Thunder face uphill battle this season

Since moving to Oklahoma City for the 2008 season, there has never been a step back.

It’s going to be tough to keep that streak going.

The Thunder are coming off another impressive run, finishing up with a loss in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat.

Now, the question is, will Oklahoma City be able to maintain? In a league where the Los Angeles Lakers have made roster improvements and the Heat have as well, the Thunder will have to do a lot to get back to where they were.

The good news is they bring back Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The bad news is they traded James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year, after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension.

That move threatens to halt the steady improvement for the Thunder, who made the playoffs in 2010, reached the Western Conference finals in 2011 and then got all the way to the Finals in 2012. Durant and Westbrook have also improved each season.

Managing expectations is the next step, because people will be expecting greatness. If the Thunder get off to a bad start, if Durant or Westbrook struggle, the questions will come.

Remember, a season ago LeBron James dealt with high pressure and expectations after losing in the NBA Finals. He ended up leading his team to a title. Now, we’ll see if Durant and the Thunder handle it well.

Last season: 47-19, lost to Miami in NBA Finals

Coach: Scott Brooks (Fifth year, 174-125)

Top returness: F Kevin Durant, G Russell Westbrook, F Serge Ibaka, C Kendrick Perkins

Key additions: G Kevin Martin, G Jeremy Lamb, C Hasheem Thabeet, G-F Perry Jones

X-Factor: G Eric Maynor. Remember, Maynor missed almost the entire season a year ago, playing just nine games after injuring his knee. Maynor was impressive the year before as Westbrook’s backup. He played in all 82 games and averaged more than 14 minutes played as well as 4.2 points and 2.9 assists.

A season ago, the Thunder filled Maynor’s spot with a mix of players, including trading for Derek Fisher. Reggie Jackson also saw minutes. Maynor provides more than just minutes, though. A distributor first, Maynor is a completely different kind of player than Westbrook. If Maynor can return to the form of two seasons ago, it will be like adding another player to the roster – one with experience and one familiar with the team.

Strengths: These guys know each other. Simple as that. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Nick Collison and even Maynor. Their familiarity certainly has to be an advantage. Oklahoma City has improved each of the past three seasons, thanks in large part to the fact there’s been little change with the roster.

In addition, a strength would be their record. This team is used to winning, knows how to win and now is just one step from an NBA title after beating Dallas, Los Angeles and San Antonio on the way to the Finals last year.

Weaknesses: The Thunder led in the league in turnovers last season, averaging 16.3 per game, and will be without Harden, arguably their top playmaker. While they fixed the problem in the postseason, limiting turnovers to just more than 11, the Thunder will have to value the ball better this year.

It’s all about managing expectations and playing with pressure this season for the Thunder. While the Heat and the Lakers are the teams everyone’s talking about this season, it’s not like the Thunder is going to be off the radar. This is one of the most talented teams in the league, even without Harden.

There will be questions all year about whether this team will finally take a step back behind the Lakers and the Heat. How they handle those questions will have a big impact on how far this team goes.

Prediction: 63-19

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @TheAndrewGilman