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Despite falling to the eventual champion Miami Heat in five games during last season's NBA Finals, this Oklahoma City Thunder team looks like a top choice to represent the Western Conference once again next year.
With James Harden, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook all at the age of 23 or younger, youth and inexperience played the biggest factor in their disappointing exit last year. While still young, this is a team that has been to the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals in the last two respective seasons.
See the progression pattern here?
Durant will come into next season as arguably the second best player in the league. He is the best pure scorer in the NBA, and has shown major strides in improving as a defender. With an NBA championship within reach last month, this could be enough for KD to take the needed steps and grab the title this season.
While Russell Westbrook has always seemed to be a target for his questionable point guard play, the fact is he kept Oklahoma City alive in many games that could have resulted in a blowout.
Yes, he sometimes shot more than the reigning NBA scoring champion, but he is still transitioning into the point guard position. If he and Durant figure out the proper chemistry, this could be the best duo in basketball.
Ibaka and Harden are also crucial aspects of a championship team. Ibaka is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year next season while James Harden looks to defend his crown of Sixth Man of the Year. Neither player showed great consistency in the Finals last season (at times Harden looked non-existent), but a portion of this could be attributed to inexperience.
The Thunder seem like the biggest contenders to knock off Miami in a rematch of last season's NBA Finals.
While the depth of the team is questionable, stellar play and no major miscues could result in a different ending next season.