STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
As the Thunder shockingly found out, it's one thing to make the NBA Finals, but quite another to win the league title. They swaggered into the championship round last season, and even won Game 1, only to get steamrolled by an all-around superior Miami Heat. While Kevin Durant provided a legitimate league MVP challenge in the regular season, LeBron James showed him in the Finals what it means to be a truly dominant player rather than merely a great scorer.
Oklahoma City is counting on that experience being the difference this year, as its only noteworthy offseason move was re-signing Serge Ibaka to a long-term contract, significant because it means OKC probably can't re-sign James Harden. Don't put it past general manager Sam Presti to cook up some creative math, but the max deal that Harden wants would vault the team into luxury tax territory with Russell Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka already inked to expensive contracts. If Harden doesn't agree to an extension by Oct. 31, he'll become a restricted free agent at season's end, with many suitors ready to pony up big bucks and, perhaps importantly, a starting job. In that case, expect a sign-and-trade (and don't rule out an in-season trade, either).
But the Thunder first must survive the West and the massively improved Lakers, or else their Finals experience won't matter at all.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The starting five is intact from last season, as is the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year in Harden. Eric Maynor, coming off a season-ending knee injury, and Reggie Jackson will compete to back up Westbrook at point guard. First-round pick Perry Jones' role is a bit unknown entering training camp. Don't be surprised if he's groomed to take over Harden's sixth-man job by season's end. Kendrick Perkins' injury woes (he's out through the preseason) could open the door to extra minutes for Hasheem Thabeet, Cole Aldrich, and Nick Collison.
Kendrick Perkins: Perkins' game is toughness, and there are few tougher in the NBA. In fact, he played through a partially torn groin in the final three rounds of the playoffs last season. He gets full use out of his allotted fouls and brings an unapologetic attitude lacking in most of his teammates. Unfortunately, those qualities don't do much for a fantasy roster. He averaged 5.1 points last season and saw his rebounds drop to just 6.6 per game, disappointing for a center of his girth. He underwent offseason groin and wrist surgery. The former is healthy, but the latter is expected to keep him out all preseason.
Cole Aldrich: Aldrich didn't get off the bench much last season, playing just 26 games at 6.7 minutes per. The 11th overall pick in 2010, Aldrich is fast approaching bust status. He's a good rebounder (12.9 per 48 minutes), but his offensive game needs much polish. Aldrich will have a chance to prove his worth in the early going, though, as oft-injured Kendrick Perkins is out for the preseason. He is the frontrunner for the job and could secure a consistent regular-season role with a big training camp.
Hasheem Thabeet: Thabeet signed a two-year deal with the Thunder this offseason, his fourth team since being drafted second overall by the Grizzlies in 2009. In three seasons, he's continually seen his role diminish, but Thabeet is 7-3 and still only 25. If Kendrick Perkins, whose out through the preseason, isn't healthy, Thabeet could get extended minutes. In that case he could be a good source of blocks and rebounds. All he has to do to make that happen is beat out Cole Aldrich, no great feat.
Daniel Orton: A first-round pick in 2010 by the Magic, Orton looks like little more than frontcourt depth entering training camp.
Kevin Durant: Durant won his third consecutive scoring title last season, averaging 28 points per game while shooting a career-high 49.6 percent from the floor. He also had career highs in three-pointers per game (2.0), rebounds (8.0), assists (3.5), blocks (1.2). What's scary is Durant is clearly still improving, and there's no reason he can't put up even better numbers in 2012-13. Durant will surely be No. 1 on many draft boards this year, and it's hard to argue that he's not as valuable as any other player in fantasy due to his across-the-board contributions.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka blocked a league-high 3.7 shots per game last season. For the third straight season, he shot more than 50 percent from the field, though his free-throw percentage took a hit back to 66 percent. He's developed a pretty good jump shot but is best when getting out in transition. The Thunder appreciated his work enough to sign him to a four-year contract extension this offseason. This season, the Thunder will settle for minor improvements. Some low-post development and more accurate free-throw shooting are good places to start. For the blocks alone, Ibaka is worth a roster spot on fantasy teams.
Nick Collison: Collison's dirty-work role is more valuable to the Thunder than to fantasy owners. He averaged 20.7 minutes last season in 63 games, but he could see slightly increased minutes if Kendrick Perkins' injuries bleed into the regular season. In that case, OKC could shift Serge Ibaka to center and insert Nick Collison at power forward. Even then, though, don't expect many fantasy worthy numbers beyond, perhaps, rebounds.
Perry Jones: The 28th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Jones was considered a top-10 selection until a knee injury hurt his draft stock. Now healthy, he'll be a matchup nightmare for opponents - faster than most power forwards, bigger than most small forwards. He might not be a great rebounder until he fills out a bit, but Oklahoma City can afford to wait. Don't be surprised if he's groomed to take over the sixth-man role by season's end as James Harden likely isn't returning next year.
Lazar Hayward: Haywood saw action in only 26 games last season and averaged 5.4 minutes. Don't expect a big change this season. He played a D-League stint last season and could see time again with Tulsa this year.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook might be the top point guard of his generation. His athleticism is nothing short of breathtaking. There isn't a guard in the league who can stay in front of Westbrook when he gets room to operate off the dribble. He's developed a pull-up jumper that ranks as one of the league's most unstoppable moves. The only real question is whether he'll ever develop into a true point guard. His assist average dropped to 5.5 last year after spending the previous three in the eight-plus range, and his decision making is still an issue. However, he hit almost twice as many three-pointers in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season as he did in 2010-11. The additional threes didn't hurt his overall shooting numbers; he posted a career-high 45.7 FG percentage last season. He is also an excellent rebounder for his position.
Thabo Sefolosha: Sefolosha, who missed 23 games last season with a foot injury, is all defense. He's a mediocre shooter (43.2 FGP) and averaged about an assist per game last season. Not that Oklahoma City cares; the team just wants his steady defense and strong rebounding (though his foot injury limited him to a five-year low 3.0 rpg in 21.8 minutes last season). Expect about 25 minutes per game as the starting 2-guard and improved rebounding numbers with about a steal and half a block per game.
James Harden: Harden raised his game in 2011-12, achieving career highs in points, rebounds, assists and all three shooting percentages. Deservedly so, the accolades piled up for Harden, as he took home the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Harden's talent is unquestioned, but from a fantasy perspective, there remains concern about just how high his ceiling can be as the Thunder's third scoring option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That duo attempted a shade less than 20 shots per game last season, leaving Harden to settle for about 10 on most nights. The real coming out party for Harden might be next year. He'll be a restricted free agent after the season. If Harden were to land on another team as the franchise player or even as the second banana, he'd surely rocket up his value in 2013-14.
Eric Maynor: Maynor, who had successful ACL surgery in January, will be pushed in training camp by Reggie Jackson for the backup job to Russell Westbrook. Whoever lands the role, though, likely won't have much fantasy value. Maynor is not much of a scorer anyway, but he'd likely be a good assists contributor as a pass-first point guard if he got extended minutes.
Reggie Jackson: Jackson was considered one of the better true point guards in the 2011 draft, and this season he might actually get a chance to play. Last year, he spent some time in the D-League, but when on the court for OKC, he showed excellent quickness and athleticism. Foremost, however, he must improve his shot - just 32.1 percent from the field last season - to overtake Eric Maynor as the backup to Russell Westbrook.
Daequan Cook: Cook is a three-point specialist and little else. He received extra minutes last season (17.4 mpg) when James Harden went down with an injury. But even though shooting the long ball is his game, he still only hit 34.6 percent from downtown.
Perry Jones: The rookie might play sparingly to begin with, but he should see his minutes pick up, assuming his development stays on track. Jones was considered a top-10 pick before a knee injury hurt his stock. Healthy now, he could have a reliable role depending on James Harden's situation. If Harden doesn't sign an extension, Jones could find himself in a consistent role this season as the sixth-man-to-be next year. Jones is already considered the best athlete and quickest player on the roster. He can play multiple positions and has tremendous upside.
Serge Ibaka: Last year, Ibaka was the sleeper pick in this space. So what changed? For one, perception. Ibaka outperformed his draft slot last season. He likely won't do that this season. While Ibaka is the league's premier shot blocker, he failed to improve much in other phases of his game last year. Aside from a good mid-range shot, he brings little else offensively (his scoring actually dropped by nearly a point per game in a touch more minutes than in 2011-12). Despite his 6-10, 220, size and huge wingspan, he doesn't have a low-post game to speak of. His hands are stone, contributing to his 1.2 turnovers per game, and he shot only 66.1 percent from the line. Don't misunderstand, Ibaka has much talent and upside, but he might be overvalued for those who expect more than blocks.