Basketball is almost back.
Believe it or not, training camp opens for the Thunder in less than two weeks. That means no more waiting and wondering. All of our questions about this revamped squad will soon be answered.
The biggest unknown during these dog days undoubtedly has been whether the Thunder has enough to win it all. Scores of smaller yet still significant issues must first play out before we discover the answer to that million dollar question, however.
As we count down these final days, here are five of the most pressing questions going into the 2013-14 Thunder season.
How will Russell Westbrook return?
An unfortunate knee injury to Westbrook devastated a state and derailed the Thunder's season. How Westbrook bounces back from that setback will now determine how far the Thunder can go. For five seasons we've watched Westbrook display one of the most fearless styles of play on the planet. His relentless attack has always put pressure on defenses and given the Thunder a go-to option whenever all else fails. But will Westbrook still have that same gear with a reconstructed knee? Will he still have that same mentality? Westbrook is expected to make a full recovery from the torn meniscus he suffered on April 24. But he may not be 100 percent to start the season. As a result, we may see a different player initially than the Tasmanian devil we've grown accustomed to. After an offseason of rehab, Westbrook's confidence and rhythm will be worth monitoring just as much as his motor and athleticism.
Can Reggie Jackson replicate his postseason performance for an entire season?
If Westbrook isn't himself early on, the Thunder has a terrific Plan B in Jackson. In his first postseason Jackson averaged 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. Can the third-year guard now do it for a full season? We see no reason why he can't thanks to his size, athleticism and finishing ability. But the fact remains that Jackson has never been a focal point of the offense. He didn't receive the primary backup point guard minutes last year until late December, and even then he often wasn't the primary ball-handler. Now Jackson is expected to be the team's sixth man. If he can succeed in that role Jackson can carry a second unit that is short on offensive weapons and go a long way in alleviating some pressure from the Thunder's stars.
Is Jeremy Lamb ready to contribute?
The Thunder rolled the dice letting Kevin Martin go. Much of that gamble was about money. But a chunk of it also spoke to the team's confidence in Lamb, the second-year shooting guard who arrived as part of the James Harden package. Lamb is a sharpshooter with tremendous athleticism. But his youth (21), inexperience (147 career minutes) and spotty defense all raise questions about whether he's ready to step into a championship rotation. If he gets the chance, Lamb should put together plenty of highlights in the regular season. Of course, it's not the regular season that anyone is worried about anymore. Can he do it when it matters most, in the playoffs?
Will the coaching staff take another step with creativity?
Contrary to popular belief, coach Scott Brooks and his staff showed signs of growth last season, shoring up situational game aspects such as the team's sideline out of bounds plays, late game play-calling and execution. They did it while also turning the Thunder into a top five defensive team. But a rigid rotation last year again raised questions, and the continued absence of an offensive system really hurt when Westbrook went down in the playoffs. Those are two obvious areas that, perhaps as much or more than anything else, can help push the Thunder over the top if solved.
What will Kevin do? Lost in all the hoopla that has defined the Thunder's offseason — the ghost of Harden, the loss of Martin, the Western Conference supposedly catching up, the Thunder's reluctance to pay the tax — seems to be one important shred of reality: Kevin Durant is still pretty darn good. After three straight scoring titles, Durant, at 24, assembled a historic season of efficiency last year, proving again that he's getting better every year. Still years away from entering his prime, however, it's anyone's guess what Durant will do next. He still has room to grow as a defender, and building on his evolving post-up game and playmaking could go a long way in turning him into an even greater force. But know this. If Durant returns with those weapons in his backpack, he single-handedly could make these and any other questions about the Thunder's 2013-14 season irrelevant.