Feb 22, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) is congratulated by Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) in action against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The OKC Thunder in top tier of contenders for upcoming season

There are more questions than usual surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder heading into the 2013-14 season.

Still, the Thunder are more proven that a lot of the other teams out there. According to Zach Lowe of Grantland, the Thunder are in a group of four teams in the top tier of contenders this season:

Go ahead and write them off. Westbrook’s hurt, and the James Harden trade has turned into exactly zero players with an NBA footprint. The Thunder run a stagnant offense, and even if Westbrook’s injury only costs them two or three wins, that may still knock them down to the no. 4 or no. 5 seed in the perilous Western Conference.

via Grantland

The other three teams Lowe lumps in with the Thunder are the Heat, Spurs and Bulls. The Heat and Spurs are the obvious picks at the top with the Thunder and Bulls needing to prove they can be healthy to belong.

Lowe comes up with five more teams that are contenders, but are ones that need to “prove” they are first. They are the Pacers, Rockets, Clippers, Nets and Grizzlies.

When it comes down to the Thunder being contenders, it’s all about Westbrook getting healthy, and there’s really no reason to believe he won’t be when the games begin to matter.

An underrated aspect of the Thunder is their improved defense over the last few seasons, culminating with them being a top 10 defense last season, and third in points per possession against, as Lowe points out.

The Thunder are going to win championships one day with championship-level defense. Say what you want about their offense, but with a healthy Durant and Westbrook, they’ll probably be good enough on that end at the end of the day.

The defense was lacking for some time but if they can take another big step in improving there, they should be more championship ready than ever this season.

That is one area where missing Kevin Martin definitely does not hurt the Thunder, as he was impossible to hide on that end.

We just need to get through those first 20 games or so without Westbrook. If the Thunder come out of those around the 4-5 seed in the West, then they will be in perfect shape to contend this season.

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