#2 The Oklahoma City Thunder

Will this be pretty much the same Thunder squad we’ve seen over the past few seasons? Yes. Am I O.K. with that? Absolutely.

Sure, a few of their key role players gone: Shoutout Fish! Mr. Call-Me Caron Butler, and let’s not even get started on the bearded wonder over in Houston. There’s enough stuff out there on Thunder owner Clay Bennet’s stinginess already. But, role players notwithstanding, this team is unquestionably the otherworldly talents and scoring and explosiveness and all-around basketball mayhem that is Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook killing the game. And of course, the freaky-long Serge Ibaka ready to stuff the ball down your throat for forgetting about him.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the reason league pass was invented. You get your team, three other teams, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you’re a Thunder fan (Thunder Head? Thunder Boy?), you get to pick four other teams. Simple as that. It’s not only that the Thunder play the Blazers and the Nuggets and everyone else in the Western conference. Its not only that everyone else brings their A-Game trying to shut down these princes of basketball and still fail to do it. Its that no one wants to miss one of those KD explosions. Down 10 to start the 4th, throwing the team on his back to get the W. Absolutely in the zone and splashing walk-up three-pointers.

What makes this team even cooler now are the expectations- which are, shall we say, somewhat more reasonable. Lebron’s departure from Miami was a huge power shake-up for the East. Every league executive waited for that domino to fall. Even if they didn’t have a chance of attaining him, they all needed to wait for the dust to settle before making contingency plans. And now, an Eastern Conference without Lebron in Miami. Four straight finals, two rings. The Cavs will be terrific next season, for sure, but may suffer growing pains. Maybe the door is open for the Bulls or the Pacers (naa) to finally reach the Finals. Sneak past Lebron like the Knicks did during MJ’s retirement window.

Or maybe the door is open for the Thunder. There has always been a weird complex between Lebron and Durant. 1st and 2nd. The best and the MVP. You got the sense that KD’s final challenge to usurping the Best Player in the World title would be beating Lebron right there in the finals. Now he might not need to.

There’s still the Spurs in the way. There’s always the frickin’ Spurs, and I would say the smart money would be on them winning the title again next year. But we can always say that now they reaaaally are too old to do this and the Thunder’s superior athleticism will be able to overwhelm Popp’s system. Maybe.

Either way, the expectations are high for KD and Westbrook, perhaps higher than before. Durant’s contract is up in two seasons and even though he has really been nothing but happy and successful in Oklahoma City, he still has yet to sniff that elusive championship. Thunder management don’t seem overly concerned about the possibility that he cuts bait on them in 2016 as their offseason largely boiled down to exchanging Thabo Sefolosha for Anthony Morrow. Still, there have been whispers that he may be considering a new basketball home. Maybe one closer to his real-life home and one where he would be able to link up with the rapidly improving UK product.

X-Factor= Serge Ibaka. Its really hard to overstate Ibaka’s importance to this team as his absence and then reappearance transformed the Thunder during their clash with the Spurs last year. While some of the other supporting cast will have to flash a little greatness for a deep playoff run it all starts with Ibaka’s ferocious defense and constantly improving shooting touch.

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