The Oklahoma City Thunder fell just short of claiming the NBA Championship last season, but there's no doubt they will be returning hungry for gold this upcoming year.
After going through the best of the best in the playoffs, OKC proved that they are undoubtedly the team to beat in the West this season. The Thunder took care of the previous champion Mavericks in a four-game sweep and followed that up by beating the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs.
It was a tough road to the NBA Finals, but the Thunder plowed through it, finally fulfilling their expectations to be true contenders to win it all. Though they did lose to the Heat in five games, there are still plenty of reasons to believe that OKC will contend for an NBA title.
Let's take a look at five reasons why no team in the Western Conference will hold a candle to the Thunder.
It sounds strange to say that such a young team has a good amount of experience, but that's exactly what the Thunder have on their hands.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have all been a part of three playoff runs for the Thunder, each year advancing one round further than the last.
That's a total of 43 games for each player, which is a considerable amount of postseason experience in a span of just three seasons.
Now that they don't have to worry about being too inexperienced in the postseason, they can put those worries aside and focus on the opponent at hand and taking it one series at a time.
The Thunder may be harboring a lot of bitter feelings left over from last season.
Watching LeBron and his team dance on the bench as the clock winded down on the NBA Finals probably left some lasting images as to what could have been for Kevin Durant and crew.
Those images aren't going to be sitting well for Durant. Once the Olympics are over, LeBron and him will be opponents once more. He is a player that is constantly adapting and wanting to get better.
When Durant hits adversity, he doesn't disappear, he embraces it and uses it to his advantage. This is something that has become a part of the Thunder basketball culture and has spread to his teammates as well.
That's why OKC will be more determined than ever to win it all next season. After coming this close to being crowned champions, you can bet that Oklahoma City will want to end next season on a different, happier note.
One aspect the Thunder have improved in during this offseason was their overall team depth.
With a solid starting five, OKC added some helpful guys to come off the bench with James Harden. Hasheem Thabeet and rookie Perry Jones III make for some good backups to Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
Thabeet is largely considered to be a large draft bust after going second overall in the 2009 Draft, but maybe a change of scenery and the Thunder coaching staff can help him fulfill some of his potential.
Jones III was a gift to the Thunder who dropped down in the first round of this year's draft due to medical red flags regarding his knees. Those red flags aside, Jones III could still turn out to be a quality talent and he will certainly be tested right away in his rookie season. If he doesn't hold up, the Thunder still have Nick Collison to provide a good spark off the bench by setting solid screens and taking a lot of charges.
Additionally, the Thunder found a nice potential backup small forward in undrafted free agent Hollis Thompson, who has a nice shooting touch and could actually find some playing time in Oklahoma City.
With backup point guard Eric Maynor also returning from a season-ending injury, the Thunder have themselves a quality bench— something which proves to be very important in making championship runs.
The youth of the Thunder could end up being the difference maker down the stretch next season.
Though the Lakers have acquired Steve Nash to make up possibly the most talented backcourt in basketball, they haven't gotten any younger as a team and their age could catch up with them at any time.
Now considered a big threat to OKC, there may not be need to fear for the Thunder since they can still overmatch the Lakers behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who would be a handful to defend for Nash.
The Spurs are also perpetually considered to be in their twilight years, though they usually find a way to have a successful 50-plus win season regardless. That may be the case again this year, but the Thunder proved that youth trumps old age late in a season when they came back from a 2-0 hole in their series against San Antonio.
A rare combination of youth, speed and playoff experience will all definitely be factors for the Thunder and their quest to take the West once more. Still one of the youngest teams in the league, but also one of the most successful, OKC will use the youth label to their advantage and simply outrun and outgun the older opposition.
Simply put, Kevin Durant may or may not be the best player in the NBA, but he is definitely the best player in the Western Conference.
Kobe Bryant isn't the player he once was, especially in the clutch, so that argument is already out the window. Durant, meanwhile, has shown that when OKC needs to take over the game in the second half, he can be their guy.
He makes big shots, closes out games well and carry his team to victory when his teammates are struggling. Durant is everything that a superstar should be and his team depends on him for success.
Teams in the West haven't found any way to completely shut him down, which makes it even harder for them to also deal with the likes of Westbrook and Harden. Having such a talented player opens things up for the rest of the team and thus makes the Thunder even better.
OKC isn't going anywhere as long as Durant continues to improve his game. The Thunder will continue to reign supreme in the West until some team figures out how to stop Durant from being the best scorer in the league. Don't hold your breath, since that probably won't be happening anytime soon.