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Can Thunder Maintain It's Dominance In A Much-Improved NBA?

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The start of the 2013/14 NBA season is finally here. That's certainly a reason to celebrate for the contenders of the world, but for the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's more of an impatient pessimism.

But why is that? The Thunder is still a good team. It still has the world's premier scorer. But now that it's tasted the excitement of the Finals, nothing else will do; it's title or bust for this franchise as it moves forward. And many feel like OKC hasn't done enough to avoid the latter.

The NBA landscape did some dramatic shifting in the offseason. A lot of teams got undeniably better, while only a handful regressed. But despite the improvements around the league, it was another quiet offseason in Oklahoma City. This has led many people to ask whether the Thunder has made the necessary roster moves to keep up.

For instance, look at the Clippers. A good team last year, but add Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Antawn Jamison, Darren Collison, Reggie Bullock and a championship coach in Doc Rivers, and all the sudden the Clips should be on a whole new level.

Or the Rockets. A solid team last season just added the best big in the NBA, and many experts believe Houston now has what it takes to reach the NBA Finals.

How about Brooklyn? A playoff team a year ago adds Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andre Kirilenko and Jason Terry and now many are picking them to unseat Miami and win the East.

Everywhere around the league, the story is the same: teams got better. Chicago got Derrick Rose back. Indiana will finally have Danny Granger to pair with budding superstar Paul George. Cleveland added Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and the No. 1 overall pick in Anthony Bennett. Minnesota added Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. New Orleans picked up Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday. Washington traded for Marcin Gortat and drafted Otto Porter.

The list goes on and on. Overall, one could definitively say that 11 teams clearly improved, while 12 stayed about the same and only six (Celtics, Lakers, Nuggets, 76ers, Suns, Jazz) clearly got worse. So 23 of the other 29 NBA teams will be greater than or equal to their 2012/13 level.

In other words, maneuvering through the waters this season may be harder than ever for Oklahoma City.

And let me be clear: I'm not saying that a Washington or a New Orleans is all-the-sudden better than the Thunder; they aren't. The point is that there won't be as many of those "conserve your energy, only give 65% and still sneak out with a win" type games as there were in the past.

Ponder this: if I asked you in which of the aforementioned three categories you'd place the Thunder, which one would it be? It's a tough question, but the answer certainly isn't "better".

The Thunder's dire salary cap situation was the main cause of inactivity in the offseason. In fact it was hard enough for Sam Presti & Co. to find a way to pay the draft picks. Kendrick Perkins' $8.5 million contract continues to hamstring the franchise and until that money is unloaded, this team won't look much different.

Due to that, the Thunder's big offseason acquisition was rookie center Steven Adams. After that, Ryan Gomes, maybe? That's not exactly putting a scare into anyone.

So that leads to the truly important question here: is the currently-constructed Thunder still good enough to contend despite a more treacherous terrain?

I'm here to ask that question, not answer it. The truth is, I really don't know & I'm not sure that anybody does. Here's what I do know:

OKC will sorely miss Russell Westbrook for as long as he's absent. His 31.2 usage rate was second to only Carmelo Anthony in the NBA last season. That stat basically indicates how relied-upon a player is in a particular offense, so for the Thunder to lose the No. 2 guy in the entire league means that there's a massive hole to fill.

Here's another key number: Russ' Estimated Wins Added (EWA) last season was 18.5, good for fifth in the league. That means over an 82-game season, having Russell on your team is good for an extra 18-19 wins a season. So let's say Russell misses six weeks, which would be the first 20 games of the season. His absence projects to cost the Thunder 4-5 wins during that stretch, which could prove costly at the end of the season. (The difference between the No. 1-seeded Thunder and the No. 5-seeded Grizzlies in last season's standings was just four games).

(There have been conflicting reports that Westbrook may be back sooner than expected, but that hasn't been confirmed by the Thunder or Westbrook, so we'll just have to wait and see.)

With the lack of acquisitions, the increased caliber of opponents around the league and the temporary loss of Westbrook, there's no reason to believe the Thunder can get back to the 60-win mark again. Vegas set OKC's over/under for wins at 52.5, which would likely place the Thunder in the 4-6 seed range.

Unless Perkins is dumped, there's no one coming to save this team. It's up to guys like Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and when he comes back, Russell, to elevate their games to the next level.

If the Thunder's core players can show that improvement, it'll have a chance to keep pace in what could be one of the best NBA seasons in many years.

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