Tank watch is a series, measuring Oklahoma City Thunder up against the worst teams to see who has the best chance of grabbing the top draft-picks.
Oklahoma City was able to snatch two big wins out of their road trip. The first against the Portland Trail Blazers shortly after Damian Lillard revealed his new colorway shoe commemorating a…first-round playoff win against the Thunder? A strange thing to celebrate with a signature shoe, some would say, which looks even worse when the very next time the teams meet Dame is unable to get the win. Moving swiftly along the western road trip, OKC got the W against former sensei Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns, finishing the road trip 2-3. The brilliant play from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort over the road trip shone throughout all 5 games plus the blowout courtesy of the Durant-less Brooklyn Nets. Over the past 6 games, SGA averaged 22.7 points, 5.7 Rebounds and 6.8 Assists whilst the defensive contributions from Dort swung the favor in the two wins.
Shai should be looking at fringe All-Star consideration this year, but being in the stacked Western Conference creates a difficult path for good players in smaller markets to get the All-Star nod unless they are lighting the league on fire. With similar numbers to the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant, all three may be in the same category of up and coming players being snubbed. Out of the three players mentioned, however, my vote would be going to Shai. This week will be as good as any to prove Shai’s All-Star caliber, with two double-headers against the Rockets and Timberwolves respectively, there should be plenty of opportunities to show that SGA deserves the votes.
The OKC Thunder sit at 8-10 picking tenth on TankAThon.
The New York Knicks (9-12) had been quietly avoiding the Tank Watch behind contract year Julius Randle. Revitalized by veteran leadership in new head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks have tightened up their defense enough to squeeze wins out here and there, they are still in the top 10 for a defensive rating in the league. They are only half a game behind the 8th spot, and two games in a row against the Chicago Bulls (who haven’t looked too bad either) could be what the Knicks need to bank some wins. Thibs has elevated the Knicks from NBA punching bag to borderline respectable, and for a franchise that has been in disarray for the majority of the century, this is a clear win. Potential playoff spot, maybe even an All-Star this year in Randle? The sky is the limit in the Big Apple if they can sustain this level of play in the Eastern Conference.
The Minnesota Timberwolves (5-14) remain unmoved at the bottom of the west. Winning one out of their last 4 contests, we may as well circle the Timberwolves for a top 3 pick again already. Speaking of top picks, Anthony Edwards looks more comfortable with each game played. Logging a ton of minutes and a ton of shots, the Timberwolves should be looking at his development favorably. In the past 4 games, Edwards has shot 52% from three-point range (13 of 25) despite the losses. The T’Wolves will hope Edwards’ can flesh out his game this year and beyond, otherwise the front office could be looking at Lamelo Ball (picked 3rd in this year’s draft, Edwards picked 1st) and be filled with regret at not picking the higher draft talent. Just ask the Sacramento Kings with Marvin Bagley instead of Luka Doncic.
Have no fear, Miami Heat (7-12) fans, the hardest working man alive is back. Looking noticeably thinner post-COVID, Jimmy Butler returned to the floor for the heat and dropped 30, squeezing past the Sacramento Kings 105-104. This win snapped a 5-game losing streak the Heat was on. As mentioned on last week’s Tank Watch, we would expect to see Miami turn things around as their players return from injuries and health and safety protocols. Despite the ill health of the Heat, they are only half a game away from the play-in spots, and 1.5 games away from the 8th spot. Last year’s NBA runners-up will not be in the draft lottery this year.
Detroit Pistons (5-15) on the other hand, will not be breaking into the playoffs this year, and that is a good thing. A first-round exit in the playoffs would do little to improve this team long-term over receiving a top draft prospect in this year’s draft. They did beat reigning NBA champs Los Angeles Lakers minus AD though, however, this says more about the Laker’s concentration on a cold Thursday in January than any basketball pedigree in Detroit at the moment. There is a more interesting storyline to follow for the Pistons instead of the wins and losses. Will Derrick Rose be bought-out or not? Will he be traded to a contender, could Detroit gain any value from a trade? I’m sure the Clippers could use a ball-handler like Rose in their depth chart.
Orlando Magic (8-13) has been trending downwards since Markelle Fultz’s season-ending ACL injury. Losing three in a row including a loss to the Sacramento Kings (!?!?), the Magic may have lost one too many pieces to contend this year for their usual 8th seed. Without Fultz, D.J. Augustin’s absence looms large and the team no longer looks steady enough to be anything other than a lottery team. After a number of seasons being ‘too bad to be good, too good to be bad’, the question grows louder: Is it time to blow the Magic up? Their perennial All-Star Nikola Vucevic could garner enough attention around the league to help jump-start a new era of Magic basketball, and Aaron Gordon could be a valuable piece for another team too on a declining contract. Whether John Hammond and the Orlando Magic front office will pull the trigger however is questionable. The front office is more likely to run it back next year once Fultz and Jonathon Isaac return to see what the team looks like at full force.
High turnover on and off the court is the name of the game for the New Orleans Pelicans (7-11) this year. Addressing the on-court play first, the Pels are turning the ball over far too often whilst shooting ineffectively that winning games will simply be far too difficult on a nightly basis as currently constructed. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, and Zion Williamson are all averaging at least 2 turnovers per game, and whilst they are 25th in the league in turnovers, the Pelicans are 27th in three-point percentage as well. Not a winning formula. Off the court, the team is actively and publicly shopping Lonzo Ball and the veteran marksman J.J. Reddick. This indicates that Lonzo probably is not in the Pelican’s long-term plans, as younger guards like Nickeil Alexander-Walker look to take on that role in the future; and for Reddick, a shooter of his caliber will be coveted by contenders. Expect to see Reddick elsewhere by the trade deadline at the very least. For the Pelicans moving forward, the expectation bar should be lowered as the rebuilding team looks to truly develop around Zion for the future. Similar to the Detroit Pistons, another top draft pick could help them in the long run more than a first-round exit this season.
The Chicago Bulls (7-11) have been on a three-game losing streak including a painful loss to the Trail Blazers Sunday night. Falling victim to a Dame Time buzzer-beater is always painful, but the Chicago Bulls have looked like a different team this year. With the developmental coaching of Billy Donovan, the Bulls have shown more promise this year than most expected. So much so, Zach Lavine could get an All-Star consideration this year. Continuing his ascension, Lavine is now averaging career-highs in practically every category imaginable, even shooting a career-high 41.6% on threes on 8.6 attempts. The two-time Dunk Contest winner has his sights set on something bigger now, and so do the Bulls. Could this be the year they make the playoffs?
Alexa, play What a Difference a Day Makes by Dinah Washington. The Washington Wizards (4-12) snatch a win from the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night behind heroics from Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, 149-146. Westbrook’s quad appears to be healing nicely after a long break for him and the team. He looked more like his former OKC self than the decrepit version limping through this season, and for the sake of the Wizards and Beal let’s hope this was not a one-off appearance. With such a poor start to the season, however, it is hard to envision a scenario where the Wizards now tear through the league and reach the playoffs. It is one hell of a mountain to overcome, but if they can build on Sunday’s win, who knows? The 10th seed is the new 8th seed, right?
Hunting for the 10th seed? Then look no further than the Sacramento Kings (8-11). They have won two out of their last three games, with their one defeat being the close game against the Miami Heat on Saturday. If the Kings can hold their own against the lower end of the NBA, they could sneak in more wins as the year progresses. Tyrese Haliburton and Richaun Holmes are providing valuable minutes to the team. Marvin Bagley III is figuring something out against these teams, offensively at least, and trying to figure out his game. He even hit three threes in the one-point loss to Miami. Luke Walton’s job lives on for now.
Dallas Mavericks and Toronto Raptors… Panic button yet?
It feels like every man and his dog can beat the Dallas Mavericks (8-12) at the moment. They have sunk to 13th in the Western Conference after losing five in a row to Playoff-bound Western competition (the Rockets will make the play-in game I assume). One could read into this and say that it does not bode well for the Mavericks playoff chances this year, but that is another in-depth article for another day. Luka Doncic seems to be struggling from deep, which could be a big reason the Mavs are struggling against tougher opponents. The statistically historic Mavericks of last year are no longer with us, but we won’t push the panic button on the Mavericks just yet. As long as Doncic can turn these 30-point nights of his back into wins, the Mavericks should be fine when the season is over.
The Toronto Raptors (8-12) are also finding their footing still. But we are still 20 games into a 72-game season. The Raptors will have to turn up the heat soon, very soon, if they want to salvage this season. They have received the rawest end of the deal in the new pandemic season of not being allowed to play in Canada and it looks like Tampa Bay is not as kind to the team as Toronto is. But the former NBA champions have enough veteran players and a head coach of the year in Nick Nurse that we will hold our breath a little bit longer for a Raptors resurgence.
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