The Oklahoma City Thunder went into the 2020-21 NBA Season with a clear plan. That plan? To be bad. Each move Thunder GM Sam Presti made since the NBA Bubble ended, was to deconstruct this roster. The focus? Young players getting heavy minutes, and losing games. The reward? The best chance possible at the top overall pick, in a rare NBA Draft that features five (5) franchise-altering stars. None more rewarding than if your team lands Cade Cunningham, the Oklahoma State product who ranks next to Zion as a “Can not miss” and “Must pick” top overall talent.
While detractors might come in the next few months leading up to the NBA Draft, as we must all try to be hipsters and find “our guy”, Cade Cunningham is the talent that withstands the NBA Hipsters, and still goes top in his class.
The Oklahoma City Thunder won more games than many expected to start the season, already at 20 wins on the year, but they have not overachieved. They are ten games under .500 and the third-worst team in the Western Conference.
Prior to the season starting, I said this OKC Thunder team would be young, fun, scrappy, and competitive. Prior to this last recent stretch, they have been just that. As stated, when you do those things, the ball can just happen to bounce your way on certain nights. Thus, it racks up your win total a tad higher than expected.
Now? The team has adjusted to that early run. Not only trading George Hill, who didn’t have much of an impact on this team thanks to an injury, but shutting down Al Horford as well just so he does not play despite being fully healthy. Why shut down a guy, who will not play back to backs which your schedule is littered with throughout the rest of the year, and at best would have played in just half the remaining games? To ensure there is no fluke, random wins helped made possible by Al Horford.
The team also shut down Mike Muscala, who is having one of the best years of his career and truly helped OKC win some of those first-half games. Star Guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went down with a significant foot injury, Darius Bazley has been out the entire second half to date due to a shoulder injury, Lu Dort, Isaiah Roby, and Josh Hall are all currently sidelined due to concussions, and even Darius Miller is now hurt after playing spot minutes throughout the season. The team also bought out the likes of Austin Rivers and Justin Jackson just to prioritize young, raw, non-winning players to see if they have a shot at becoming sustainable NBA players.
At every turn, the Thunder have explicitly told you, their fans, they are tanking to better their lottery odds with their actions..every action.
How do they make up for their bad (good) first half? How do they capture those franchise-changing player(s)? It starts tonight, against the Hornets, and continues throughout this critical stretch. A stretch, that truly, without being hyperbolic, transforms this Thunder Organization.
The stretch begins tonight, against the Hornets, and continues on the second night of a back-to-back against the Cleveland Cavaliers who currently have a worse record than OKC. The Thunder then take on juggernauts in the 76ers and Jazz, before taking on a “double-tank” team in the Golden State Warriors.
The Thunder benefit in multiple ways with a loss to the Warriors, not only do they get the boost up the Tankathon standings but a win for the Warriors pushing them down the rankings and gets OKC a little closer to their outside chance of earning Golden State’s first-round draft pick (top 20 protected) though the odds of OKC capturing that pick is slim to none.
The team then rattles off three straight games against opponents who are ahead of them on Tankathon, going on the road to take on the Pistons, Raptors, and Wizards before taking on a Pacers squad that is in a bit of a downward spiral and jumping right back into a game against Washington.
After that stretch, they will take on hungry Eastern Conference teams in Philly once again, before seeing Boston. OKC will take on a Pelicans team that will still be battling for the play-in, the Pacers, and the elite Suns who will be jockeying for position in the postseason.
The next portion of the schedule is too far out to predict. After said Suns game, the Thunder play three games against the Kings, and two against the Warriors, the Kings are riding the seesaw of being relevant for a play-in battle, and throwing in the towel, and deciding to tank for the rest of the year.
The season wraps up with two a game against the Jazz, who might have the top seed locked up by the second to last game of the year, and Clippers, who do not seem to care where they land in the playoff race.
Now, all eyes turn to the draft process, evaluating, studying, and thinking about, every possible prospect. Every combination, every scenario, and what Sam Presti will do with his five selections in the 2021 NBA Draft.
If the Thunder land Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, or even Evan Mobley to pair next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Theo Maledon, Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley, and the treasure trove of draft picks, it would launch this franchise into a dynasty. May the odds be forever in your favor.