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.
To commemorate the All-Star Break and the halfway point of the season, this week’s Tank Watch is going to be a little different (and a little late, everyone can take a break sometimes). Usually, we would assess Oklahoma City and all the teams with roughly the same record or worse, but this week we will be taking a look at ALL the teams which currently sit in lottery positions in the standings, so 9th seed and under. We will also put the teams into one of three camps depending on whether we think the team is going to rise, fall, or stay in their current position, the sinkers, swimmers, and floaters we can call them. We have almost half the league to cover here so buckle up.
The Sinkers: DET, HOU, OKC, CLE, ORL, MIN
Detroit Pistons (10-26) are the best example of a team in the Sinking category. They have freed the vet’s Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin now as many had hoped and are looking ahead to the rebuild. Detroit will be in the running for an elite pick in a fairly deep draft and any one of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs or Jalen Green would be a solid kick-start to the new Pistons era. The front office in Detroit has collected a good roster of prospects. Saddiq Bey, Killian Hayes, and the freshly acquired 26-year-old Jerami Grant is a good track record for the new GM Troy Weaver, even if letting Christian Wood walk in free agency is a big miss. If Weaver can hit well in the next draft, we could be seeing Detroit become a name for themselves in a couple of years. For now, though, the second half of the season is going to be about letting the prospects develop, seeing what pieces they have for the long term (Dennis Smith Jr’s future will be determined in the next few months but the current verdict is looking good) and maybe…more Mason Plumlee triple-doubles!? Let’s hope so, but either way this team’s 2020-21 season is going nowhere fast.
Houston Rockets (11-23) crumbled in a big way without Christian Wood and entered the All-Star break on a genuinely impressive 13-loss streak, to commemorate James Harden’s departure I’m sure. Ironically, the Houston Rockets are now the worst three-point shooting team in the league, shooting 33.3% as a team. Now the Rockets are in an interesting position: Houston will be a much better basketball team when Christian Wood returns and the return is not far away, but with their current run of games, OKC owning their pick swap (top-4 protected) and being in the cut-throat Western Conference, will the Rockets enter the second half of the season with fire in their hearts and ascend into the playoff picture once again? Or will they lean into their Win-Loss record, throw in the towel for the season and try to land in the top-4 protected range to secure a potential generational talent in this year’s draft? My money would be on the latter, the Rockets appear to have started the fire sale of their veterans, trying to find good trade packages for Demarcus Cousins, PJ Tucker, and potentially Eric Gordon. It would be in their best interest to do so in almost every way at this point, and the franchise probably agrees if they are willing to trade the likes of Tucker. Victor Oladipo is another question mark. His tenure with the Rockets sounds as though it will be short-term, with reports of interest from the Warriors and the Heat. Overall, the Rockets will probably be fighting to stay in that top 4 protected pick range instead of potentially giving up the number 5 or 6 pick to OKC, so we may be in store for some good ol’ fashioned tanking down the stretch for Houston.
Oklahoma City (15-21) are in the ‘hopefully sinking’ category of this segment. Their entire reason for living has been to gather draft picks, and if the Thunder wants the Cade Cunninghams of the draft, they are going to have to get it themselves (the HOU-OKC pick swap is, as mentioned, protected top 4). Unfortunately, there is no guarantee OKC can sink far enough in the second half of the season to secure these coveted rookies. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was an All-Star snub this year, and OKC seems to find effective value at any and every position. This year’s rookie Theo Maledon is growing rapidly into a steady guard and we can expect the development to continue. According to Basketball-Reference, the Thunder also have one of the easiest remaining schedules, and there will be nights Shai’s offense or Dort’s clutch defense will steal games. Teams will start to rest their stars against the young Thunder so OKC will end up stealing games that way too. The other way the Thunder could try ensuring a good pick is to flip the few remaining veterans on the roster. George Hill in particular will be in high demand at the trade deadline, with many contending teams needing another point-guard who can space the floor. The less likely moves include Al Horford due to contract size and Mike Muscala. Either way, Thunder basketball has been extremely exciting this year and the Thunder have a good track record of draft picks no matter the lottery pick, so watch this space.
Cleveland Cavaliers (14-22) almost crash-landed into the All-Star break like the Houston Rockets but caught a 4-win streak to bring themselves to a respectable(?) 14 wins and 22 losses. Similar to Houston, the front office looks to have made their decisions on the season already. The thinking around the league was that Drummond could be kept until the end of the season if Cleveland continued to make their playoff push. This is no longer the case, and Cleveland’s public declaration of Drummond on the trade block would signify at least the team wants to look toward the future i.e. no expectations for this season. Multiple teams are interested in Larry Nance Jr. also, who had been having a career season before missing 15 games due to a finger injury. So, Cleveland could end up making another rebuilding move and without Drummond and Nance Jr., Cleveland’s defense will be no more. Cleveland was winning games off their twin tower defense to start the season, and despite a relatively smooth schedule, the Cavaliers will make little noise without Drummond and will make even less noise without Drummond and Nance Jr. if they go down that path.
Minnesota Timberwolves (7-29) have been the West’s victim team this year. 7 wins at the halfway mark of the season is disastrous, even for a shortened Minnesota season. The latest discussions around the team have been about everything other than the actual basketball which often isn’t a good sign. Malik Beasley was handed a 12 game suspension by the NBA due to his off-court legal issues and with the hire of new Head Coach Chris Finch, Minnesota’s hiring process is being heavily criticized by media and the coach’s association for not providing a fair and open hiring process to include diverse candidates. So, there are enough distractions off the court, enough injuries scattered through the year starting with KAT and now D’Angelo Russell, it may be safe to assume that the Timberwolves will be sitting at the bottom of the standings twiddling their thumbs until lottery night. The best-case scenario for the Timberwolves moving forward would be getting Russell and Beasley back, no.1 rookie Anthony Edwards continues developing and they all make a good run to end the season lead by Towns and a new coach Finch. A few wins at the end would probably do little to their pick seeding, and considering this year’s draft pick would go to the Golden State Warriors from the Andrew Wiggins trade if it lands outside of the top 3, it would even be in their best interest to sit at the bottom. This is what tanking is all about this year, holding onto those protected picks.
Orlando Magic (13-23) was dealt the cruelest injury luck in the league, losing Jonathan Isaac before the season started, losing Markelle Fultz to an ACL tear, and everyone not named All-Star Nikola Vucevic missing significant time in between. A twist of fate for the Magic, but the team’s injury luck may force the front office’s hand in finally making a move in regard to breaking up this current roster. They had been victims of the ‘too good to be bad, but too bad to be good for a number of years, but with a large chunk of their future cap space tied into players on the injury report, there is a decent chance the likes of James Ennis III and perhaps Aaron Gordon or Evan Fournier could be poached at the trade deadline. A late resurgence from Orlando isn’t out of the question though, anything is possible in the Eastern Conference. Cole Anthony has been one of the better rookies this season, and when he returns from his fractured rib, he can continue his all-rookie performances. If Orlando can get a consistent injury-free run in the second half of the season, do not be surprised to see Orlando in the playoff play-in tournament, chasing their usual 8th spot.
The Swimmers: GSW, ATL, CHI
Golden State Warriors (19-18) are the team that I am most confident in to not be in the lottery this summer. One game behind the 8th spot heading into the second half of the season, the Warriors have been steadily figuring things out as the season went on. Andrew Wiggins has turned his game around to be serviceable and is even a vaguely neutral contributor on the defensive end too, which is a bonus for Wiggins considering how his career looked in Minnesota. The Warriors simply don’t have to ask as much of him as the Timberwolves did, which suits Wiggins more. The sheer dominance of Stephen Curry offensively serves as a reminder for the league that the Warriors are still here, and the jack-of-all-trades Draymond Green completes that pairing. GSW will have enough crazy nights from those two, with contributions on the periphery from Wiggins, Oubre, and Wiseman to just get over the hump and into the playoffs. Or, if that isn’t enough, they will be a nasty team to come up against for anyone in the play-in tournament. One way or another, Draymond and Steph will force this Warriors team into the postseason.
Atlanta Hawks (16-20) Weathered the injury storms throughout the season effectively. They are only one game away from the 8th seed, and we can expect the favorable schedule, the return of players like Bogdanovic, Gallinari, and Reddish to full health, and the new Head Coach to be enough of an injection to a decent Eastern team to create an uptick in results. The internal development from the young players like Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter has been a bright spot for the Hawks, Trae Young continues to add weapons to his offensive arsenal and Capela has settled well into his role as the roll-man, rim protector, and insane glass cleaner. The season could possibly hinge on how the Hawks and John Collins settle their differences. It appears as though Collins will not re-sign with the Hawks this offseason, but trade at the deadline could make a huge difference to the outcome in the standings. If Collins stays put and buys in with the new coach, and continues his efficient offensive four playstyles, expect Atlanta in the playoffs this year.
Chicago Bulls (16-18) have had an impressive season by Chicago’s standards thus far and Zach Lavine finally got his first All-Star appearance. At this rate, the Bulls should probably be feeling pretty good about themselves, with new Head Coach Billy Donavan at the helm they have looked more like a functioning NBA team than in recent years. Unfortunately for the Bulls the second half of the season is against the tougher NBA competition, including two Jazz games and a slew of Miami games. In a shortened season every game matters just a little more. Depending on when their rescheduled games are played, they could finish the season against the Sixers, Hornets, Celtics, Raptors, and Nets. However, I am willing to make the prediction that the Bulls outperform their current seeding (9th) and make their way into the lower playoff seeds. Wendell Carter Jr. is still returning to full health, and if Lauri and Porter can get a clean run of games I think Chicago could be a dark horse for a 7th/8th seed behind the offensive prowess of Lavine.
The Floaters: SAC, IND, NOP, WAS, MEM
Sacramento Kings (14-22) have been stably unstable this season, and that is unlikely to change. IF everything suddenly goes right for the Kings; Fox and Barnes stay healthy and consistent, Hield finds his shot, Bagley III remembers how to move his feet on defense, Haliburton ascends to Rookie of the Year contention, and so on, the Kings would still be an outside contender for the play-in tournament. They have the easiest remaining schedule in the league, but their opponents are not the problem. Head Coach Luke Walton must have the hottest seat in California at the moment, leading a historically bad defense is not the accolade you want in your second year as coach. Even games they should win, they somehow lose. This was summed up in the Kings loss to Charlotte before the break, being up by 8 with 69 seconds left and somehow losing is just unacceptable for a team that had some form of playoff aspirations. Expect them to float in the 11th to 13th range down the stretch, only because the Timberwolves, Thunder, and Rockets are unlikely to make any sort of push either.
Indiana Pacers (16-19) started to cool off heading into the All-Star break, losing four out of their last five. Their talent level would suggest a better overall record when all is said and done, and no one should be surprised if they wind up in their usual middle of the playoff seeding. T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert will likely return before the end of the season, taking the ball out of the hands of their less creative wing players like Jeremy Lamb and Doug McDermott. So, why are they in the floating category you may ask? The reasoning behind this is despite the return of their offensive wings and big jumps in performance from Brogdon, Turner, and Sabonis, it just feels slightly unsustainable. The career performances from Myles Turner who had DPOY suggestions earlier in the year, Sabonis’ early MVP candidacy, Brogdon’s All-Star candidacy, all suggests they were performing substantially better; and despite these outstanding performances, the Pacers are averaging out for the season at what could best be described with a hand wave and an ‘ehhh’. A hot start that cooled off, they will likely feature in the play-in game as a 9th/10th seed, but I am unfortunately predicting a middling second half of the season for Indiana.
New Orleans Pelicans (15-21) have been an interesting team to watch this season. Watching the freight train Zion Williamson barrel into the paint regardless of who is in front of him, Rudy Gobert included, is a refreshing look in this three-point dominated era. Despite Zion’s insanely efficient nights, the Pelicans have been in ‘figuring it out’ mode so far, and it is likely to continue for the rest of the season. The Pels will probably be sellers at the deadline, J.J Reddick will likely relocate to a contender and the question of Lonzo Ball’s future remains uncertain. This is not a knock on the Pels at all, and it should not be viewed as a negative that they will not make the playoffs. This is a young exciting team with promise moving forward, prospects that need developing, and an identity to find on offense and defense. Will the Zion-Adams frontcourt work in the long run? What is their defensive scheme in the future? Will Jaxson Hayes get more game time as the season progresses? There are more important things for this team to focus on than a first-round exit this year.
Washington Wizards (14-20) should be applauded for pulling themselves out of the dark depths of the Eastern Conference to the 12th seed. They caught a rhythm going into the All-Star break, but heading into the second half of the year it feels unlikely that they will replicate the last 10 games (winning 7 losing 3) with a run of teams including the sixers, bucks (twice), Jazz and Nets. At least you can expect apex level Russell Westbrook when they go up against the Oklahoma Brooklyn Thunder-Nets. If only he didn’t have one of the most untradeable contracts in the NBA, Russ could have completed the OKC reunion. There are a number of things the Wizards need to fall in place to be competitive, and even then, there is no guarantee of the Wizards leapfrogging any of the teams above them in the standings to get into the play-in games. If Bradley Beal remains at supernova level and they can put up a fight on defense, they could push from their current 12th seed to maybe 10th…maybe. On the other hand, the teams under the Wizards (Cleveland, Orlando, Pistons) are going nowhere fast, so Wizards are more than likely to stay where they are.
Memphis Grizzlies (16-16) and lead guard Ja Morant fall into much the same category as the Pelicans and Zion Williamson; an exciting, promising team whose number has not been called yet. The Grizz felt what it was like in the bubble when the pressure is turned up, playing locked in opponents in the bubble and lost 6 out of 8 games, followed by the loss of the 8th seed to Dame and the Blazers. That is all valuable experience for a team that has an average age of 24, and the Grizz have built on it well. Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke have both stepped up this year during absences of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. who still is yet to play this year. They are exploring what they have in point forward Justise Winslow also who recently started playing again. Overall, the team is exploring what they have this season, and time is very much on Memphis’s side. No rush, if the Grizzlies creep into the 10th seed for the play-in tournament, brilliant, but the front office should not lose sleep on it. Ja Morant is one of the best prospects in the NBA right now and by the time he is 24 (3 years away) this team could be one of the most dangerous in the league. But Ja, please watch where you land on the insane highlight dunks.
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