The Golden State Warriors are the defending champions, the San Antonio Spurs have added an All-Star to an already top-level roster and the Cleveland Cavaliers have the best player on the planet and a couple of handy teammates. None of those teams are the most talented in the NBA, as that honor belongs to the Thunder from Oklahoma City.
Before last season's disastrous, injury-ravaged campaign the Thunder had won an average of more than 54 games in the previous five seasons. During that time they made the conference semi-finals once, the Western Conference finals twice and the NBA Finals once when they lost to the Miami Heat in 2011-12. Few teams have been more successful without winning a championship.
Their success in this time is attributable to having two of the best five players in the world, and a third star who complements them perfectly. Kevin Durant is the second best player on the planet when fit, a former NBA MVP and four-time scoring champion with a career scoring average of 27.3 points per game. He missed most of last season due to a fractured foot, but has appeared in most of the Thunder's pre-season games and looks set to re-establish his position as the best player on Earth not named LeBron. At 6’9” and with a gangly frame, his jump shot is undefendable and his ability to get himself any shot he desires makes him near on unguardable, especially when the Robin to his Batman is on the floor.
That Robin is Russell Westbrook, who elevated his game to a whole new level in Durant's absence last season. His usage rate soared as he had the ball in his hands on almost every play and tallied career-high numbers in points (28.1), assists (8.6), rebounds (7.3) and steals (2.1). Even with Durant back, Westbrook will have more than enough opportunity to dominate and figures to be reaching his peak as a player at age 27, just three months younger than Durant. A ravenous competitor, Westbrook’s combination of explosive speed and athleticism is something we have not before seen and something that had him playing at a previously unseen offensive level last season.
Power forward Serge Ibaka rounds out the Oklahoma City super threesome. The Congolese native is the Thunder’s best defender and a player who has averaged close to a double-double with a couple of blocks throughout a very consistent career. Ibaka missed 18 games with a knee injury last season, but before that had missed just three games in the previous four seasons and has recently added a consistent jump shot to an already impressive CV. Like Westbrook and Durant, he is theoretically in the prime of his career at 26 years of age. Having said that, it could be argued that none of the three are yet at their prime. That in itself is a scary proposition for the rest of the league.
The remainder of the roster is solid rather than brilliant but that is what is needed to fill the gaps around the stars. The centre position has a two-headed monster of offensive skill (Enes Kanter) and intense, defensive toughness (Steven Adams). Adams looks likely to start, but Kanter will see at least as many minutes and neither may finish the game. The benefit of having the 6'9" Durant and 6'10" Ibaka is that they can play the centre and power forward role late in games, or play alongside Nick Collison or Mitch McGary both of whom are 6'10" and provide a hard-nosed, defensive edge. There are few teams if any that can match the versatility and depth of the Thunder front-court.
Westbrook is backed by D.J.Augustin, a veteran point-guard who is one of the more effective bench guards in the league. Augustin will primarily give Westbrook a spell, but may play alongside him if the Thunder choose to go 'small'. The shooting guard spot is the biggest question mark on this roster, with Andre Roberson looking like being the starter but with both Anthony Morrow and Dion Waiters to see minutes. Waiters may be the most intriguing player on this roster; controversy has followed him throughout his career and his shooting is streaky but he will never find a better opportunity to make an impact than he has at the Thunder. A career 32.6% three-point shooter, Waiters will need to drastically improve this clip to cover for the fact that he is a horrendous defender.
Durant has traditionally played a huge number of minutes, but is likely to be managed early in the season as the franchise plays it safe as he comes off serious injury. That being the case, Kyle Singler may see minutes and the former Piston will look to make an impact. At 6'8"and being an above average shooter, Singler will extend defenders
It is clear that scoring will not be an issue; Oklahoma City finished in the top seven in offensive efficiency and top six in points scored every year from 2010-11 through 2013-14 and are a safe bet to finish in the top 3 in both categories. The other end of the floor remains an issue, as the Thunder finished between 12th and 18th in points conceded and between 4th and 13th in defensive efficiency during those seasons.
A look at the last 10 NBA champions tells you all you need to know about the importance of defence - since 2005 no champion has finished lower than 9th in defensive efficiency and five of the 10 champions have finished top 3; and not champion has finished lower than 13th in points conceded per game.
Their defence will likely be zone-based, as Westbrook is a good gambling defender who plays the passing lanes well and Durant is serviceable at that end of the floor but neither are elite. Ibaka is the player around who this defence is anchored, and new coach Billy Donovan will be well aware that the Thunder must improve defensively to contend for the title.
Donovan enters the NBA after coaching the University of Florida for 19 seasons, winning back-to-back national championships and winning 71.5% of his games as head coach. He is a winner, and comes in to replace the oft-criticised Scott Brooks who was unable to harness the elite talent at his disposal. In 2007, Donovan accepted the head coaching role at the Orlando Magic before doing a massive backflip and reneging on the deal the next day; if he cannot produce results from Day 1, he may well find himself looking for another college coaching gig.
The flexibility and depth on this roster is incredible and the age profile of their top-level talent is within its optimal winning window. There might only be one ball but Durant and Westbrook have made this work before and have the pain of failures past to motivate them. They are among the league-leaders in both rebounding and blocked shots and look unlikely to regress in those areas. An extra level of intrigue and pressure comes from the fact that this is the second-largest payroll in the league and that Durant is so to be a free-agent, and may be tempted to move on should the Thunder not experience success.
Donovan can go small with Augustin-Westbrook-Waiters-Durant-Ibaka, go big with Westbrook-Singler-Durant-Ibaka-Adams/Kanter or anything in between as Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka can all play multiple positions in an effective manner. While San Antonio can throw Kahwi Leonard and Danny Green at Westbrook and Durant, they will be stretched elsewhere. Golden State can man the star duo up with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala but would then struggle to contain Ibaka. At the other end of the floor, Ibaka will be an absolute key especially if Durant struggles as an isolation defender while Kanter can only improve as a defender; if he were to become just a competent defender, it adds a whole other dimension to the Thunder given his offensive talents.
The season starts next week and the time for analysing will be done, but one thing remains indisputable - all things remaining equal, no other side can match the Thunder for explosive firepower and that gives them a massive advantage over the competition. If the roster stays healthy, anything less than a championship will be seen as a failure.