Thanks to the help of hindsight, it is now clear that any use of the phrase "camp battle" during the previous two Thunder training camps never should have amounted to anything more than a passing punch line.
What we considered critical campaigns for playing time then look like real comic relief now. The butt of the joke being each and every former Thunder player who is no longer with the team or, worse, no longer in the NBA.
As a quick refresher, there was a time when a question like 'Earl Watson or Russell Westbrook' was posed at water coolers throughout Oklahoma with a straight face. There was a Desmond Mason-or-Jeff Green "debate," a Chris Wilcox-or-Nick Collison "conundrum" and, the most laughable of them all, a Robert Swift-or-Johan Petro "dilemma."
But as the Thunder prepares to open its third training camp Tuesday, fans in Oklahoma are finally about to see what a real camp battle looks like. For the first time in Oklahoma City's abbreviated NBA history, the Thunder has some real depth.
It's a coach's dream. It's a 10th man's nightmare.
"There's been a lot of improvement this year but we have to see it come October and see how it all works out together," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Since the first-round playoff loss to the Lakers, Thunder general manager Sam Presti replaced Etan Thomas, Kyle Weaver, Kevin Ollie and Mustafa Shakur with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson and Royal Ivey. It won't go down in history as the greatest offseason overhaul the league has seen, but it was an improvement nonetheless as Presti fetched much-needed shooting and defense.
The Thunder also didn't require a major renovation thanks to last season's nine-man rotation remaining intact after a 50-win season and an unexpected playoff berth. Second-year center Byron Mullens and third-year forward D.J. White have continued to show glimpses of their promise as well.
Combined, it should lead to the most competitive camp the Thunder has ever had, setting the stage for what many project to be a banner season.
"One of the things that myself and my staff demands, and even our players demand of each other, is to compete and challenge each other," said Brooks. "We're friends, we like each other on and off the floor, but the only way to be a great teammate is by challenging your teammate to get better. That's how you improve individually, and that's how you improve as a team. That's what I'm looking forward to seeing."
Two battles in particular have emerged as the most intriguing. Aldrich, the rookie from Kansas who the Thunder acquired in a draft-night trade with New Orleans, could compete for minutes, if not the starting center spot, from opening day. James Harden, meanwhile, might be ready to supplant Thabo Sefolosha as the starting shooting guard after spending his entire rookie season coming off the bench despite being the third overall selection.
Both Harden and Aldrich offer completely different skill sets than their competition. Harden is much more polished offensively than Sefolosha, while Sefolosha is a far greater defender. Aldrich, on the other hand, is devoted to defense while incumbent starting center Nenad Krstic generates most of his production on the offensive end.
For Brooks, it makes for quite the brain teaser. But the coach's decisions don't end there.
Over the next month, Brooks must determine the costs and benefits of sticking with a nine-man rotation versus increasing it in some way to 10, whether Serge Ibaka is ready for a larger role, if Mullens and White are ready to contribute and who between Peterson and Cook is better suited for spot-up shooting duty.
The players' performances will dictate most of the outcomes.
But it's Oklahoma City that figures to be the biggest winner.
Monday: Media Day
Tuesday: Training camp opens
Friday: Blue and White scrimmage at Yukon High
Oct. 6: Thunder at Charlotte (Fayetteville, N.C.)
Oct. 8: Thunder at Miami (Kansas City, Mo.)
Oct. 12: Thunder vs. Memphis (Tulsa)
Oct. 14: Thunder vs. Moscow
Oct. 18: Thunder at San Antonio
Oct. 19: Thunder at Denver
Oct. 21: Thunder vs. New Orleans
Oct. 24: The Oklahoman's special Thunder/NBA preview section publication
Oct. 27: Thunder vs. Chicago (regular season opener)