Kevin Durant and the Thunder are hoping to make a return trip to the NBA Finals this season.
However, the Thunder’s road back to the NBA Finals has gotten considerably tougher.
So how can Scott Brooks get his club to take the next step and claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy next summer?
Here are five ways the Thunder can repeat last season’s success.
The Thunder need to make sure that Harden's contract issues do not disrupt the team's chemistry on the court.
With Serge Ibaka getting a contract extension done in the offseason, the biggest noise surrounding the Thunder has been the future of the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year (h/t, John Rohde, newsok.com).
In addition to his contract, Harden has to shake off perhaps the worst series of his young career in last season’s Finals defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat.
The Thunder need Harden—who has generated his share of offseason headlines for his penchant for partying—to be all in for them to be the best team in the West (h/t Gabe Zaldivar, B/R).
The Thunder are hoping Jones can provide a boost off the bench this season.
For all of Harden’s heroics off the bench, the rest of the bench was unable to come through against Miami on the big stage.
This year, the only notable addition appears to be first-round pick Perry Jones III from Baylor.
However, the return of backup point guard Eric Maynor from an ACL injury should help fortify the second unit.
Still, players like Daequan Cook and Nick Collison have to remain capable of keeping the foot on the gas pedal when Westbrook and Durant need a breather.
Durant needs to work on the little things if he wants to elevate his game to James' level.
Durant is clearly the second-best player in the NBA, but if he wants a shot to eventually take that spot from LeBron James, he needs to take a page from the MVP's book and put in work on the other aspects of his game.
Defensively, he needs to work on being a better on-ball defender and using his 6’9” frame to rack up more rebounds.
Its hard to complain with the reigning three-time scoring champion’s offensive arsenal, but imagining him with a post-up game would be nightmarish for the rest of the league.
Westbrook must continue to improve in the details of being a better point guard.
This time last year, the chatter surrounding Westbrook’s shot selection dominated the list of issues for Brooks to sort out.
To his credit, Brooks—a former NBA point guard—has stood by his enigmatic young superstar.
Westbrook quietly improved in several aspects last season, but he is still very much a work in progress in becoming a quality decision maker at the point—with his assist-to-turnover ratio being the main area he needs to work on.
The 2nd Team All-NBA performer has gotten better each year, and the Thunder need his upward learning curve to keep climbing if they want to reach their ultimate goal.
Brooks still has the pieces in place to make another trip to the NBA Finals.
The Thunder’s incremental improvement over the last four years has been impressive to watch.
Ironically enough, the last step they need to take will be the hardest one to accomplish.
Similar to the task that the Miami Heat faced last season, this season will be about embracing the championship expectations.
OKC will not sneak up on anyone anymore, and with the Lakers reloading for another run at the title, the challenge for the Thunder is to impose its will and send a message to the rest of the league that they will be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.