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Looking at the Thunder, Clippers and Pacers as they attempt to dethrone the recent champs

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The Thunder, Clippers and Pacers saw their seasons end too early, in their estimations. (Getty Images)

Las Vegas oddsmakers have already given the Miami Heat the top odds for taking the 2014-15 NBA title. The recently crowned champion San Antonio Spurs just won what was technically the most decisive NBA Finals in league history, and they seem as a good of a pick as any to make it to their third straight Finals some 11 and a half months from now.

Both teams have fissures in waiting, however, what with each of Miami’s superstar set of players set to possibly become a free agent in July, and the onset of age that we’ve rightfully been quick to make fans aware of possibly limiting San Antonio’s scope.

Behind these two conference winners sit the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers, and, to a lesser but quizzical extent, the Indiana Pacers. Should the Heat and Spurs flop or fall apart for any reason in 2014-15, and with the draft and free-agent period about to hit, which of these three would seem to have the best chance at making their own title run? Their first title run?

We’re obviously not counting Oklahoma City’s history in Seattle in this approach, but this squad would seem to have the best chance of the three. Kevin Durant rightfully earned his first Most Valuable Player award in 2013-14, and when Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were healthy, the team looked about as fearsome as any collection in the NBA.

The Spurs’ ball movement and expert timing eventually got to OKC, the Thunder’s defense had no chance against San Antonio’s precision, and it couldn’t score reliably enough against San Antonio to win in a shootout. Coach Scott Brooks finally rearranged his starting lineups, shedding defensive-minded big guard Thabo Sefolosha (who only played five seconds of Oklahoma City’s final, overtime, game of the season) along the way, but it wasn’t enough to stay in front of the Spurs.

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Thabo Sefolosha might not be back with the Thunder next season. (AP Photo)

Thabo Sefolosha might not be back with the Thunder next season. (AP Photo)

Thabo is a free agent, and while he has the respect of teammates and has been an active starter for years, he might not be back. This and the departure of Derek Fisher to take the Knicks’ head coaching gig will have the Thunder looking to help round out the guard position, but with three players on the roster making superstar money and with the team’s ownership wary of the luxury tax, things could get tricky.

Even with Sefolosha and Fisher’s contracts shed, the Thunder are still over the cap this summer, at around $68 million. The tax is expected by some to approach $77 million in 2014-15, which gives the Thunder some breathing room should the team (as expected) continue to avoid paying the tax. The team’s over-the-cap status allows it some help with exceptions, and the team’s front office also holds a $6.6 million trade exception from last year’s Kevin Martin deal.

This is where the Thunder could become players. Because so many teams are looking to shed salary in hopes of landing other, bigger free agents, Oklahoma City could acquire a rotation player for just the cost of a second-round pick and the exception, sending nothing in value out along the way. Players like Chicago’s Mike Dunleavy, Washington’s Martell Webster, or Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jarrett Jack aren’t exactly ideal, but they could help round out that perimeter rotation.

Then, there is always the matter of Oklahoma City’s long-rumored courtship of inconsistent New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert. New Knicks boss Phil Jackson is dying for at least one single draft pick to play with in his first draft as a personnel chief, and the trade exception plus OKC’s 29th overall first round pick might be beneficial to both sides.

Using the amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins’ contract isn’t going to happen – ownership remains averse to paying a player that won’t play for the team – and there’s no point in doing it during Perkins’ final season, as ridding themselves of his $9.4 million contract won’t leave them with scads of cap room (whether his presence forced Oklahoma City into trading James Harden in a salary dump is up for endless debate). As such, Perkins is allowed to brusquely answer the question as to why, in his estimation, Kevin Durant seemed gassed against San Antonio despite putting up MVP-level stats. From Darnell Mayberry at the Oklahoman:

“I feel like he could get stronger, in my opinion,” Perkins said. “I think that would help him a lot. I told him all the good and great players that played the game, from Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, they all put size on them, and it helped them.”

The issue here is that Kevin Durant has already gotten stronger. A lot stronger. He’s never going to approximate LeBron James’ bulk, because LeBron James came into the NBA with a body that was amenable to turning into that of a power forward’s. Durant’s is more akin to Jordan and Bryant’s frame, but they were easily able to post up more because their 6-6 height allowed them to do so.

Durant doesn’t have that yet. It’s hard criticizing a guy who was routinely dropping 30 against playoff defenses, but his footwork in the low or mid post has to improve. Not just when he’s in the post and with the ball, but when he’s coming off a screen that allows him to step into position, when everyone knows where the ball is going. He’s not there yet, but he’s close.

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Kevin Durant can become an even better player. (Getty Images)

Kevin Durant can become an even better player. (Getty Images)

And when the reigning NBA MVP gets “there?” Yikes.

That sort of internal development is what the Thunder will be relying on in 2014-15. Jeremy Lamb still looks skittish and unsure, but another summer brings another chance at renewed confidence. Nick Collison appeared to slow down a bit last year, but he should be able to approximate his standout defensive work. Stephen Adams looks like a longtime starter at center, and while that’s cold comfort to fans who know he was basically dealt to Oklahoma City for James Harden, future starting centers don’t often come a team’s way with the 12th pick in the draft.

They needn’t wait out the Spurs and Heat. If the trade market swings the right way for Oklahoma City, and everyone stays healthy, the team could pull off its first championship with the help of age or free agency bye-byes.

The Clippers, as we know, are far from healthy. The fallout from the Donald Sterling “revelations” clearly took its toll on the team’s coaching staff and players last spring, and I’m having a hard time recalling a team that seemed more mentally fatigued than these Clippers. That’s not to make excuses for the team’s second round loss to the Thunder – Oklahoma City is that good – but the Sterling saga did play a part. That’s not to be dramatic, it’s just undeniable.

That saga may not sussed out by the time camps open in October, but in the interim a restructured Clippers front office is moving ahead, understanding that they have to pounce now while Chris Paul plays in his prime. Attempting to connive ways to figure out how to acquire LeBron James is always the pipe dream, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilty should a desperate team want to take DeAndre Jordan’s $11.4 million (and expiring) contract for next season, especially when you factor in the idea that the Clippers could make some hay with Darren Collison, Glen Davis, and Danny Granger’s very tradeable player option contracts.

Davis and (especially) Collison may very well opt out of those deals, which would be more than understandable, and the Clippers will run the risk of jumping over the luxury tax while they attempt to re-sign them and round out the roster with other additions. Paying the luxury tax, with its long-term, anti-basketball repercussions, is butal (the longer you stay in the tax, the fewer options you’re given each summer in terms of signing exceptions, to say nothing of the increased punitive fees), but that’s sort of what you do with a potential championship contender.

And it’s also what you do with a team that someone like Steve Ballmer values at being worth $2 billion of his money.

Though he may decline next season at age 34, the Clippers will no doubt pick up Jamal Crawford's partially guaranteed contract, as he’s a bargain at $5.4 million. Ryan Hollins is a free agent and may finally get the boot, and while Hedo Turkoglu somewhat surprisingly bounced back last year, he’ll be a training camp invitee at best this offseason. The Clippers know they have to secure Collison, badly needed insurance for Chris Paul and J.J. Redick’s various maladies, after he seemingly found a home playing off the ball while Blake Griffin at times ran the offense.

Griffin’s top-three ranking in the MVP voting was no joke. He absolutely carried a Clippers team that at times looked like the top club in the NBA, and his all-around game took a startling jump in 2013-14. His playmaking ability and newfound ability to not get caught in the miasma of “what move should I go with this time?” offensively will hopefully keep improving in 2014-15, frightening news for a league that saw the Clippers somewhat betrayed by what seemed like sound offseason moves at the time.

Jared Dudley could possibly be jettisoned to a desperate team that didn’t get a chance to see him last season, but it’s more than likely the two years and $8.5 million he has left on his deal will stick. Jared doesn’t turn 29 until July’s second week, he’s a heady player with obvious gifts, and it’s possible that the game that left him in 2013-14 was a bit of a fluke. That’s the hope, at least, because a typical Jared Dudley season could really put these Clippers over the top.

The LeBron conundrum? I suppose it has legs and is not the most unrealistic option this summer for either side, and one never wants to go down in history as the GM that passed on shooting for the best player in the world in order to hang onto a center, Jordan, who shot 42.8 percent from the free-throw line last year, but one really has to look at these Clippers as a potential finished product in waiting. A full, healthy year from J.J. Redick. A bounce-back from Dudley. An eager and confident Collison. An improving Jordan and frighteningly good Blake Griffin. And Jamal Crawford just scored 12 points in two minutes. Chris, freaking, Paul.

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Blake Griffin took his game to another level this past season. (AP Photo)

Blake Griffin took his game to another level this past season. (AP Photo)

It’s the grind that will get in their way. It's about Paul’s legs, to a lesser extent, and exactly how much the Sterling impact can be watered down by the time autumn comes around (not that Los Angeles will note the change in seasons; not with September acting as the hottest month), and whether it can pull at these Clippers as they work from October until, hopefully, June.

It was that grind that did in the Indiana Pacers, the team’s blitzkrieg attack was a welcome sight as it took advantage of an NBA still rubbing the sleep (read: Cancun) out of its eyes during the fall and winter months, roaring out to that league-best record and inspiring all manner of “this is the year they move beyond” storylines from an NBA media that rightfully tends to think that teams have to take in a few playoff licks before overcoming the previous victor.

Indiana split its final 26 games, hardly the mark of a championship contender. It needed seven games to down a sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks squad that may not have even wanted to make the playoffs, it needed six ugly games to top Washington, and it frittered away its home-court advantage over Miami in the second game of the Eastern Conference finals.

Worst? It expected to lose its last game of the season. The team came to Miami after putting together a fantastic Game 5 performance against the Heat, and it completely let the Heat take the action to them. Merely calling it a “25-point loss” doesn’t do the embarrassment justice.

Nobody – not LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or Pat Riley – knows what the Heat will look like in October, but Las Vegas has seen and heard enough to still expect some sort of incarnation to act as the champs. As we discussed earlier this month, the Pacers probably won’t receive any sort of massive overhaul over the summer, and if coach Frank Vogel escaped the next few days following his team’s dismissal, then his future is secure.

The Pacers have two options, then. It can continue to flounder and disappoint while working as potential frontrunners, or it can figure out how to sustain itself in the face of expectation.

Pairing wins and losses in the regular season and once again acting as a plucky upstart when the playoffs roll around is out of the question. Indiana is too good for that, and heads should truly roll if the team drops down significantly in the Eastern pack. The Pacers can’t rely on the same sort of “we’re better from behind” ethos that the Miami Heat often work with. Miami needed a 3-2 deficit on the road against Boston in 2012 to turn their fortunes around, with LeBron James in their back pocket.

Other teams need personnel help. The Pacers need professional help.

That’s not some snarky remark about therapy. Indiana’s core isn’t surprising anyone anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the talent to take down a Heat squad, or a Spurs squad, or a Thunder or Clippers squad. The team can’t freak out once that realization hits, and it needs to professionally play up to Pacer potential. That’s not a shot at Lance Stephenson blowing in anyone’s ear or Roy Hibbert's and Paul George’s message-board-rumored, off-the-court issues.

It’s a shot at the team’s lack of ball movement, its lack of cohesion in the middle of a three-act offensive play, and a shot at the squad’s inability to talk its way back to dominating defensive playoff performances. This league really does come down to making plays. Professional, consistent, plays.

Look at the Spurs. Look at what felled the Heat. Look at what made the Heat so dangerous in 2013 and 2012, and what has made San Antonio so killer since the fin de siècle.

San Antonio and Miami, for various reasons, are vulnerable. Let’s see who wins the summer, before any champs-in-waiting attack the soft spots.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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