Three seasons ago, when the Thunder clinched its first Northwest Division title, it was viewed as a huge milestone for the burgeoning franchise.
“It's great for our fans,” coach Scott Brooks said at the time. “It's great for our city to be division champs. It is definitely a step in our process.”
Two years and two division titles later, the feat has become little more than a formality. Just a nice footnote in the season's bigger picture.
This isn't the MLB, where playoff spots are fewer, or the NFL, where postseason byes are offered. So the importance of division championships in the NBA is dwarfed.
But they still come with a guaranteed top-four finish in the conference and bragging rights within the division.
And for the Thunder, which enters camp later this week in search of a fourth straight Northwest crown, the path has never looked easier.
ESPN has a forecast tool on its website, predicting the expected records of teams for the upcoming season.
In it, they have the Thunder at 58-24, two games off last season's pace but still atop the Western Conference. Beyond that, there's not another team from the Northwest until the seventh slot, where a retooled Denver Nuggets club, which lost its highly respected coach (George Karl) and only All-Star (Andre Iguodala), is projected at 43-39. That's a 15-game gap between the Thunder and everyone else in the division.
The West's other five expected contenders (Spurs, Grizzlies and Rockets in the Southwest, Clippers and Warriors in the Pacific) have at least one other team that should battle for division supremacy. OKC doesn't.
Here's a closer examination of the division, revealing why the Thunder are so heavily favored entering the year:
Oklahoma City Thunder
Key additions: Steven Adams, Andre Roberson
Key losses: Kevin Martin
ESPN projected record: 58-24, 1st in West
Outlook: Lost a bench scorer in Kevin Martin, promoted a potential replacement in 21-year-old sharpshooter Jeremy Lamb. Other than that, OKC remains essentially the same, maintaining a dynamic roster that's highlighted by two transcendent superstars and an emerging shotblocker, all one year closer to their prime.
Key additions: Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye, Brian Shaw (coach)
Key losses: Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, George Karl (coach)
ESPN projected record: 43-39, 7th in West
Outlook: I can see it now: Nate Robinson hoisting up off-balance 30-foot rainbows, JaVale McGee trying to dunk from the 3-point line, Wilson Chandler catching fire for 40-plus in one of those random late-night upsets in the Denver altitude. The Nuggets might not be as good this season, but they should be just as fun.
Key additions: Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad
Key losses: Andrei Kirilenko, Luke Ridnour
ESPN projected record: 40-42, 8th in West
Outlook: Columnist Berry Tramel has labeled Minnesota as the West's surprise team. And the T-Wolves certainly have the talent to follow through. But can Kevin Love stay healthy? Can Ricky Rubio develop into more of a scoring threat? Can the Timberwolves finally make the playoffs for the first time since Kevin Garnett led them there a decade ago? Time will tell.
Portland Trail Blazers
Key additions: Dorell Wright, C.J. McCollum, Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson
Key losses: J.J. Hickson, Eric Maynor, Nolan Smith
ESPN projected record: 38-44, 10th in West
Outlook: The Blazers ended last season on a 13-game losing streak, by far the worst in the league. They shouldn't be nearly as bad as that mark might suggest, with a potent inside-outside duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. But their playoff hopes will likely hinge on the development of a new-look supporting cast.
Key additions: Trey Burke, Rudy Gobert, Brandon Rush, Andris Beidrins, John Lucas, Richard Jefferson
Key losses: Al Jefferson, Mo Williams, Earl Watson, Paul Millsap, Randy Foye, Mo Williams
ESPN projected record: 32-50, 13th in West
Outlook: Utah's front office pushed the franchise into full-throttle rebuild mode, gutting the roster and stacking financial chips for the future. This season, presumably, will be about developing young talent, like first-rounder Trey Burke, and gathering the best lottery odds, with the 2014 Draft expected to be the best in a decade.