top scoring small forward (who is also the league's top scorer, period), its top scoring point guard and its top scoring sixth man. Scoring is not an issue. The team does it from outside, inside and in between. There is constantly little chance to actually stop this squad. Opponents' best bet is to force those turnovers and put pressure on the Thunder on the other end. But then, of course, you have to deal with burly Kendrick Perkins pushing around your pivots and Serge Ibaka swatting anything in his zone.
It's a Rubik's cube: how do you beat the Thunder? The Heat managed to do it because they had the best player in the world playing some of the best basketball of his life, two more All-Stars at the ready and Shane Battier shooting the lights out. Minus of that, the Thunder might be champs.
So yes, things are good in Oklahoma City. This team remains all flavors of legit.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
There are few specific faults you can find in Oklahoma CIty. But I won't lie: I'm a little nervous. Sure, the Thunder smoked the Lakers in the playoffs last spring. But the Lakers swapped Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard and added Steve Nash. The Heat beat the Thunder in the NBA Finals ... and the Heat added Ray Allen. The Thunder added ... Hasheem Thabeet? Note also that Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka each played all 66 games last season, and Harden played 62. And the team still finished No. 2 in the West.
Can OKC count on basically full health again? Can OKC count on additional improvement from Harden (who played like an All-Star last season), Ibaka (No. 2 in Defensive Player of the Year voting) and Westbrook (all-NBA)? Does Durant have another level to reach? Is Scott Brooks going to improve the team's last-game tactics? How does OKC get better from here?
This isn't a criticism of what OKC did or didn't do in the offseason -- there wasn't exactly much they could do. But it's worth wondering if the Thunder, who saw so much improvement and had so much injury luck in 2011-12, have peaked.
It will be miraculous if ...
Kendrick Perkins smiles within five days of one of the Thunder's four regular season matchups with the Lakers.
Kendrick Perkins smiles at all, actually.
Russell Westbrook lands a Men's Warehouse endorsement deal.
Nick Collison begins wearing lens-less frames and a backpack.
Scott Brooks escapes all criticism and scrutiny throughout the regular season and playoffs.
Hasheem Thabeet: difference maker.
Serge Ibaka begins getting Mark Eaton comparisons.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Kevin Durant
Team X-Factor: Kendrick Perkins
Team Finish: 1st in Northwest | 1st in West
Best Championship Hopes: Uh ...
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.