The Thunder are coming into the 2012-2013 season with sky-high expectations to reach the same success of last year and more.
It's easy to see where these expectations are coming from, since the Thunder are a young powerhouse that is improving each year as they mature. Going from a 23-win laughingstock to a 50-win playoff team in just one offseason gives you an idea of how quickly this all happened and how this team continues to rise above expectations.
Though the ultimate goal is obviously an NBA Championship, there are definitely other things you can expect from Oklahoma City next season. Let's take a look at 10 realistic expectations for OKC in the upcoming season.
There is a high possibility that the Thunder will claim the Northwest Division for a third straight year, especially with the uncertainty of how well the other teams in the division will perform.
Utah is still rebuilding and putting the pieces together in their post-Deron WIlliams era, so they may be more worried about securing a playoff spot than fighting for the division.
Denver made a big pick up in Andre Iguodala, but they still lack a true superstar to put them in the company of elite teams in the NBA.
Minnesota will have Ricky Rubio coming off of ACL surgery and a lot of new pieces to fit into their rotation. Kevin Love can only do so much and the Wolves aren't quite ready to contend with OKC.
Portland is an interesting team full of young talent and a lot of potential. However, that potential won't translate into a division title this season, as there will be plenty of growing pains for this quickly rebuilding Blazers team.
Therefore, expect the Thunder to dominate their division once more on their way into the postseason.
The Thunder got what could potentially be the steal of the draft when Perry Jones III dropped all the way down to 28th overall on draft night.
Jones III had been red-flagged for possible long-term knee injuries, causing his stock to plummet from lottery pick to a borderline second-rounder.
Now that he's in Oklahoma City, he may be playing with a big chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove the teams that passed on him that they were wrong. He will get some chances to get on the floor if he can stay healthy and shows head coach Scott Brooks something special in training camp and the preseason.
If Kendrick Perkins also struggles with injuries once more, Jones III may get a solid chunk of minutes and you can bet he will make them count.
One player many people may have forgotten about during the Thunder's playoff run was resident back-up point guard Eric Maynor.
When Maynor went down with a season-ending injury, OKC was forced to pick up veteran Derek Fisher to fill in his shoes. Fisher did a serviceable job and his playoff experience was felt with such a young team. However, Maynor still brings a lot more to the table for the Thunder.
With Maynor fully recovered and ready to go for this year, he could provide a good spark off of the bench for Oklahoma City. In addition to his scoring abilities and solid shooting, Maynor knows the Thunder's offense very well and could facilitate his teammates a lot better than Fisher, who came in mid-season.
The Chesapeake Energy Arena has been nicknamed Loud City for a reason.
This was especially evident in the playoffs last season, when the Thunder had a very noticeable amount of support from the hometown fans. OKC went 8-1 on their home floor during the playoffs, and were undefeated until the Heat beat them in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
This season should be no different for the fans in Oklahoma City. The support for the Thunder will be as high as it's ever been and there's no reason to believe that they won't improve on last season's impressive 26-7 record at home.
Though he is often criticized for his lack of offense or average rebounding, Perkins has been an important key in taking the Thunder to the next level of success.
It's been tough on him the past few seasons, as he has battled through injury to keep playing for OKC. Though his toughness is unquestioned, him playing through injury may have been detrimental to the Thunder, since he performed poorly on defense when it mattered the most in the NBA Finals.
However, after getting in even better shape than he was in last season, Perkins has been working to rehab his body's damage and get better and stronger for this season. Most of all, Perkins will be key in the Thunder handling the Lakers offensive onslaught now that they have acquired both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
Overall, if he stays healthy, Perkins should do more than his share to contribute to the winning ways of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
No matter what he does, Westbrook seems to always catch heat from analysts and NBA fans.
If he scores a lot of points, people will say he was hogging the ball and taking away chances from Kevin Durant. If he doesn't score a lot, people will say he wasn't aggressive enough and that he needs to help Durant more.
To be fair, Westbrook's aggressive and sometimes erratic play on both sides of the ball is definitely a high risk/high reward style of playing basketball, and that can have both positive and negative effects on the team's overall performance.
However, this season may finally be where Westbrook proves that he is as important to the Thunder's success as Durant. If he continues to improve his shot selection and facilitating abilities on offense, there may not be anything to criticize Westbrook for.
It's been a hot topic for Oklahoma City as of late, and it will continue to be until the question is answered: Is James Harden a part of the Thunder's long-term future?
With his contract expiring at the end of the 2012-2013 season, Harden may be headed for the restricted free agency market unless the Thunder can re-sign him in the next few months.
Staying in OKC would require a slight pay cut for Harden, who is expecting to get max deal offers as a restricted free agent. However, the advantage for the Thunder here is that these negotiations may spill into the season, where Harden will be with his teammates, people who are really near and dear to him. This may give Harden some insight into how special the situation is in Oklahoma City and how much success they could be destined for with him on board.
If Harden is willing to envision the wins instead of dollar signs, he could be a part of the Thunder's core for a long time to come.
Even though LeBron James may continue to stand in Durant's chances at winning any MVP awards, his scoring ability continues to remain unmatched by anyone in the league.
At 23-years-young, Durant has already managed to rack up three straight scoring titles and could be on his way to many more than that. The only competition could arguably be Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, but both of those superstars have other big scorers on their teams that they may be sharing points with.
While Durant does have Westbrook on his team, he has proven so far that he can still get plenty done even with the shared amount of shots taken on the Thunder.
In terms of individual accolades, Durant is quickly racking them up and could be adding even more in the upcoming season.
Winning over 60 games is still a pretty special feat in the NBA and if any team will be able to hit that mark, it's the Thunder.
Given that they will have some tough competition in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City may have to work extra hard for their W's, but it's certainly not out of the question for them to join the elite company of 60-plus win teams.
The depth of the Thunder will definitely be key in them maintaining consistently quality play throughout the season, while staying rested and fresh enough for the postseason. Luckily the Thunder have plenty of good bench players to pick up the slack during the long season.
Postseason goals are always more important, but I'd have to think Scott Brooks and company are shooting for at least 60 wins during the regular season.
Is it realistic to expect a championship from the Thunder this season? At this point, I would have to say no.
That's because the Miami Heat have only possibly improved on their roster from last season and could be even deadlier than before. Factoring in that they were the best team in basketball last year means that an improved squad still makes Miami the team to beat.
The Thunder are older and wiser after a tough series loss in the Finals last season, but whether that experience is enough to put them over the top remains to be seen.
For now, it is reasonable to think that OKC could plow through an extra-difficult Western Conference and find themselves in the Finals once more. The Thunder may come back this next season also in better shape than before, meaning their improvement could be enough to trump the Heat's moves. But until the season plays out and a champion is crowned, it can only be speculated.