Tank Watch: Injuries plague OKC Thunder

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.

It has been a rough week for the Oklahoma City Thunder in terms of injuries. At worst, the Thunder’s rotation shrank down to a measly eight and nine players for the back-to-back Timberwolves games. Despite the injury woes, OKC split the two-game Timberwolves series 1-1. The Thunder are now 2-2 since the previous Tank Watch, sliding down to 13th in the Western Conference, sharing the same record as the Pelicans. Even in a crazy, pandemic-stricken season, some NBA trends have not changed and the disparity between the Eastern and Western conference records is already starting to show. The Thunder’s record of 10-12 would have OKC sitting at 9th in the East instead of 13th. We will see if this trend changes throughout the year, but I suspect we will have another year of sub .500 playoff teams in the East.

OKC’s depth is still taking big hits, with George Hill and Theo Maledon out and Isaiah Roby and Mike Muscala are day-to-day due to foot soreness and concussion protocol respectively. Apart from George Hill, who has had minor surgery on his thumb, expect to see all three of these guys back very soon. Maledon is in health and safety protocol so perhaps by this time next week, he should return. Mark Daigneault has had his hands full organizing line-ups with a decimated roster, but the first-year head coach has shown he has the stones to be in the NBA, even when playing with a hand-tied behind his back. The Thunder were one missed Hamidou Diallo lay-up away from walking away 3-0 from this past week’s contests. With an intense schedule ahead for the week of Lakers twice, Denver and Milwaukee, Daigneault’s ability to get value from every spot on the roster will be tested further.

Washington Wizards (5-15) cannot buy a win at this point unless Westbrook sees Kevin Durant on their upcoming schedule. I am not one to advocate for anyone to lose their job, especially in today’s climate. However, I would make the exception for Scott Brooks who has put on multiple disaster-classes in coaching this season. The lack of consistency in line-ups has been particularly baffling. Aside from Westbrook missing back-to-backs and Bradley Beal putting up 30 points a night, the Wiz fans cannot know what to expect from one night to the next. Deni Avdija playing 33 minutes in their narrow win against the Heat one night, then playing 16 minutes the following night when the heat blows them out must be confusing for the young developing players. The best piece of news for the Wizards has been reported that Beal wants to stay, quelling some trade rumors, I guess that is something.

Minnesota Timberwolves (6-17) may as well run the season into the ground, if they grab a top 3 pick again, they won’t have to hand it over to Golden State and can get some urgent help for next year. That would be good news for Thunder also, who would get Minnesota’s high second pick in this process.  Timberwolves were able to take advantage of the severely handicapped Thunder to scrape another win on Friday. But let’s be frank, this team is not very good as constructed. I wonder if KAT will be thinking in a year’s time whether teaming up with his buddy D’Angelo Russell was worth it.

We don’t like to be cruel at Bricktown Buckets, but the worse Miami Heat (9-14) do, the happier the Thunder are, as OKC own their first-round pick for the offseason, unprotected. But Jimmy Butler is back, and he is dragging these guys back into playoff contention come hell or high water. Since his return from COVID-19, he has been stuffing the stat sheet (over 5 games, averaging 21 pts, 8.4 rebs, 8 asts, 1.8 stls) and leads them to three wins. Expect this trend to continue as Butler continues finding his feet.

In a strange turn of events, the Detroit Pistons (5-18) look like one of the only teams on Earth that give the Lakers problems. After beating the champions last week, the Pistons pushed the Lakers into a double-overtime game Sunday, needing both AD and Lebron putting up 30 and 33 points respectively to finish Detroit. Now, with Derrick Rose being traded to New York for Dennis Smith Jr, we will be watching intently to see if Smith Jr can revive his career. More on that next week.

Orlando Magic (9-15) are trying their hardest to stay alive, splitting their mini two games series with Chicago this weekend. Even with Vucevic’s ability to outplay opposing bigs as their primary offensive weapon, the Magic are in dire straits. They are 3-13 since Fultz’s season-ending injury in early January and while Cole Anthony has been developing nicely in the meantime, that won’t be translating to many wins in the near future. We will be watching to see how this downward trend affects the Magic’s front office decisions moving forward.

Toronto Raptors (9-12) are figuring it out, little by little, W by W. Fred Vanvleet decided to break some records, scoring 54 points against the sad aforementioned Orlando Magic last week. Vanvleet embodies everything the Raptors are known for and their culture as an organization. The hard-working underdogs, full of late draft picks and undrafted workhorses, the season is slowly embodying the spirit of the Raptors also. With a rough start across the board, you may have heard reports that Nick Nurse was chewing guys out in locker rooms left-right, and center, especially center. But the Raptors are on the rebound, Siakam is bouncing back after a slow start, Vanvleet is emerging as the organization’s franchise guard; the second coming of Killer Kyle Lowry some may say, and Chris Boucher’s breakout season is leading to early Most Improved Player considerations. Their season will continue to be everything but boring from here on, and I suspect they won’t be on these Tank Watch articles for much longer.

Quick Hitters: Dallas Mavericks (10-14), Cleveland Cavaliers (10-14), Chicago Bulls (9-14)

OK…The Mavericks are looking rough. Any team that lets Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 40 points should be having urgent meetings. The Knicks will be getting Dallas’ pick this year, so before the Knicks look like masterminds for moving off Porzingis, let’s hope they turn this season around.
The injury bug has been hitting the Cavaliers and no, I don’t mean COVID and yes, I am aware it’s a poor turn of phrase for this current season. Larry Nance Jr. who has been a key piece of the Cavs’ defense is now out with a fractured finger and is to undergo surgery this week. With Nance Jr out, expect the Cavs to continue their descent to the bottom of the standings after a hot start to the season.
The Bulls are in a similar position. First Wendell Carter Jr. who was having a good year has a severe quadriceps contusion, now Lauri Markennen has a sprained right shoulder. With the Bulls’ frontcourt yet again struggling with injuries, they will be relying on All-Star Zach Lavine to carry an even larger offensive load after a promising start to the season.

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