Tank Watch: OKC Grab a win

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.

Written on 02/15/2021

Featured Teams: HOU, CLE, DET, ORL, CHI, MIN, WAS

The Oklahoma City Thunder (11-15) have had a busy week, in almost picture-perfect fashion for any fan of the organization who is pro-tanking this season. It has been close, entertaining basketball on a nightly basis with the Thunder against some of the NBA’s best competition that ultimately results in a loss, helping the Tank Watch and draft-pick consideration. Since last week’s Tank Watch, OKC are 1-3 in results: Two overtime losses to the Lakers and a very close loss to the Denver Nuggets 97-95, followed by a Valentines Day win over reigning MVP / DPOY Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks 114-109. With its backs against the wall, OKC has shown their strength as an organization. Injuries to SGA, Maledon, and Hill have left the point guard spot vacant, and the G-League affiliate OKC Blue has taken Aleksej Pokusevski to the G-League bubble who averaged 17.4 minutes so far this season. The Thunder have been looking particularly thin recently for these reasons. You would forgive the Thunder for the occasional blowout here or there in the past fortnight, but head coach Mark Daigneault has been able to keep the games competitive at least.

This has been helped by the resurgence of veteran big man Al Horford. He and his wife welcomed their baby girl Nova in mid-January, and since the birth, Horford is averaging 18.6 pts, 6.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.0 block as well as shooting a whopping 47% from three. The production from Horford has kept OKC afloat in many of the tight contests as the sole veteran on the floor. It is unclear at the moment whether Horford will be on the roster past the March 25th trade deadline, but he has certainly been a welcome presence for the Thunder this season. Speculating on the trade packages out there for Horford is also a cloudy prospect. One of the main reasons Horford became a member of the Thunder was that his value at the Sixers and around the league had plummeted in the 2019-20 season playing alongside Joel Embiid, and he could rehabilitate his value at OKC and find his feet once more. This season has shown he still has much to contribute to a playoff team, but with his current contract averaging $27.5 million a year for another two seasons after 2020-21, it is a tough sell for any competing team at such a high price tag.

Houston Rockets (11-15) have had a poor run of form, losing five in a row since Christian Wood was sidelined with a right ankle sprain. This was the second time he sprained this ankle in the space of three weeks, which could be a concern for the Rockets and their playoff hopes. According to Shams Charania, he is on a weekly evaluation basis, but the Rockets look to be falling apart at the seams without Wood, who has been a big player for Houston offensively and defensively. What is particularly concerning about the losses has been their blowout fashion, and to whom. Losing by over 20 points to the Hornets, Pelicans AND the New York Knicks in the space of one week should be troubling for coach Silas. Being without your best player or two can be an excuse for the Rockets as Oladipo suffered an injury also, but these are some of the teams that you would expect to pull wins away from, nonetheless. We will be watching to see if this run of form will continue or not.

It feels like yesterday we were all excited for the Collin Sexton and Darius Garland duo, and the prospect of having the Cleveland Cavaliers (10-18) in the playoffs once again. See, they can do it without Lebron, right? But wins have been hard to come by for the Cavaliers this month, winning one out of their nine games so far in February. With Larry Nance Jr. injured out for six weeks now also, the Cavaliers look to be doing the sensible thing and are now looking at the future rather than the present. Who will trade for Andre Drummond? Raptors, Nets, or the Field? Leave your ideas in the comments below if you wish!

The Detroit Pistons (8-19) on the other hand have been changing their fortunes recently. With Derrick Rose back in the Big Apple in last week’s trade for Dennis Smith Jr., the Pistons have been playing well. Winning three out of their past four games including victories against the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, the Pistons have been looking like a real basketball team. Mason Plumlee even recorded a triple-double on Valentine’s Day against the Pelicans. Having one less ball-dominant guard on the roster will help the development for future All-Star Jerami Grant (I’m calling it now, I am a Grant believer). If they can stay looking decent from here on, maybe people will stop overreacting every time someone loses to them too.

Orlando Magic (10-18) continues their disappointing descent to the bottom of the standings this week. They are 0-4 in games this week, and with last-guard-standing rookie Cole Anthony out with a right shoulder strain, all hope should be lost for this season now, as their development plan for the future is put on hold. That is now Jonathon Isaac, Markelle Fultz, and Cole Anthony, an interesting trio of young talent, all out for extended time. It has certainly been a season to forget for Orlando, and with another year down the drain for this core, Orlando must start looking to the future now. Will the front office keep Vucevic and Gordon on this sinking ship or move on to the next phase of Magic’s history with a reloaded asset base?

Chicago Bulls (10-15) split this week 1-2, with an understandable win against the Pelicans, an understandable loss against the Clippers, and a loss against the Wizards. The Chicago Bulls are in the sweepstakes for the services of Lonzo Ball, which could give another steady hand into the backcourt alongside Lavine and Coby White. Having a willing passer but shaky shooter like Lonzo Ball on the roster answers some questions but raises other ones. Since Billy Donovan became the head coach for the Bulls, they have been middle of the road offensively, largely carried by the career year of Zach Lavine. They have been one of the better passing teams this year, and have been average from beyond the arc, against the rest of the league. Lonzo Balls’ strengths as a passer and weaknesses as a scorer do not necessarily align with what the Bulls are missing. The real problem this year has been on the defensive end, so Lonzo’s reputation of being average-to-good defensively should help. Another perimeter defender theoretically helps the Bulls, but Chicago has actually been effective at defending the three-point line, and average at forcing turnovers. The core of the issue is the interior defense, with Wendell Carter Jr. consistently missing time and an undersized Thad Young having to fill in the gaps, the Bulls regularly are sliced apart inside. A Ball Brother does not help that. As a Coby White believer, it could harm White’s amount of touches, sharing the rock with another ball-dominant guard like Lonzo. If the Bulls see Lavine as a build-around piece for the future, it raises questions about the legitimate fit of him alongside Lonzo Ball.

Minnesota Timberwolves (7-20) are in that position of ‘when one door opens, another closes’, as their All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns has returned from COVID, but D’Angelo Russell is now sidelined. If the pair did not look so different, you would be forgiven for thinking there is a Superman – Clark Kent situation with Towns and Russell: They never seem to be on the same court together at the same time. Moving forward, the Wolves will want to see their all-star duo play and gel together to see what this franchise really has. Outside of the perpetual losses, Anthony Edwards continues to develop as a player in his rookie year and is the bright spot on an otherwise gloomy year. His NBA IQ is slowly catching up with his athleticism and natural talent. With Towns and Edwards on the court together, a Minnesota core is slowly taking shape.

It has been a good week by Washington Wizards (7-17) standards. Splitting the contests 2-2 in the past week, it is hard to tell whether the Wizards are figuring things out for themselves or continuing their inconsistent form. It is difficult to see the Wizards do anything this year except land a top draft pick. They did have a rather definitive win over the Celtics on Valentines’ Day and having one of the league’s best scorers in Bradley Beal should, should mean Wizards always have a puncher’s chance at winning an NBA game on any given night. This has not panned out so far due to how abysmal the defense is across the board. Those two wins this week should help Brooks keep his job a while longer at least.

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