The Oklahoma City Thunder have to decide who they are this season in the second half of the NBA season. Since the preseason, I have said on the Locked on Thunder podcast, that the only bad outcome is if this team finishes in the middle. Making the playoffs is not a negative outcome, it will take the Thunder young guns like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Lu Dort, and Theo Maledon having phenomenal second halves and seasons in general. Finishing with the worst record in the entire NBA is not a bad outcome for the OKC Thunder. It helps land Cade Cunningham or any of the other generational talents in this draft. The only bad outcome is finishing in the middle.
To this point, the Thunder have been mediocre. The team has a 15-21 record and is 4-6 in their last ten games, a common mark for them this season. The team has shown flashes of being a quality, play-in/playoff team, and have also had spurts where they looked dreadful. However, their energy and effort have saved them from blowouts in most games.
Mark Daigneault has done a phenomenal job with this team, SGA has taken the leap and is just getting started, guys like Kenny Hustle and Isaiah Roby have spurted almost out of nowhere, this team has a lot of things for fans to like. This team, despite playing half of the season, has everything in front of them. They can still make a run to the playoffs, they can still leap into the top-4 lottery odds before the season ends. Nothing has been defined about this Thunder team yet, and it is time to start making headway either way.
What is the road to the playoffs? Well, this year it is easier than most! The Thunder only need to be 10th in the wild west to earn a trip to the postseason with the play-in tournament making its return from the bubble.
OKC is three games out of the current ten seed, the Memphis Grizzlies. the team is tied with the Pelicans who are also three games out of the play-in. To me, the easiest way to look at the NBA Playoff picture is to work backward from the locks. I think when the dust settles, the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, Clippers, Blazers, Nuggets, and Mavericks are locked for the playoffs. That means three playoff spots are up for grabs the rest of the way (again, including seeds nine and ten as playoff spots).
Those three spots are currently occupied by the Spurs, Warriors, and Grizzlies. The Thunder have two games in the second half against Memphis, after falling to the Grizzlies in the first half. The OKC Thunder went 2-1 against the Spurs in the first half, which could be big for tiebreaker scenarios, as the two will not meet in the second half. The Spurs, of the three current playoff teams, seem the most likely to fall out in my estimation. The Thunder have not played the Warriors yet, the teams will face off three times in the second half including two games back-to-back in the Bay area, in May.
There is a path for the Thunder to be in the postseason and continue their stretch of dominance since moving to OKC showing their face again in the NBA Playoffs, but there is also a path for tanking and being one of the bottom three or four teams in the league. Whatever happens, the Thunder can not finish in the middle. They also, can not let teams “tank for them” which is a vocal minority narrative we can put to bed right now.
THE PICKS EXPLAINED
As it sits right now, the Thunder are ninth on TankaThon, with the Houston Rockets at three, and the Miami Heat at 17. The Oklahoma City Thunder have an interesting, but simple, pick protection scenario. The Thunder own the two-best picks of the three. Unless, the Rockets pick falls in the top-four, in which the Thunder would get their own pick and Miami’s pick. So even if the Rockets do tank, unless they end up 5th or below, the Thunder will not get their selection. Thus, OKC can not just “let Houston lose” for them when it comes to getting the top prize. To get the top overall pick, the onus is all on OKC.
OKC can also get an additional first-round pick if Golden State’s pick falls 21-30. If it does not, the Warriors will instead give OKC Minnesota’s second-round pick, which is currently the 31st overall pick. The Warriors sit 14th right now, on Tankathon, and like last year’s Thunder squad that pick will come down to the wire. Remember, OKC did not lose their first-round pick to Philly until Mike Muscala drilled that buzzer-beater in the bubble. It will take the same kind of magic for OKC to get that selection.
Stay tuned for a special edition of Tank watch tomorrow, that covers each team currently in the lottery and what direction they are going.
For more motivation to tank, look no farther than this tweet after Jalen Suggs was incredible for Gonzaga Tuesday Night to win their conference tournament.
Ultimately, the path to tanking is simple. Trade whoever you can of George Hill, Trevor Ariza, Mike Muscala, and Al Horford, if you can not trade Horford rest him even more than the team does now, and allow the young players to see an uptick in minutes to grow their games. With the level of energy, effort, and intensity this group plays with under Mark Daigneault though, that path is easier said than done.