Tank Watch: OKC and Houston slide down the rankings

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.

Featured Teams: HOU, WAS, DET, CLE, SAC, MIN

The Oklahoma City Thunder (12-18) had all their games go ahead, despite the crazy weather conditions in the area. Since last week OKC has gone 1-3, dropping games to respectable teams in the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, and Milwaukee Bucks. That puts OKC at 3-7 in their last 10 games, which some may argue is perfect for a Tank Watch series. After beating Cleveland on Sunday night, they sit equal to Sacramento on record who has lost a whopping seven in a row. The big matches to watch for the Thunder will actually be the Rockets’ games against the Bulls and Cavaliers. As the Thunder own the pick-swaps, Presti will be relishing in Houston’s gradual descent, if these Eastern opponents can steal wins away from Houston, it could help cement that lottery pick.

It is no surprise, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did not make the All-Star Starters this year in the Western Conference, but he is on the shortlist for the bench. He has as solid a case as any player in the West to be an All-Star this year, as his production has been phenomenal. He is averaging 22.6 pts, 5.3 rebs, and 6.5 asts as well as shooting 40% from three as the lead ball-handler. He finished 8th on the Western guard ranks, and whilst the fans did not necessarily give him enough love (small market problems) he was ranked 5th in the media and 7th by the players. The basketball world is taking notice of Shai, slowly but surely. Shai himself when talking about his All-Star case per Rylan Stiles “it’s tough. There are so many good players in the league, in the western conference, that’s something I don’t even worry about. I just go in each day and try to get better, try to win games”. SGA obviously isn’t sweating the small stuff like an All-Star game in year 3 of his career, but for his name to be in the mix already, the future is very bright for the Toronto native.

Life is in flux for the Houston Rockets (11-17) but not in the way the team would like. The Rockets have been as cold as the Texas weather, and are on a 7-loss streak since Christian Wood went down with an ankle injury. Blowouts included in this run, they even lost to the Washington Wizards in the Russ-Wall grudge match. As mentioned above, this all spells great news for Oklahoma City Thunder as Sam Presti owns the pick swap to receive the two best picks between OKC, Houston, and Miami. Houston probably will not receive the lottery pick they are on course for and have recognized that their season could be over. GM Rafael Stone is looking to the future; Boogie Cousins is parting ways with the Rockets and will land on the buyout market for hungry contenders. P.J. Tucker, the 6’ 5” stretch five is also on the trade market; but Rockets are only interested in players, not picks, showing they are interested in getting the next phase of their franchise started sooner rather than later. All the usual suspects are interested in the frontcourt pair, Miami and LA, potentially the Nets. We will have to see where they land and how that can impact the championship race.

Washington Wizards (10-17) are finally turning things around, better late than never. They have won four games in a row for the first time in THREE, yes THREE years. This may be enough to keep Washington’s season afloat and give them something to play for, the East only has 6 teams breaking a .500 record right now and the Wizards are only 2 games behind the 9th seed. In all four of the Wizards wins, Mo Wagner and Garrison Matthews have been in the starting roles alongside Westbrook, Beal, and Hachimura. Matthews and Wagner are not exactly lighting up a box score, far from it, but they do fill in with the intangibles here and there that the Wizards have been lacking, especially defensively. Finally having a sense of stability and consistency in the lineup could be what is helping the Wizards capitalize on their best player Bradley Beal’s shooting performances.

The Detroit Pistons (8-22) have moved on from Derrick Rose and are in the process of moving on from Blake Griffin too. They are settling into their rebuild mode, with Jerami Grant as the main reason to tune into games now as they look to the future. Dennis Smith Jr., who they received in the trade for Derrick Rose started last game against the Magic but only played 15 minutes in the end as Coach Casey played first-year Saben Lee 33 minutes at the point guard spot. Lee had a steady game, putting up 12 points and 5 assists, so Casey may move away from DSJ even in the absence of Delon Wright. A back-up point-guard role for DSJ is not a bad thing, and we hope he can maintain playing time even on a floundering Pistons squad. It is too soon to say whether there is a future for DSJ at the Pistons, but if this stint does not work in his favor he could be out of the league by next season.

Cleveland Cavaliers (10-21) have been a shell of themselves defensively since Larry Nance Jr. fractured his foot on the 6th of February. They have not won since the 3rd of February, making that 10 straight losses in a row after the OKC defeat this Sunday. They were staying afloat due to the ironclad defensive scheme first-year Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Larry Nance Jr. and Andre Drummond were a force to be reckoned with, but both players are on ice now with Drummond’s imminent departure, they comfortably hold the worst net rating in the NBA. With their crash back to Earth, Cavaliers are focusing on their development once again. It remains to be seen whether both Darius Garland and Collin Sexton will both be on the roster long-term, but as Cavaliers are lottery-bound once again, they will have a swathe of youth players to choose from to build into their young core. The front office has already done a good job by working into the Nets trade to receive Jarrett Allen, a future starting-caliber center. If they can turn Drummond’s contract into more useful assets the Cavaliers should be well-positioned for their future.

Sacramento Kings (12-18) are better than they were to start the season, but that improvement in play is no longer translating to wins. It’s been 7 miserable losses in a row and De’Aaron Fox is single-handedly trying his best to keep the team in games. Playing in 6 of the 7 games, he has averaged 20 points and 9 assists across the losses, and it is slightly heartbreaking to watch. If the team could turn some of their poor overall performances into some winning performances, Fox could have some serious All-Star consideration. Unfortunately for Fox, the chances are slim in the cut-throat Western Conference, SGA, CP3, and Conley (all fringe considerations this year) would be ahead of him in the All-Star ballot if I had my vote. With three winnable games coming up this week against the Knicks, Pistons, and Hornets, expect the Kings to be able to pick up a win or two this week to get back on track. If the Kings could get better consistency out of their sniper Buddy Hield, they would be able to turn many more matchups around. The career 40% three-point shooter has been inconsistent from deep during this losing streak, putting it mildly. He is shooting below average, at 32% across this 7-game span on a large volume, and if he can bounce back, they will be in a much better position moving forward.

Speaking of moving forward, the Minnesota Timberwolves (7-24) should be in much better shape moving forward, firing Head Coach Ryan Saunders and hiring Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch. They could be capitalizing on some of that Nick Nurse magic, similar to the improvements the Pacers made this season after hiring Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren for their head coaching position. Chris Finch has been known around the league for working with some of the NBA’s best big men, working with Nikola Jokic in Denver and Anthony Davis in New Orleans. Sounds like good news for Anthony-Towns in Minnesota and for a team that desperately needs a new identity on the court. Aside from internet-breaking dunks from Anthony Edwards, there has not been much to write home about for Minnesota this season. The offense has looked lost with D’Angelo Russell at the helm and no one around him, and that is supposed to be the T’Wolves calling card. They are ranked 28th in offense this year, just above the Thunder and the Cavaliers in offensive rating and below the war-torn Orland Magic. It seemed as though Ryan Saunders may be able to hold his position as head coach with the excuse that Russell and Towns haven’t really played together at the same time yet. The front office probably made the right decision, seeing Russell alone, then Towns alone (they take turns being injured, you see), it did not look like those two puzzle pieces were magically going to result in an elite offensive team. A fresh look for the wolves in the second half of the year will be welcomed by all, and we will be paying close attention to the Timberwolves moving into the second half of the season.

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