Last season looked to be OKC's time. Then Serge Ibaka got hurt against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round of the playoffs and threw the Thunder completely off kilter, much as Russell Westbrook's injury had a year earlier.
Now, everybody is healthy and ready to make another attempt at the throne.
Writing for ESPN The Magazine, Howard Bryant also made the case that Durant himself may be a part of the problem, detailing how Durant's game moves farther away from the basket come playoff time and explaining how such an approach does not work in the playoffs.
Such is the life of one of the best players in the game. Even averaging 29.6 points a game in the postseason isn't enough to avoid harsh critiques.
It's clear, though, that the Thunder need to do something differently this time around in order to reach the NBA summit, whether it's tweaking Durant's game, adding another piece or two or moving away from head coach Scott Brooks.
How the regular season unfolds might reveal a lot about Oklahoma City. You can view the full schedule on NBA.com.
Because of last year's Conference Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder remain the second-favorite to win the West, according to VegasInsider.com. OKC is carrying 6-1 odds, slightly worse than San Antonio's 9-2. The Thunder are 3-1 favorites to win the West, compared to 13-5 for the Spurs.
Note: The odds are updated as of Aug. 13, at 6 p.m. ET.
Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs
When: at OKC Dec. 25 (2:30 PM ET on ESPN) and April 7 (8 PM ET on TNT)/at San Antonio March 25 (9:30 PM ET on ESPN)
The Thunder's road to an NBA title likely goes through San Antonio.
In last year's playoff series, the Spurs exposed just how reliant Oklahoma City was on Durant and Westbrook. In Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, they combined to score 65 of the team's 107 points. Derek Fisher was the only bench player to score, adding five points.
The Thunder couldn't overcome the Spurs' balance. Boris Diaw was San Antonio's leading scorer in that game, with 26 points off the bench.
Few regular-season games will be as compelling as when San Antonio travels to Oklahoma City. These occasions may not have the same importance as last year's playoff series, but they can in part serve as a measuring stick as to where the Thunder currently stand.
ESPN.com's Royce Young wrote that last season's playoffs may have skewed the perception regarding the Spurs and Thunder:
'What clock? There's no clock,' Russell Westbrook said at the Thunder's exit interviews on June 1. "I don't believe in saying the time is closing. We have a lot of guys on this team capable of making things happen and our organization has done a great job of putting us in the position to be able win the championship every season. And once it gets to that point, it's on us to make it happen."
Look at the landscape. The Spurs just roared to an incredible championship, but don't forget: The Thunder have had that team's number for a while. They were never able to recover from Serge Ibaka missing the opening two games of the series, but the Thunder were effectively one Manu Ginobili miss away from a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals. The idea that a breakthrough will never come, or that the gap between the Spurs and Thunder is widening, is misguided.
OKC can set the record straight this year.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies
When: at OKC on Nov. 7 (8 PM ET on ESPN) and on Jan. 31st (8 PM ET)/at Memphis on April 3 (8 PM ET)
The Memphis Grizzlies are like one of those evil henchmen you have to defeat in a video game before you can take on the final boss.
Two years ago, the Grizzlies knocked the Thunder out in the second round of the playoffs. Last year, Oklahoma City got its revenge, beating Memphis in seven games in the first round. OKC got pushed to the limit and arguably proved itself to be ready for a true NBA Finals run—then Ibaka got hurt.
Whenever these two teams meet, it's always fun to watch. Rarely does one team get blown out, and tensions are usually pretty high on the court.
There's also the chance that this will be another preview of the first round. The Thunder promise to be a top seed in the West again, while the Grizzlies will likely finish right around seventh or eighth.
In four of the last five seasons, the Thunder have won at least 50 games. The outlier was the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season (in which they won 47 games), so in all likelihood, they would have made it 5-for-5. Fifty games will be the minimum prediction for next season.
Is 60 wins within reach again, which Oklahoma City hit in 2012-13?
It's very possible. Derek Fisher leaves a void leadership-wise, but he was oftentimes doing more harm than good when he was on the court. Sebastian Telfair is a slight upgrade at backup point guard.
Younger guys like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb should only improve as well. Lamb was much better last year than in his rookie season, and Jackson saw a huge jump in numbers helped out by playing twice as many minutes a night. They should both give the Thunder more next year.
The last thing working in Oklahoma City's favor is pure motivation. Durant and Westbrook are sick of getting knocked out of the playoffs. Remember how LeBron James took his game to the next level with the Miami Heat after one too many postseason exits?
Expect Westbrook and especially Durant to do the same.
Next year's regular season should be a slight improvement over the last.
Final Prediction: 61-21
Note: All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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