Oklahoma City is betting on itself.

When you're a small-market team in the NBA, in Oklahoma of all places, you can take two approaches. You can be savvy, careful, work around the edges and hope that everything will come together one year. You can do that if you don't have Russell Westbrook. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook.

So general manager Sam Presti, faced with having to find a path forward a year after losing the best player in franchise history, did not simply tweak the Thunder after a 47-win campaign. He snuck into the offseason under cover of darkness, and pulled off a heist for Paul George. Then while the NBA world was still breaking down that heist, he swiped Carmelo Anthony for good measure. And just when the summer seemed over, he locked up his MVP on a five-year extension.

So we come to the preface of this pivotal, tantalizing, fascinating Thunder season, like we're watching a high wire act. There's a net, at least, after Westbrook signed his extension. But with George and Carmelo Anthony both possible free agents at the end of this season, there's still much we don't know about OKC's future. Here's what the Thunder absolutely need this year for it to be a success.

STEP 1. ESTABLISH AN IDENTITY

The Thunder have to know who they are. Sharing the ball is awesome but not necessarily essential. For years, OKC has been built on elite defense, under the radar. That gets harder with its current roster, which has a young bench and two questionable defenders (Anthony and Westbrook) in the starting unit. But the offensive talent will take care of itself, at least to a degree. Maximizing it will be a trick, but maintaining the defensive toughness and consistency is more important.

The challenge is finding chemistry around those two weak defenders on a roster that has been heavily restructured over the past year. In Billy Donovan's first season, he had to try out a number of different defensive schemes, particularly in the pick and roll, before he found the combination that worked. The Thunder now don't have the structure or time available to experiment. They have to have a clear plan going in, and it needs to work. For all their firepower with their three stars, those three have never played together, and it will take time to figure out how and when to deploy each of their preferences of ball control.