Sizing up the competition: OKC Thunder

Fourth in a series looking at the five teams ahead of the Dallas Mavericks in our early 2012-13 Western Conference rankings and how the revamped Mavs match up.

No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder

Somehow, some way, the Thunder have to be moved out of the Northwest Division and into the Southwest. The proximity is just too enticing and so is the growing rivalry, even if OKC now holds the decisive advantage. At least the Thunder and Mavs will meet four times again this season, just as they would as division rivals, as opposed to three meetings. It pained me to rank the Thunder, with their youthful Big Three -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden -- and newly extended fourth core member -- Serge Ibaka -- a rung behind the new-look Lakers. The West champs, who could easily win 65 games this season, probably don't deserve such a fate. But concerns remain about the limited places this team can go to score points. Yes, OKC ranked third in the league in scoring during the regular season (103.1), but it dropped nearly two points throughout the playoffs and five points in the Finals against the Heat's rugged defense. The Thunder remain ridiculously talented but also a perimeter-oriented team with questionable depth.

Last season's results (Thunder won, 3-1)

@Thunder 104, Mavs 102

@Mavs 100, Thunder 87

Thunder 95, @Mavs 86

@Thunder 95, Mavs 91

Thunder swept Mavs in first round

This season's games

Dec. 27: @ Thunder

Jan. 18: vs. Thunder

Feb. 4: @ Thunder

March 17: vs. Thunder

What's changed?

The Thunder will largely be the same club we saw roll through the Western Conference before being stopped cold by LeBron James and the Heat. The return of guard Eric Maynor -- he played just the first nine games last season due to injury -- will definitely help the team's backcourt depth, but he has averaged less than five points in his previous 1 1/2 seasons with the Thunder. Rookie Perry Jones will be closely watched. The Duncanville and Baylor product dropped into the Thunder's lap at No. 28, giving OKC another big man behind Ibaka and the perpetually perturbed Kendrick Perkins. Hasheem Thabeet, a lottery bust at this point, was brought in as a depth player who's still young enough to possibly improve. Otherwise, the changes will come from within. What move will Kevin Durant bring back from the summer? Last season he copied Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway. How will Westbrook's game rise to another level? How will a contract year affect Harden? Having agreed to an extension, will Ibaka again challenge for defensive player of the year while continuing to upgrade his offensive arsenal?

How the Mavs match up

The Thunder exposed Dallas' weakest positions during the first-round sweep. No one came close to covering Westbrook and Harden, particularly in the Game 4 fourth-quarter clincher. They drove unabated and untouched to the rim time after time. The Mavs feel they're better equipped to deal with those threats this season with speedy Darren Collison at point guard and Chris Kaman and Elton Brand protecting the rim. But look, OKC is a matchup nightmare. Ever catch Durant standing next to 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki? Let's just say Durant is not 6-9 as he's officially listed, and he acts like a 2-guard. Shawn Marion will again get the call to guard Durant, and at 34, that job doesn't get any easier. The 6-3 Westbrook might have the quickest first step in the league. Collison's speed will be a welcome asset for the Mavs in the backcourt, but at 6-foot, Collison will be hard-pressed to keep the ridiculously bouncy Westbrook from freely launching his free-throw jumper right over him. The Mavs will have to take advantage with potentially their best-scoring frontcourt in Nowitzki's career. Chris Kaman and Elton Brand will give Perkins and Ibaka challenges they didn't face with previous Mavs teams.

Previous entries

No. 5: Denver Nuggets

No. 4 San Antonio Spurs

No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers