Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been mainstays near the top of the NBA standings for years now. We've become accustomed to seeing them and the Oklahoma City Thunder on the schedule and thinking to ourselves, "Well, this is going to be a tough matchup."
But they've always had help.
First it was James Harden, who used the superpowers bestowed upon him by his lustrous beard to win Sixth Man of the Year and help carry OKC into the NBA Finals. Then it was Kevin Martin, although he and his lack of facial hair didn't have nearly the same level of impact on or off the court.
But for what seems like the umpteenth offseason in a row, the Thunder's management has remained quiet. It's let talent slip away so that it can attempt to replace the departed ones internally.
Over the summer, Oklahoma City let K-Mart escape to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the biggest offseason addition was Steven Adams. I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Last year's No. 1 seed in the Western Conference is banking on the Durant-Westbrook duo continuing to be good enough that it singlehandedly doublehandedly pushes the Thunder into title contention.
Will it be enough to do so? Better yet, is the current roster set up to do more than just contend?
Let's break it down.
We know that Kevin Durant is going to be Kevin Durant during the 2013-14 season, but will Russell Westbrook be Russell Westbrook?
It's a question posited by The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry, and it's certainly a valid one. The dynamic point guard tore his meniscus at the start of the postseason and was unable to return to action as the Thunder struggled to beat the Houston Rockets and were subsequently eliminated at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Mayberry asks if he'll "have that same gear with a reconstructed knee" before questioning whether or not he'll be at full strength to start the next campaign. While it seems like a legitimate concern, Thunder fans can still sleep peacefully at night.
There are too many signs pointing toward a full return.
First, there's the fact that Westbrook had never missed a game before the unfortunate collision with Patrick Beverley. Literally not even one, which is rather impressive since the floor general plays such an explosive, physical style of basketball and has been a part of numerous postseason runs.
But the injury itself isn't one that truly lends itself to long-term concerns.
Right after it was announced that Westbrook would undergo surgery, B/R's Will Carroll (our resident injury expert) wrote about the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the point guard. Here's part of the latter:
The worst-case scenario might actually be better long-term. If Westbrook were to have the meniscus repaired (assuming that is possible) rather than having it removed or even just resected, the recovery would be much longer, as much as six to eight weeks.
The upside is that the meniscus would remain in place. That would prevent some problems down the line and perhaps protect Westbrook against late-career grinding inside the knee. It's the lack of meniscus and articular cartilage that leads to arthritis and the need for procedures such as microfracture surgery.
That's the route Westbrook chose, and it's good for his long-term plans. There shouldn't be concerns about his ability to play at full strength following an entire offseason of rest. Even if he isn't at 100 percent to start the season, he'll get there quickly.
It's also worth noting that Mayberry is the only source currently questioning Westbrook's health, and his concerns are pure speculation. Nowhere does he say that a source is informing him about the status of the knee in question.
This is something to keep an eye on, but it should quickly become a non-issue once Westbrook is back in live action.
The Lack of a Third Star
A more pressing concern is whether or not the Thunder can convert their Big Two into a full-fledged Big Three.
After James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets, OKC counted on Serge Ibaka developing into a bona fide star, but that just hasn't happened. Take a look at his per-game numbers during the 2011-12 season (with Harden in the picture), 2012-13 campaign (when he should have emerged) and 2013 postseason (when he really needed to step up with Westbrook injured):
That's simply not going to cut it.
In order to fully replace the bearded 2-guard, the Thunder needed Ibaka to develop into more of an offensive option. He's still limited to playing the pick-and-pop game, and that's not enough because it pigeonholes the type of offense that Durant and Westbrook can run.
Ibaka must be able to create for himself, or else the Thunder need to look elsewhere for the third star. That could come internally (more on that in a bit), but Sam Presti may also start looking to begin wheeling and dealing if the Congolese big man doesn't emerge.
Could he trade Ibaka for more offensive talent and then rely on Kendrick Perkins (eek) to pick up the defensive slack? Could the general manager attempt to parlay some of the young talent into more established production?
Certainly, even if predicting the specifics is currently impossible and purely speculative. We could also see the hot seat start to be turned up on Scott Brooks, as suggested by Ethan Norof on Basketball By Association's season preview for the Thunder.
The pressure is on Ibaka to step up, but it's not entirely necessary.
Durant and Westbrook have shown in the past that they're talented enough to keep OKC in the realm of title contenders by themselves (not title favorites, but contenders), and there's always the possibility that the rest of the roster is strong enough to compensate.
Reggie Jackson. Jeremy Lamb. DeAndre Liggins. Perry Jones III. Andre Roberson. Grant Jerrett. Steven Adams. Daniel Orton.
The Thunder are overflowing with young talent just waiting to explode. And given the sheer quantity, it seems like a safe assumption that at least one of them will do exactly that.
Jackson and Lamb are the safest bets.
Look how well Jackson's per-36-minute numbers stack up against James Harden and Kevin Martin's during their final regular seasons with the Thunder:
Was Jackson as impressive in the scoring column?
Not at all, but he makes up for the difference with his rebounding, passing and defensive competence, which isn't shown here. The former Boston College standout is by no means a point-preventing standout, unless you're comparing him to Martin and Harden, of course. He's just a solid defender.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Jackson allowed 0.84 points per possession in 2012-13, the No. 119 mark in the league. Again, solid.
It's the rest of the team that can make up for the decline in scoring production.
Lamb in particular is going to be a solid scorer, especially if his summer league performance was any indication. But let's not forget about the potential of the other guys, especially Jones, who was once viewed as a lottery lock before injury-related red flags depressed his stock.
Plus, there's one portion of the internal development that I've completely overlooked until now: Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka can all get better. All of them are 24 years old and well shy of their NBA primes. Usually those don't come around until 27 or 28, so there's still plenty of room for improvement.
Yes, as scary as it is, Durant and Westbrook can keep upping their levels of play.
The former may very well challenge LeBron James for overall supremacy, especially if he continues taking strides on defense while becoming a more comfortable facilitator. The latter could take on not only Chris Paul in the point guard battle, but also start duking it out with some of the all-time greats.
How will the Thunder far in 2013-14?
These improvements—both from the stars and the role players—are what the OKC management is banking on as it consistently fails to bring in much outside help. That confidence should be treated as a massive positive sign as well.
The Thunder aren't messing around and hoping to luck into an NBA title. They're still actively seeking a championship, just in what many basketball fans perceive as a more unorthodox manner because they've become accustomed to watching contenders restock and reload externally each and every year.
Durant and Westbrook by themselves are enough to keep Oklahoma City in contention.
Now we just have to find out if the rest of the roster is enough to push the Western Conference powerhouse over the top.