Contenders Profile: OKC Thunder

Can the Thunder take the final step and win an NBA championship?

Updated: August 21, 2012, 4:37 PM ET
By Chris Palmer | ESPN the Magazine
Serge Ibaka and Kevin DurantRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesWith Serge Ibaka, left, signed long term, Kevin Durant and the Thunder will have plenty to celebrate.

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of a 12-part series this summer that will profile six Eastern Conference teams and six Western Conference teams that could knock off the Miami Heat. Today we profile the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Overview

Last season the Thunder came pretty darn close to mission accomplished. After having been dispatched rather easily, 4-1, by the Heat in the Finals, the Thunder sidled off the floor with their heads held low and tears in their eyes. Theirs was a humiliating thrashing, but they did exactly what was expected of them: got one step closer.

The Thunder tore through the regular season, finishing second in the West without losing more than three games in a row until reaching the Finals. Kevin Durant captured his third scoring title and in the process gave LeBron James a serious run for regular-season MVP. Durant's game took big strides on defense and playmaking, as he proved to be a legitimate closer and firmly established himself as the second-best player in the NBA.

Russell Westbrook ran the gamut from extraordinary to maddening in the playoffs after a regular season in which he readjusted his game to mesh better with Durant's and evolved into one of the league's top 10 players. Oklahoma's City's other key pieces posted career years as well, with Serge Ibaka finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and James Harden picking up the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

By getting to the NBA Finals, the Thunder avenged their postseason heartbreak in 2011 at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. Now they find themselves back where they started -- motivated by postseason failure. After getting manhandled by the Heat in the Finals, they head into yet another season with a chip firmly placed on their shoulders.

Chris Palmer

ESPN the Magazine