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: MIN, NOP, WAS, SAC, ORL, HOU, CLE, DET
Oklahoma City Thunder (17-23) have come out of the All-Star break in 50-50 fashion. Results-wise OKC has been sputtering, 2-2 since the break, but the play of the Thunder has been of significant interest for the Thunder fans. With absences all over the roster, Horford, Dort, Bazley, Maledon, Hill, it has been Aleksej Pokusevski’s time to shine. You may not know him yet, but you will know him soon. Poku became the youngest player in Thunder history to score 20+ points and is now the 2nd youngest player in NBA history with 5+ threes in a game behind only Lebron James. The rookie 19-year-old Serbian is enjoying the extra minutes with forwards Bazley and Horford missing time, and he is making it count. Will he hold this starting role when Bazley returns on the wing?
The other player of interest for the Thunder in this short run is Center Moses Brown. Both Brown and Poku were in the G-League bubble not too long ago but have brought their extra experience back to the Thunder. The 21-year-old received his first two starts of the year in the past two games and has been making the most of it. In the blowout loss to the Bulls, Brown notched career highs, 20 points, and 16 rebounds. He will most likely be a victim of minutes being squeezed when Horford and Bazley return, but Daigneault will have a job on his hands managing the minutes of all the players who are returning from injury and the young players who stepped up in their absence such as Ty Jerome at the guard spot who has also been impressive as a playmaker.
The Minnesota Timberwolves (9-31) are piecing something, something together here. With new Head Coach Chris Finch at the helm and a slew of injuries, the Timberwolves still somehow look better than before the All-Star break. Rookie Anthony Edwards has the ultimate green light, putting up 21 shots per game in the past four contests and a TS of 58.5%. This would put Edwards as an average or slightly above average shooter, which he absolutely was not before the All-Star break, so there may be a regression in his play but for now, he should get as many reps with the ball as possible whilst D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley are out. However, Edwards should not be taking more shots than the star, Karl-Anthony Towns. His historically passive play, to let the less talented players in Wolves uniforms take shots should be a criticism of Towns. Finch’s track record with bigs including the likes of Jokic will hopefully unlock Towns to his full offensive potential throughout this season. Hopefully, for the Timberwolves, this won’t result in too many wins, they have a top-3 protected pick to think about.
Was it Dame’s brilliance, or the New Orleans Pelicans (17-23) inexperience that somehow leads to the Pelicans being up by 17 with 6 minutes left to somehow losing by 1 point? I believe this 50-point outburst from Damian Lillard will finally propel him into the MVP conversation, but that is a conversation for another time. For a team with hopes of making the play-in tournament, the Pelicans losing this game could become important down the stretch when the records are close between the 10th and 11th seed. They have been blowing teams out as of late (Clippers, Cavaliers) but this loss to the Blazers highlights a worrying trend for the season, the Pels can’t close games. They are in the bottom 10 for teams in the clutch, and you can be forgiven losing a game to Dame Time. But it is these mistakes in tight games by the likes of Eric Bledsoe which will be the difference between winning and losing, and it could ultimately be the deciding factor on if the Pelicans reach the off-season. The team is extremely young and this season is a learning curve for all; Zion Williamson has not played 82 NBA games yet, so it isn’t the end of the world, but it is something to keep an eye on for Ingram, Lonzo, Zion and the rest of this young squad moving forward.
The Washington Wizards (14-24) have predictably fallen short against some of the league’s best teams so far following the All-Star break. Back-to-back losses to the 76ers and the Bucks (and another loss to the Bucks) is standard procedure for a team battling for the 10th seed, which they are 3 games behind now. There are three points worth mentioning for the Wizards, however. With the Trade Deadline looming large, the Wizards could be in the business of selling a couple of vets here and there, most notably Robin Lopez who has generated some buzz heading to the trade deadline, should he be made available. More importantly, the Wizards are publicly declaring their stance to keep Bradley Beal after incessant trade rumors all year that both the team and Beal have fought back against. This won’t stop the rumor mill from including Beal’s name in mock trades for some reason, but at least this sworn loyalty to the Wiz is something fans can be excited for. The other important point for the Wizards is that Russell Westbrook is continuing his improvement in play, even if the plus-minus impact figures say otherwise. The major critique for Westbrook has always been his inefficiency, something that has held him back as a player. Since the break, Russ has a TS% of 55.5, right around his MVP season percentage and he is doing it whilst shooting 41% from three. New Russ, perhaps? In any case, the Wizards will hopefully be able to use Russ’s grudge against the Oklahoma-Brooklyn Nets to their advantage Sunday night to kick-start another win-streak.
Sacramento Kings (15-24) look to continue their gradual descent to mediocrity, going 1-3 since the break and their only win being against the undermanned Houston Rockets. It looks as though this current iteration of the Kings could be coming to an end (thankfully), with NBA Champion Harrison Barnes involved in trade talks. The rumors point to the Celtics as a potential destination, utilizing their $28.5 million trade exception, the largest trade exception in history, to help facilitate a move. Outside of Boston, it is unclear who would be trading for Harrison Barnes, but this indicates where the Kings are focusing their efforts. DeAaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton are the only clear untouchable players for the Kings, perhaps Richaun Holmes also for the foreseeable future. Harrison Barnes’ departure would spell a new chapter for the Kings after this fruitless era, the Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006.
Orlando Magic (13-26) in a similar fashion to Sacramento, is going nowhere fast, with players’ names swirling in trade talks. All of Orlando’s future core players are sidelined outside of Vucevic, so exploring trades for Aaron Gordon, Terrance Ross, and Evan Fournier is the smart move. All three of these players could be useful for other teams, so we will float one potential trade for each player here. For Fournier, a trade to the Sixers could help provide more of an offensive punch for the Sixers heading into the off-season than a shaky-handed Danny Green could at this stage in their careers. Both are on expiring contracts and Danny Green would likely be traded again from the Magic, as he still has some value defensively, but another shot creator would be perfect for them. Aaron Gordon’s name is the one in the news the most, where many believe a change of scenery is all he needs to fulfill his potential. Perhaps Denver Nuggets would part with Gary Harris for an Aaron Gordon, but for a big name like Gordon, we can expect Orlando to want a bit more than an inconsistent shooting guard in return. Not only Gordon, but Terrence Ross would make a good addition to the Nuggets also, perhaps more so. A good bench scorer and defender, Ross is the type of malleable, plug-and-play wing that many teams could use. It all depends on if teams are willing to match whatever Orlando’s asking price is.
Continuing the fire sale talk, the Houston Rockets (11-27) have lost an astounding, franchise-tying 17 in a row, and are looking to sell whoever they can in order to lean into tank-mode even more. It is no coincidence that with Christian Wood out the Rockets fell to pieces, but Houston has been struggling to field 8 healthy players since the All-Star break. The Heat have just traded Meyers Leonard for OKC’s Trevor Ariza at the time this was written, so it is unclear how this could impact PJ Tucker or Victor Oladipo’s chances of landing with the Heat who were frontrunners for both. The Rockets will continue to lean as hard as possible into Tank Mode this season to try retain their top-4 protected draft pick. It will be an exciting couple of weeks for the Rockets with Wood’s return spicing up the on-court play and the front office frantically trying to make the tank dream a reality.
Cleveland Cavaliers (14-25) are also still trying to find a trade candidate for Andre Drummond, but for a player earning $27 million this year and $29 million the next, it is hard to see any team realistically meeting the requirements for a Drummond trade. The team needs to have space for a large contract, pieces that Cleveland would likely want in return, and also the crucial factor of actually wanting Drummond, a limited big man who cannot space the floor, has never been a part of a winning team but has good counting stats. Without agreeing to a buyout, it feels like the door is closing on trade agreements here, which is why it isn’t always good for an organization to publicly declare a player’s trade availability and alienate them in the process. Outside of the trade talk, Cleveland has gotten off to a slow start, losing three in a row. Kevin Love returned for about two minutes before sitting again with calf pain, which is always a worry for an aging big man. It isn’t looking too pretty in Ohio right now.
Detroit Pistons (10-29) have well and truly settled into their role as the last called in the playground. Every day is a new day to learn in Detroit, and they are focusing on development until Cade Cunningham arrives this off-season when they get the number one pick. They already made a move, trading for beloved OKC youngster Hamidou Diallo and giving up Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-rounder. The trade probably will not move the needle for either team, but both teams are exploring prospects for the future at the moment. They freed the vets in Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, and now there is not much else to do for Detroit but ride the tank until the end of the season.
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