Tank Watch: Can Oklahoma City out-tank the tank masters?
Tank watch will be a series, measuring the Oklahoma City Thunder up against the worse teams (record-wise at the time) to evaluate how the journey for a top pick is going.
Starting better than what many expected, the Thunder are currently sitting in 11th in the Western Conference with a record of 6-7. With last night’s loss to the Nuggets, Denver and Dallas have both leapfrogged OKC into the play-in spots. The Thunder are on the cusp of the playoff race still, but before any hopeful Thunder fans pencil them in for another surprise playoff run as they had last year, we should take a peek under the hood of the Thunder’s season so far to see how it’s looking.
From a trouncing from the reigning champions last Wednesday to the big overtime win against the Chicago Bulls, the season has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs so far. That was just the last two games. The stats for Oklahoma City on the season would be ringing alarm bells for some teams (cough, Timberwolves) if the front office was hoping for a playoff berth. In this case, however, we can call it growing pains for the young Thunder cast. They have the 29th offensive rating in the league, with only the Cavaliers behind them. With an offensive rating that is the lowest in the league, even if the defense is middle of the pack, expect OKC to be dropping a lot more games soon as the better teams find their footing.
Now, for the tank watch. Before the season began there was truly only one team that made it abundantly clear they had no interest in making the playoffs, and that was Oklahoma City. Teams such as the Hornets, Hawks, Kings, and Timberwolves were all looking to take at least a small step, upgrading their rosters in various ways with up and coming talent (Bogdan Bogdanovic for the Hawks) or established stars (Gordon Hayward for the Charlotte Hornets). This has panned out for some better than others, with injuries and COVID-19 rife throughout the league, it is affecting some young teams who haven’t the depth nor experience to weather this season’s struggles.
Minnesota Timberwolves (3-9) cannot seem to catch a break, with their star center Karl Anthony-Towns only playing in 4 games, two of those in losses due to a dislocated wrist first, then testing positive with COVID-19. Timberwolves seem to be destined for another lottery pick without him. They are bottom five in the league for both offense and defense, D’Angelo Russell leading the pack seems to be falling flat in a similar fashion to the Golden State Warriors’ 2019 season that was lead by Russell also. With the shortened season, Timberwolves need to see drastic improvements from their young pieces, the likes of 2019/20 number one pick Anthony Edwards and 21-year-old Jarrett Culver, as well as the return of Karl Anthony-Towns soon if they have any hope of making the play-in games. The likelier outcome, however, is that they will have a top draft pick once again.
Sacramento Kings (5-9) are another team whose hopes for a successful season barely got off the ground. With the longest playoff drought of in the NBA of 13 years, it looks as though the Kings’ playoff absence will continue. The King’s issues seem to circle around Marvin Bagley III, on and off the court. The big man has seen a dip in performance so far this year and, if you hadn’t seen, Bagley’s own father took to Twitter to publicly demand his son be traded, and De’Aaron Fox’s father, Aaron Fox, responded in agreement. One could only assume this internal turmoil is why Sacramento ranks dead last in defensive rating, and why teams seem to have their best 3-pt shooting performances against them. Whatever the reasons are for the losses, they seem to be on course for another lottery pick, but I would suspect that they will be closer to the 8th seed than the 15th based on the sheer talent of Fox, Buddy Hield, and an emerging rookie Tyrese Haliburton.
Atlanta Hawks (6-7) are only on this Tank Watch out of habit more than performances and results. Currently sitting in the 8th spot, Atlanta has had their fair share of injuries, poor performances from Trae Young, and their own in-fighting. John Collins’ name is churning through the trade rumor mills after he and the front office could not agree on a contract extension. All of their flashy new signings have missed large portions of the year, and the Hawks have been running it back with mainly the same cast as last year’s team and have looked okay throughout. Weathering adversity and coming out ‘okay’ is enough to suggest a growth in Atlanta’s young players and that the playoff dream is very real. When players like Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari return, expect to see the Hawks remain steady in the playoff mix. Tank Watch and lottery picks will hopefully be a distant memory for Trae Young.
Chicago Bulls (6-8) are seeing a ton of up and downs in their own right, with Zach Lavine going scorched either, the Bulls are still below .500 with multiple games in which Billy Donovan’s team blew big leads. However, with all the bad, the Bulls did sweep their season series against the Mavericks (with help due to the Mavs missing key players in each match up, including missing Luka in their first tilt). The Bulls are on a two-game winning streak since the blown 22-point lead in OKC. Still, expect the Bulls to find themselves around the 9th pick heading into Lottery Night.
Charlotte Hornets (6-8) are starting to skid a bit the team is on a three-game losing streak despite LaMelo Ball’s impressive debut. All three losses, however, have come at the hands of playoff-caliber teams (The Mavericks, and the Raptors twice). The next time the Hornets take the floor, they will take on the Chicago Bulls in Buzz City. A feather in the cap of the Hornets is the fact that they do not have a bad loss this season, against a team they should beat. The Hornets’ “worst loss” is against the Oklahoma City Thunder who we all know is off to a hot start.
Orlando Magic (6-8) The Magic are a team to keep your eye on as they have been just obliterated with injuries and could sneak into that tanking range as the season progresses. The Magic are on a six game slide.
Houston Rockets (4-8) After the team traded away James Harden and allowed the Harden Days Night saga to finally end, the dust settled on them grabbing Thunder legend Victor Oladipo who put up 32 points in as many minutes in his H-Town debut. John Wall has been held out of the last few games due to his knee.
Washington Wizards (3-8) have not played in what feels like years (since the 11th of January) and were off to a disastrous start and lost starting big man Thomas Bryant. When the team returns, as long as they have Russell Westbrook, I would imagine the Wiz kids get it on track and fight for that play-in spot in the East. This is a bad start for sure, but why can’t Russ and Beal eventually figure this out and be a Russ/PG like pairing?
Detroit Pistons (3-10) despite Thunder legend Jerami Grant balling out, the Pistons are the worst team in basketball. They will have the top odds heading into Lottery Night and finish with the worst record in the NBA. Once high-flyer Blake Griffin, has not even slammed home a dunk yet. Things are rough in the motor city.
Those are all the bad teams as of now in the NBA, however, there is another group, the “Let’s totally not worry” group.
Let’s totally not worry Club: The Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, and the New Orleans Pelicans. The Thunder are currently better (according to Tankathon). All of these teams are playoff-caliber teams, and all but one (New Orleans) have aspirations of reaching the top five in their respective conferences by year’s end. Just as the Thunder, record-wise, is overperforming, these teams are underperforming.
Join back next Tuesday, and every Tuesday following for more Tank watch updates!