Don't count out the Thunder

James Harden and his young teammates will learn and improve from their Finals losses. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Last year, they were the darlings of the Western Conference, nearly everyone's pick to reach -- and according to many pundits -- win, the NBA Finals. I say nearly everyone because I was one of the few who did not pick the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the West.

Instead, I went with the Los Angeles Clippers. Go ahead, laugh. Of course, I also have an excuse for why the Clippers didn't live up to my hype -- Chauncey Billups' Achilles injury. Do I believe a healthy Billups would have helped the Clippers reach the Finals? No comment. But it's a built-in, ready-made excuse, so I'll take it.

But I digress.

Back to the Thunder. Despite logic telling us this young, talented team will only improve, they have seemingly been knocked down a notch. ESPN.com's own Summer Forecast and its panel of experts think doesn't think they'll win the West. With the Los Angeles Lakers snagging Dwight Howard away from the Orlando Magic, most onlookers appear to be penciling in that much-awaited, long-predicted, forever longed-for Finals matchup between LeBron James' Miami Heat and Kobe Bryant's Lakers.

But not so fast. Don't count out the Thunder just yet. There are several reasons to hold off on anointing the Lakers kings of the West this early. Chief among them being the Lakers themselves.