Steve Nash and Dwight Howard join the Los Angeles Lakers this upcoming NBA season. Ray Allen switches from the Boston Celtics to their rival, the defending champion Miami Heat. Andre Iguodala is going to Denver to form one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. Andrew Bynum will begin his career as a true franchise cornerstone in Philadelphia. Who are we leaving out? Oh yeah, the defending Western Conference champions, Oklahoma City Thunder. They're still pretty good and unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, they will be even better this year.
Eric Maynor is back
The backup point guard probably most known for his game-winning shot against Duke in the NCAA tournament will be back this year after recovering from an ACL injury that cost him most of last year.
Last season, the Thunder were forced to try different players in the backup position—like Reggie Jackson and even Daequan Cook—but none of them worked out. Although Jackson showed plenty of potential, especially driving ability, he wasn't the game manager that Maynor is. Remember that Maynor actually played down the stretch sometimes over Russell Westbrook in the 2011 playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks.
Having Maynor back will also ease some of the ball-handling burden from James Harden, who is more of a shot-creator for himself than a pure point guard like Maynor. It effectively shifts Harden into a more slasher role and also takes away some minutes from Westbrook, who, while effective playing 110 miles an hour, will need the rest through an 82-game season and for the playoffs.
Kevin Durant is bigger, stronger and only getting better
The league's second-best player, according to ESPN, long known for being too skinny and too easy to push around has apparently gotten stronger. Keep in mind that not only is Durant only 24, but he has already won the scoring title three times in a row and is well on his way to a fourth this year.
With the nucleus of his team intact, Durant should have no trouble winning a fourth scoring title en route to another showdown with LeBron James in the NBA Finals.
No longer will he be pushed out and having to start with his back 25 feet away from the basket. Imagine Durant having the ball in the pinch post a la Dirk Nowitzki and operating with the threat of the drive and jump-shot, essentially a layup for him. Having Harden spotting up, Ibaka on the offensive board and Westbrook slashing towards the bucket doesn't hurt either.
More minutes for Serge Ibaka
Last year, Ibaka was mysteriously benched at the later stages of basketball games for reasons only known to Scott Brooks. Then in the playoffs, he somehow played around the same minutes as Kendrick Perkins who, while on defense, looked slower than an offensive lineman trying to run a quarterback draw.
Despite averaging over a block more per year last year than the year before, he played the same amount of minutes, only 27.2 a game. If this means that Perkins has to play less, so be it, because Nick Collison has also proven himself to be a capable defender and efficient offensive player, albeit limited with his post moves.
Ibaka still has room to grow, especially on the defensive end where he is overrated because of his shot-blocking prowess. His PER of 18.98 only ranks him 10th among centers in the league and he has significant trouble shifting from the weak side to stop the ball.
His offensive game is very promising, providing the Thunder with a mid-range shot, shooting 46 percent from mid-range and energy on the offensive boards. Simply put, there isn't a power forward that offers his blend of athleticism and skill. Did I mention he is 23?
This last one is more hope and banking on history. Because the Thunder were able to draft high upside players like Westbrook and Ibaka and turn them into potential superstars—while they are excellent players, they aren't there yet—they have built a strong player development staff where they can afford to take chances on players like Hasheem Thabeet and Perry Jones III.
Look out for marked improvements in young players, like the aforementioned Reggie Jackson and even Cole Aldrich. By having them give consistent minutes, it decreases the load off of the star players, while still gunning for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Both Thabeet and Jones III are high talent players that have plenty of bust history, but with the low cost of acquiring both and putting them in a good system, the Thunder have a chance to keep their young core growing not just for this year, but in the future.