OKC Thunder Tank Watch: Starting the Tank-Offs

Tank Watch: 02.04.2021 – Starting the Tank-Offs

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, DET, TOR, ORL, WAS, CLE, MIN

With a third of all NBA games left, we’re heading into the final stretch for the Tank Watch. From here on, this is where it gets interesting. Teams are aggressively Tanking and the tussle for those extra lottery percentage points is cranking up. A couple of teams on this Tank Watch will be fighting for a play-in position, Washington and perhaps Toronto, but everyone else is in full Tank mode. We’re in the Tank playoffs now, the Tank-Offs.

Starting with Oklahoma City Thunder (20-27), OKC has shown its hand completely with the shut-down of the fully healthy 5x All-Star, All-Defensive Second Team Veteran Al Horford. The decision to list Horford as inactive with a public statement instead of creating the usual bogus injury is one of the more brazen tanking moves Sam Presti could have made. Yes, he is still healthy and ready to be traded in the summer, but he won’t play just in case he winds up winning the Thunder some games, or just in case he injures himself and ruins his trade value. The injury report is stuffed for the Thunder too. Bazley, SGA, Dort, and Muscala are all missing time on top of Horford’s absence, so the remaining youngsters are getting plenty of airtime. Moses Brown has been the biggest success story for OKC lately, receiving a four-year deal worth $6.8m after going undrafted and signing a two-way contract with the Thunder in the off-season. The second-year center has been crashing the boards as they owe him money, averaging nearly 15 rebounds in his past 6 games and he shows no signs of slowing down. The extra usage Brown is receiving with the main scorers on the bench is a superb showcase and so far, he is delivering on 60% shooting at the moment. Let’s hope this raw prospect can continue to develop when the band gets back together.

 Despite the cautious approach of the medical staff and lineups lacking any real experience, the gritty Thunder playstyle is shining through. Somehow defeating Tank competitor Toronto who was sitting out Kyle Lowry. With over 20 games left, the Thunder still may have left it a little too late to initiate full tank mode. How do you catch teams like Timberwolves or Houston in this situation? It appears nigh on impossible, but you can bet they will try their hardest. SGA’s plantar fasciitis will keep him off the court for potentially the rest of the season if OKC plays it slow enough, so that may be Presti’s path to a top-5 pick.

Houston Rockets (13-34) are trying their hardest to stay in that protected Top-4 pick range. They are one of the Big Tank Three this year, along with Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons. Houston is firmly in the driving seats from here on out to secure that top pick, they have the hardest remaining schedule in the league by a margin and have the youngsters playing as much as possible. Since Victor Oladipo has moved to Miami, Houston can fully focus on the development of their longer-term prospects such as Christian Wood, Kevin Porter Jr., and Jae’Sean Tate. Oladipo’s large usage was detracting away from the touches the developing talent could receive. His inconsistency in play and availability wasn’t doing the Rockets or himself any favors and Houston will be glad to have that chapter closed. The new veterans in Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and D.J. Augustin will hardly be game-changers moving forward for them in either way and have started their Rockets tenure as such, not moving the needle at all. In the last 5 games, Houston has the 5th worst Net Rating only ahead of Minnesota, Golden State, Cleveland, and interestingly the Chicago Bulls. They can sit back now and let the L’s roll in from here.

Detroit Pistons (14-34) are much in the same boat as the Rockets, part of the Big Tank Three, they are comfortably in that top pick range. If anyone really needs a new franchise player this year, it would arguably be Detroit. Jerami Grant started hot at the beginning of the year but has fallen back to earth a little lately. Shooting 38% from the field and 69% from the line is disappointing, but learning to be a primary option is difficult for a forward who has arguably never been higher than a third or fourth scoring option in his NBA career, and once defenses treat him like the first option it can be difficult. As much as I am enjoying the Mason Plumlee drop steps in the post, help couldn’t come soon enough for the Pistons. Hamidou Diallo has injected some life into the team with his high-energy play, putting up 19 points in both games he has played over 20 minutes in and will continue being a solid addition to the roster this season. The lottery rookie Killian Hayes should be returning this weekend as well to upgrade over Saben Lee. Despite the hodgepodge appearance of the Pistons, they have strung together some positive results in the past week. Going 3-1, it has been either blowout or gets blown out for Detroit, really turning the screws on Toronto and Washington in their victories. With Grant slumping, it’s anyone’s guess who will be Detroit’s top scorer from game to game, and they can get depressingly blown out the water on any given night, but one thing is for certain, their new franchise player is on the way, he’s in the mail, just wait for it Pistons fans.

Toronto Raptors (18-30) have been a headscratcher since the trade deadline. Once Kyle Lowry was staying put, the Raptors seem to have fallen into the fringe Tank conversations. Some point to Lowry’s foot injury is an indicator of tanking by the Tampa Bay Raptors, but it could just be they simply aren’t good anymore. Looking up and down the roster, this is not the 2019 Champions they once were, and they may be in a hurry to start the new era of Raptors basketball focusing on Fred Vanvleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby. But…is that good enough? We can expect internal growth from the trio, especially Anunoby and Siakam who are only 23 and 26 respectively, but another certified lead scorer would be a solid addition if Lowry leaves at the end of the season, and this very deep draft could be the perfect place to find that type of production. Toronto President Masai Ujiri heralded as one of the best front office minds in the NBA could also leave at the end of the season as a free agent. If Lowry and Ujiri both walk, not only will this truly spell the end of their championship era but what is the new direction of the franchise moving forward? They could very much fall into the 6th to 10th trap with this current cast of players, and no one wants that, perhaps losing more games against the Pistons and the Thunder like they did this week could help provide that insurance for the future with another high lottery pick. With a relatively difficult schedule ahead of them, Toronto could choose to Tank even harder than OKC if they choose to.

Orlando Magic (17-31) is in their transition phase, their post-Vuc-Gordon era, and its…not bad. It turns out the pieces they received in the tear-down, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and R.J. Hampton are all pretty good. Interestingly, they currently have been performing better than the Chicago Bulls whilst owning Chicago’s upcoming draft pick. Chicago undoubtedly has a lot of adjusting to do, adding a star like Vucevic to their lineup, but it’s looking relatively smooth down in Orlando by comparison. Cole Anthony’s imminent return will be a sight for sore eyes here, as we start to see what Orlando is working with but there are obviously a lot of moving parts at the moment in terms of just general personnel. The constant stream of injuries means it is difficult to keep track of who is who and what could work on a consistent basis. The lineup next year of Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Otto Porter Jr., Jonathan Isaac, and Wendell Carter Jr. along with Anthony and whoever they pick in the draft could turn Orlando from a rather bland team to another exciting must-watch up-and-coming team.

Washington Wizards (17-30) have been basking in the glory and PR generated by Senpai Russell Westbrook this week. The insane stat line of 35 points, 21 assists, 14 rebounds in their win over the Pacers grabbed headlines all over. With Bradley Beal missing games due to a hip injury, Russ is shouldering the burden even more than before to try to carry this team to a play-in spot. As one of the only teams left on the Tank Watch actually trying NOT to Tank, there are still some question marks when looking at the Wizards. The biggest question, does Scott Brooks know they are trying to win, or does Russell Westbrook know they are trying to lose? Admittedly, Brooks has an easier job than Westbrook here if the objective is to lose, but Brooks has not shown much innovation for this team to improve. The greatest benefactor of Westbrook’s current play and Beal’s absence is Rui Hachimura. The pair seem to have a great relationship, Rui calls Russ his Senpai, and in the past three games, Hachimura has dropped two 25+ point games. Hachimura’s game as a scorer has a lot of potential but he has not shown much else yet, hopefully, he can inherit Russ’ passing vision soon too to really become an offensive threat.

Cleveland Cavaliers (17-31) have been victims of some beatdowns recently, losing to the good teams as expected, welcomed even at this point. The defense of Cleveland has fallen away in the past week (no Drummond, no Nance Jr.) and this matches their sputtering offense which has been dead last in the NBA for the season. With Larry Nance Jr. missing more time, we got to see the return of Kevin Love against Philadelphia. Easing back in after reaggravating his calf injury, Love performed relatively well considering the blowout nature of the contest, tallying 13 points in 20 minutes. Everyone would love to see Love back on the court after difficult bouts with his physical and mental health, and we will keep an eye on how his performances pan out. At 32, 6’10, and injury-riddled, it is unclear whether Love would be beneficial to any other team in the future as his defense has become a tougher pill to swallow on top of his age and health. In any case, we wish nothing but the best for Love moving forward, and hopefully, he can get a rhythm going again as the Cavs see out this lottery season.

Minnesota Timberwolves (12-36) the Tankmasters snuck a win past the New York Knicks this week 102-101. Leaving the game-winning shot in the hands of New York’s R. J. Barrett was all part of Timberwolves’ master plan, but this loss says way more about the Knicks and their clutch management than the Timberwolves. Minnesota tried very hard to lose the match as per, but it will not always work that way for the rebuilding team if you are banking on a Barrett game-winner. An interesting thought for Minnesota front office would be what to do with yet another top-3 draft pick in a loaded draft class, or better yet, what to do with their current stars because of this draft pick. Anthony Edwards looks very much like a centerpiece for the future, with the potential to be a monstrous two-guard or small-forward as he continues to refine his offensive skills. It would naturally be expected that Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell would be the other heads to this hydra here, to follow the analogy, but if you have the opportunity to draft another expert ball-handler like a Cade Cunningham, if you are Minnesota, can you really afford to pass up on an opportunity like that again, just after letting Lamelo Ball slip in last year’s draft? The following question to that would be if a Cunningham or Jalen Green lands with the T’Wolves, where does that leave Russell, and if KAT is adamant about playing with Russell, where does that leave him also? Could it be time to cash in on the Towns stock soon and sell extremely high on a generational talent like Towns if they can receive a haul in return AND land an elite ball-handler in the draft? Some serious conversations could be taking place in Minnesota over this off-season regarding this pick and the future.

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