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Ten questions for training camp

Ten questions for training camp
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Media day is the official beginning of training camp, which really is the beginning of the 2012-13 NBA season. That’s right, it’s pretty much here.

That’s the big benefit in playing deep into June: The offseason zips by in like three weeks. (Other than the whole shot at a championship thing.) Unlike last season though, there actually is a real training camp and a real slate of preseason games. Which means there’s a real chance to prepare and work and accomplish things.

So here are 10 big questions heading into camp:

Who wins the backup big battle?

By all accounts and appearances, it’s Cole Aldrich’s job to lose. But it’s not locked up. Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton will have their shot to make an impression, especially with Kendrick Perkins out for the preseason rehabbing his wrist injury. It will be telling who starts OKC’s first preseason game Oct. 10, and while it will likely be Aldrich, that doesn’t mean he’s having it handed to him.

Who’s the 15th man?

The Thunder have 19 guys coming to camp. You can only have 15 on your NBA roster. So according to my math, that means three guys gotta go. The players on the hot seat: Hollis Thompson, Orton, DeAndre Liggins, Andy Rautins and newly signed Walker Russell. In Thunder Camp Survivor, of the four, it seems that Thompson has the best chance of staying on the team, seeing as his contract is partially guaranteed. But it’s an open competition and if Orton can play to his potential, he might take it away and give OKC no choice but to keep him.

Will the Thunder revisit James Harden starting?

It was something Scott Brooks had on his agenda following the 2010-11 season. But with the lockout and a limited training camp and only two preseason games, there just wasn’t enough time to completely workshop the move. When Thabo Sefolosha went out for extended time during the season, Harden started twice in his place and didn’t perform well at all, motivating Brooks to put Harden back in his sixth man role. Most likely, that’s where he’ll remain. But now with a full camp and a full slate of preseason games, could the Thunder at least reexamine it?

Where is Russell Westbrook going next?

In 2010-11, Westbrook averaged 21.9 points and 8.2 assists per game. Last season, he averaged 23.6 points and 5.5 assists per game. Was 2011-12 an anomaly, or is that the direction Westbrook is headed? Will he return to an eight-assist-per-game player, or is he headed for more shots? Here’s the interesting thing though: His usage actually went down last season. In 2010-11, his usage rate was 30.8. Last season, 30.4. His shots per game went up 2.2 from 17.0 to 19.2, but with Durant and Harden handling the ball more, Westbrook’s need as a shot creator reduced. Which seems to me to be the direction Westbrook is headed.

The Thunder are evolving to a three-headed hybrid of point guards: Westbrook, Harden and Durant all interchanging. The more sharing Harden and Durant do, the fewer assists Westbrook will have. It’s probably more about the design of the offensive structure and less about Westbrook changing his game.

Will the Thunder make offensive changes?

Don’t forget: The Thunder were the second best offensive team in the league last season. And while there’s an assumption the Thunder lost the Finals because of offense, it was really because they couldn’t stop the Heat. Still, after hiring a super-smart new video coordinator in former blogger Sebastian Pruiti, will the Thunder employ some of Pruiti’s criticism of their offense and make changes?

Is Eric Maynor back?

Well, he’s “back.” At least in the sense that he’s on the court and playing with the team again. But is he back, in terms of being himself? Coming off a massive knee injury — the first big injury of his career — Maynor has to respond. He has to play without fear, has to trust his body, has to build that confidence that he’s good to go. Perk says Maynor is better than ever, even dunking. A lot of players come back stronger after significant injuries, but it’s unknown until proven.

How will Scott Brooks approach his rotation?

Two years ago, the Thunder were almost exclusively an eight-man rotation. Last season it became nine, and even 10. It seems that the Thunder bench is deep and with Daequan Cook, Aldrich, Harden, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison and Perry Jones all primed to play, that would mean Brooks would need to expand once more if he wants them all with regular time.

Will Harden be a distraction?

Thirty days until the clock strikes zero on an extension. Will it be something that upsets the locker room? Will it affect chemistry? Will it become an unspoken focus? It seems like it would be kind of hard for it not to, considering how close these guys are. It’s got to be hard for Durant not to look at Harden and think, “Come on man, just sign. I’ll get dinner from now on.” But these guys are professionals and they know how the game works. It’s not like Westbrook is going to be thinking, “Oh man, I hope James signs soon,” while airballing a jumper. Still, distractions are real and if Harden goes unsolved, the trade deadline could get stressful.

How does Perry Jones III fit in?

Similar to the rotation question, because really it’s simply about if Jones plays. If he doesn’t, it’s virtually the same rotation as last season. But if Jones fits in, whether it be as a smallball weapon, Durant’s backup or just a bench force in general, it means Brooks has to get creative with playing time. It will probably come down to this: How good is he and what can he contribute on a nightly basis? Jones has the talent to force his way on to the floor and if he can produce in 10-20 minutes a night, Brooks is going to find time for him.

Who’s improved, and how?

The biggest offseason move the Thunder make every year is just kicking back and putting their feet up and waiting for their studs to come back even better than they already were. What areas did KD get better at? Post work? Ball-handling? Passing? What did Westbrook do? Finishing? Post moves? 3-point shooting? What about Ibaka? Did he get on the block and develop some back-to-the-basket stuff?

Good news is, we’ll find out soon. The season is coming.