Tank Watch: Where are the Thunder prior to the All-Star Break?

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: DET, SAC, ORL, WAS, HOU, CLE, MIN

The Oklahoma City Thunder (14-20) are heading into the All-Star break within striking (or losing?) distance of a top draft pick. They have split their games 2-2 since the last Tank Watch, losing to Denver and Miami and beating Atlanta and San Antonio. There are only two more games left before the All-Star break, two home games against Dallas and San Antonio, and with no Thunder representation in the All-Star festivities, the squad will be enjoying a welcome rest.

The Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort duo were in full force this past week, with both of them showing their excellence throughout the matchups. Shai went off for a career-high 42 points in the 102-99 victory against the Spurs, so we would be remiss to highlight the fact that SGA is growing into a truly impactful 3-level scorer and offensive facilitator, all at the tender age of 22. His three-point percentage this season is improving monthly, and he shot 45.7% from deep this February. His interior game is close to elite too, and when SGA is attacking the rim, he is one of the most unpredictable players in the league, a true headache for opposing defenses.
If Shai is the sword of this team, the Dortress Lu Dort is undoubtedly the Thunder’s shield. Matching up against the opponents’ best perimeter player not only gives SGA more energy to focus on carving the defense, but Dort’s own defense is nothing short of suffocating. His ability to get under the skin of the NBA’s best players, create uncomfortable situations and prevent players from getting to their spots (while keeping his fouls to a minimum) is a rare skill that is nigh on impossible to teach to this level. Trae Young on Friday felt the full effect of Lu Dort’s suffocating style of defense, and he was unable to find his rhythm all game. As an expert foul-drawer, second only to the likes of James Harden on the perimeter, Trae Young recorded no free-throws all game, man marked by Lu Dort. He is no Andre Roberson on offense either, and Dort is not shy to let it fly on offense and is showing a willingness to improve. Over half of his attempts are from three this year, and whilst he is only shooting 32.8% from deep, if he can turn into a deep-range threat, the future in OKC will be terrifying indeed with the Canadian duo.

Detroit Pistons (9-25) are saved from having the worst record by a transitioning Minnesota (we will speak on them at the end). They were able to grab a win against the weakened Orlando Magic in the past week, but there is nothing truly exciting to report for this team. With Delon Wright out, it has been Dennis Smith Jr. and rookie Saben Lee’s opportunities to shine. DSJ has been earning his living in Detroit on the defensive end, working hard on the perimeter. Whilst his shot has looked less than reliable, the steals and blocks have helped DSJ’s potential value on a Detroit team that is in the bottom half defensively. Unfortunately, that still isn’t enough to translate to many wins, and that lack of offensive punch will probably remain the case for Detroit moving into the second half of the season.

The Sacramento Kings (13-21) continue their run of poor results, winning one out of their four games since the last Tank Watch. They are 1-9 in their last 10, losing 5 of these with a deficit of more than 10 points. Sacramento narrowly lost to the Charlotte Hornets who were without star wing Gordon Hayward Sunday night 127-126 behind a career night from none other than P.J. Washington, who put up 42 points against the Kings. The problem with the Kings this year continues to be that they are a complete sieve on defense, no matter what De’Aaron Fox does, it will be difficult to overcome this issue with more firepower. When starting center Richaun Holmes is off the court, the Kings look like the worst team in basketball on defense, and Marvin Bagley III is moved into the center position it gets worse. On a brighter note, Tyrese Haliburton has been named rookie player of the month for the Western Conference. Haliburton has continued to look like a steady presence for the Kings in the 6th man role, averaging solid numbers across the board despite his rookie status (in Feb: 16 pts, 5 assits, 1.8 steals, 45% 3pt). The rumblings for him to start over the worst-best marksman Buddy Hield are getting louder and he should be a starter in the near future. The Kings’ front office has a prickly job handling this roster moving forward, but they indeed have two solid guards of the future in Haliburton and Fox.

The Orlando Magic (13-22) experience this year has been nothing short of depressing. Unless you enjoy watching Vucevic cook opposing team’s big men and not much else, and Vucevic has definitely been cooking, despite the dire straits of his team. A controversial All-Star inclusion, Nikola Vucevic has continued to be an impressive offensive center and earned his second All-Star selection. He is averaging career-high points and doing it on career-high efficiency. He is even vaguely impressive with his playmaking out of the post, he leads the NBA with the most assists out of the post (just ahead of Jokic), and when you really dig into Vucevic’s game overall, there should not be as much confusion about his All-Star selection as there has been. If it wasn’t for the losing streaks and plummet in the standings, Vucevic would receive a lot more praise.
There is also interest in Evan Fournier who is shouldering a larger role this year with so many injuries to guards like Markelle Fultz. There is a lot of teams that could use an offensive player like Fournier who is on an expiring contract, and he could be an interesting trade chip for Orlando to turn into a useful piece later down the road as Magic probably could not re-sign him in the off-season if they wish to stay under the tax line, with many contract extensions already wrapped up in their injured young-core like Jonathan Isaac and Fultz.

Washington Wizards (13-19) continue their hot run as the basketball Gods smile favorably on them. They are 8-2 in their last 10 games and have rapidly risen in the standings to 12th. They can smell the 10th seed already behind All-Star Bradley Beal’s 30+ point outbursts and somehow coming out on top of these close games. At times it feels like Marlon Wayans’ ‘The 6th Man’ movie, with everything mysteriously going the Wizards way down the stretch. Their 112-110 win against the Nuggets was particularly confusing, with the Nuggets whiffing on an easy one-on-three fastbreak at the end, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr were left pointing figures at each other on the three-point arc instead of finishing an easy layup. Sometimes though, you need a little good fortune to make it through the NBA season, and the Wizards will continue their hunt for the playoffs after the All-Star break.

As one team rises, another falls. The Houston Rockets (11-22) continue their run of losses and by losses, I mean they are being blown out the water by practically anyone, losing by a whopping 49 in the 133-84 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. John Wall’s response to the 11-game losing streak says it all. “This {Expletive} is ass. Terrible.” From an Oklahoma City perspective, the Rockets are now tanking a little too well. The pick-swap OKC has with Houston will not come to fruition if they are this bad as it is top-4 protected. The Rockets have lost every game, big man, Christian Wood has missed so far on this run, and they cannot get him back until at least after the All-Star break. As the Houston Rocket’s team’s Twitter account said during their Cleveland loss: “We’re in Spain but the S is silent”. We won’t labor the point any longer this week but catch a longer breakdown of the Rocket’s crash and burn on next week’s Tank Watch… and yes that was a rocket-related joke.

The Cleveland Cavaliers (14-21) on the other hand have broken their dry spell and have won four in a row. Jarrett Allen looks to be a healthy addition to the young emerging Cavs team. He is on the same age curve as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland and has really been putting his game together lately, you can really see the pairing of Sexton and Allen is one that could work in the future. The Brooklyn Nets could really use a shot-blocking center like Allen these days, or perhaps, an Andre Drummond. The league is waiting with bated breath to see the outcome of Drummond’s tenure with the Cavs and where he is traded to, or if he is bought out. The Drummond sweepstakes may very well determine the outcome of the championship for a team like the Nets or the Celtics. And finally, it would be criminal to not mention Collin Sexton’s play in their past four wins. He is again displaying the promise the league saw from him earlier on in the season, eviscerating the Houston Rockets for 39 points on Sunday and most importantly, 8 assists, Sexton is increasing his assist rate this season thankfully. He is not exactly carving defenses with insane passes, but a big critique of Sexton previously was his lack of passing, infuriating teammates like Kevin Love with his tunnel vision heading to the basket to get blocked repeatedly. Adding an adequate passing element to Sexton’s game will enable him to become a real threat outside of his own shooting ability.

The Minnesota Timberwolves (7-28) are now in the post-Ryan Saunders era and have gone a cool 0-4 since firing Saunders and hiring Chris Finch who was the Raptors’ assistant coach. Only one of these games could be considered competitive, and that was the overtime loss to the Bulls. Timberwolves showed good heart to come back and force the overtime. But former T’Wolves guard Zach Lavine and Coby White did enough to put the Wolves down in OT 133-126. That was to be Malik Beasley’s last game for the Timberwolves as he is now suspended for 12 games by the NBA. He was charged in October with fifth-degree drug possession and threat of violence, so the T’Wolves will be without one of their more effective scorers until late March. D’Angelo Russell is having arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee and is missing 4-to-6 weeks. So, it’s safe to say the Wolves will probably not be moving from the 15th spot in the conference any time soon unless Finch is a miracle worker, or maybe the Rockets continue their spiral.

Next week will be an All-Star break special article for Tank Watch, where we assess in more detail all 14 teams outside of the playoff seedings. Make sure to not miss next week’s Tank Watch!

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