(SportsNetwork.com) - The 2012-13 season ended horribly for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals in June of 2012, only to lose to the Miami Heat. They shipped reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to Houston in a cost-cutting move, but the Thunder didn't miss a beat.
OKC finished with the best record in the West and had the No. 1 seed. Optimism brimmed at a chance to avenge their Finals loss.
Then, horror befell the Thunder.
Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley went for a steal as the teams were heading to a timeout and injured All-Star guard Russell Westbrook's knee. He was out the remainder of the postseason with a torn meniscus.
The Thunder's realistic title hopes were dashed. They lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semifinals and regrouped for this upcoming season.
One small problem arose.
Westbrook's meniscus healed properly, but as training camp began, there was swelling in the knee. It was determined a stitch came loose and Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery and will miss four to six weeks of the regular season.
"We're down a man right now, but we're not down," head coach Scott Brooks said after an early practice. "This team is built on toughness. This team is very resilient. We have players with high character that understand the situation that we're in. We have a good team. We're going to continue to move forward as an organization and as a group of basketball players. We're excited about what we have."
Westbrook is no ordinary "man." He is an All-Star and an elite scorer and plus-defender. His loss is tough, but Brooks is right, the Thunder are by no means done.
OKC may lose some early ground in the standings, but with Kevin Durant, a legitimate MVP candidate, the Thunder should still be in the top four of the Western Conference.
An additional problem that may arise for Oklahoma City stems from a bench loss. Harden has been gone for a season, but his replacement, Kevin Martin, who had a strong season for the Thunder, bolted for the Minnesota Timberwolves via free agency.
Who replaces him and Harden as the bench star is a big question.
But Durant is capable of carrying a team on his back. Don't shed too many tears for the Thunder just yet.
2012-13 Results: 60-22, 1st in Northwest; Lost in West semifinals to Memphis
KEY ADDITIONS: C Steven Adams, F Andre Roberson, F Ryan Gomes
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Reggie Jackson SG- Thabo Sefolosha SF- Kevin Durant PF- Serge Ibaka C - Kendrick Perkins
KEY RESERVES: G Jeremy Lamb, G Derek Fisher, F Nick Collison, F Ryan Gomes, C Hasheem Thabeet, C Daniel Orton, F Perry Jones, F Andre Roberson, C Steven Adams
FRONTCOURT: Over the last four seasons, Durant has finished second, fifth, second and second in MVP voting. He's made four All-Star teams and made four consecutive appearances on the All-NBA first team. He is the game's most gifted scorer, whose rebounding and assist numbers have gone up in the last two seasons. He is the second-best player in the league and has the dumb luck of being in his prime while LeBron James is as well.
Ibaka enjoyed a great 2012-13 season just after signing a four-year, $49 million contract. His scoring increased by almost 4.0 ppg and he's already led the NBA in blocks the last two seasons en route to All-Defensive first team honors. Can his scoring go even higher than 13.1 ppg? Probably not, but Ibaka is an All-Star in the making.
Perkins is only 28, but is entering his 11th season. Some were surprised Perkins wasn't amnestied by the Thunder considering he's due about $18.6 million over the next two years. His numbers, including minutes, all declined last season.
BACKCOURT: Westbrook is not a traditional point guard, but how do you replace 23.2 ppg (which ranked sixth) and 7.4 apg (which tied for seventh)? The answer is, you don't. Westbrook is a shoot-first lead guard, which rubs people the wrong way, but, prior to the injury, he played every game of his entire career. Westbrook is a decent defender who gets steals and when he gets going toward the basketball, he's unstoppable. A rested Westbrook come the postseason would scare me.
Jackson will most likely become the starter while Westbrook rehabs. Jackson started in his absence during the playoffs and averaged 15.3 ppg. He's a fantastic option for two months and the experience gained will help when he goes back to the bench for the postseason.
Sefolosha is out there for his defense, but he shot 42 percent from beyond the arc last season and attempted 3.2 long balls a game, which was a career best.
BENCH: So who does take that bench starring role?
The smart money is on Jeremy Lamb, who, like Martin, came over in the Harden deal. He was a capable scorer at UConn and is a good shooter, but is a guy who played all of 147 minutes last season, his rookie one, going to make that huge a leap?
Jackson and Fisher will man the point guard bench spots when Westbrook returns. Fisher is closing in on "E" in his career, but is a smart veteran.
Collison is just a prototype bench big man. He can play both spots and for 20 minutes a night, the Thunder get everything he has. Collison is a good defender and banger.
Thabeet, Jones and rookie Adams represent some great future talent. Are they close to helping this season? Maybe Thabeet, or Jones.
Gomes was brought in as Durant's backup, but anyone want to bet Durant is top five in minutes played this season, especially with Westbrook shelved for two months?
COACHING: Brooks is a former Coach of the Year and is one of the game's best, partially because he's had so much talent. This season will be more of a challenge considering the disappointment of last year's playoffs, Westbrook's injury and the lack of a bench star.
Luckily for Brooks, he has a lot of veterans to lean on. He lost one of his top assistants, Mo Cheeks, who left for the Detroit Pistons head job. Brooks will have to gather his team and tell them the first part of the season may be rough, but it will all pay off come the postseason.
OUTLOOK: Any team with Durant is a title contender. The Thunder had a legitimate chance to go all the way with a healthy Westbrook last season.
The Martin loss will hurt. There is no one on the bench who is a proven scorer. Sefolosha is a premiere defender, but sometimes, in crunch time, Brooks will need someone else who can put the ball in the hoop out there. Maybe Lamb becomes that, or maybe Jackson's scoring increases with the confidence he gains as an early-season starter.
Don't look for the Thunder to reclaim that No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Westbrook will miss too much time in the beginning for that to remain an attainable goal.
But OKC will be there in the end. The Thunder should be among the four or five teams with a realistic chance to win an NBA title. The bench could use some help, but the nucleus, led by Durant, is still excellent.