For all the hype surrounding the revamped Los Angeles Lakers, and all the talk about how the Western Conference no longer goes through Oklahoma City, it might come as a shock that it's not the Lakers that should command the Thunder's attention out of the gate.
It shouldn't if you've been paying attention.
With training camp now one week away, the Northwest Division looks like it will be the stoutest of all this season. And while none of the Thunder's four division rivals will be as sexy as the Thunder-Lakers matchups on paper, they'll certainly carry more combined meaning in the won-loss column.
The Thunder will face Denver, Minnesota, Portland and Utah four times apiece this year now that the league is returning to a customary 82-game schedule. That's 16 games — or essentially 20 percent of the schedule — against teams that contend for playoff berths in the top heavy Western Conference.
That's enough to bring meaning to divisional play in a league in which many have deemed it largely irrelevant.
The only other division that comes close to making a case for being as good as the Northwest is the new look Atlantic, which welcomed Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, Joe Johnson to Brooklyn, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby to New York and Jason Terry and Jared Sullinger to Boston. Toronto stands as the Atlantic's one bad apple.
Last year, the Thunder went 10-3 against divisional opponents, the second best overall divisional winning percentage behind Chicago. But that record belied just how tough of a time the Thunder had within its division. OKC's three wins against Minnesota, for example, came by a total of 14 points. One win needed double overtime. That 10-3 easily could have been 7-6. And that's not taken into account that Portland basically blew up its team in midseason, and Minnesota faltered in the second half due to injuries.
Now consider that nearly every Northwest Division team improved this summer.
The Wolves will get Ricky Rubio back from injury in addition to welcoming Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger.
The Nuggets essentially got a better version of Arron Afflalo by adding Andre Iguodala.
The Jazz brought back Mo Williams, as well as Marvin Williams and Randy Foye.
The Blazers are perhaps the only team that saw a drop off in talent. But what they lost in ability and experience they could make up for with youthful exuberance, which has proved to be enough to steal some regular season wins. Add to that the Blazers have a Rookie of the Year candidate in Damian Lillard, who is expected to finally settle Portland's point guard problem.
None of it should prevent the Thunder from capturing its third consecutive division title and securing a top four seed.
But those 16 divisional games loom as a challenge that warrants the Thunder's undivided attention.