Tank Watch: Maledon’s time

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: CLE, WAS, MIN, ORL, HOU, TOR, DET

Wow, Oklahoma City Thunder (20-32) really turned up the Tank heat, huh? The Thunder have won none of their last 5 games, including games against fellow Tankers Cleveland and Detroit. And none of them have really been close. Despite the continuous losing for OKC, they have a lot more L’s to catch before they can be confident in a very high draft pick. They really are at the mercy of the other teams, Washington, Cleveland, Orlando, and Detroit picking up wins along the way to ‘undertake’ them in the lottery odds.

On the court, however, one could say that the Thunder are playing possum. An overly cautious approach from the Thunder’s staff along with the shutdown of Al Horford for the season means that there is a ragtag group of youngsters out on the court every night. It shows in the results, too. Losing by 37 to the Suns, 48 to the Blazers, 24 to the Pistons, and 27 to the Cavaliers all in a week’s work is scarily bad. But fear not, many of these younglings are showing growth through these beatings. Theo Maledon, Aleksej Pokusevski, and Moses Brown have all been making waves in the Thunderverse at the moment with all three showing flashes of real potential for the future. The French rookie Maledon has been receiving the bulk of the play as lead ball-handler, with the highest usage from night tonight. His steady hand on the game would lead the casual spectator to not think Maledon is only 19 years of age but a seasoned veteran. He plays with a cool and collected approach beyond his years and will definitely have a very long NBA career. The scariest thing about the young point guard is that he is not turning the ball over as you would expect from a rookie with high usage. Comparing Maledon to other rookie guards within this class like Anthony Edwards and Lamelo Ball, Maledon has a lower turnover rate than both of these ROTY candidates.

 Moses Brown penned what might be the most team-friendly deal in Thunder history, signing a 4-year $6.8m deal with a team option in the fourth. Contracts like that for productive prospects like Brown will help OKC stay flexible in the next few years. If he continues to be the monster rebounder he has been since the call-up from the G-League, Brown could see himself earning a big payday in the future, either with OKC or as a free agent.

Cleveland Cavaliers (19-32) still look to be trying their hardest on a nightly basis. Since the last Tank Watch, the Cavs lost two to good teams and won two to not-so-good teams including the OKC. The Cavaliers are without Larry Nance Jr. still due to illness, which has been categorized as a non-COVID-19 illness. He has reportedly sustained ‘rapid weight loss because of the illness, which hopefully will not be as worrying as it sounds. Jarrett Allen has also missed at least seven consecutive games now due to a concussion. With the return of Kevin Love, this Cavs team looks much like the team that Love was upset about last season, except the young players have improved now so he won’t throw the ball at them anymore. Kevin remains on a minutes restriction but is showing strong performances during this stretch. He has three double-digit performances in the last four games and is gradually showing a bit more movement on the court. This NBA champion may have more left in the tank after all.

Washington Wizards (19-32) have had some big games this week as they still chase that 10th seed. A big win Friday night against the Warriors served as a reminder that theoretically at least, Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook should be enough to make a playoff seed. Westbrook has continued his triple-double tear throughout the week, notching a triple-double in three of the last four games. Westbrook is now only 16 triple-double games away from overtaking Oscar Robertson as the all-time leader for triple-doubles in the NBA, which is truly remarkable. If the Wizards could pick up victories against any more Western teams during their road trip such as the Kings or perhaps the Suns, it would greatly boost their chances of sneaking into the play-in 10th seed. The key to making this happen will certainly be Beal’s health, who has been dealing with back tightness and a hip injury as of late. They will need his production to be anywhere near the 10th seed, as Russ can’t do this alone.

Minnesota Timberwolves (13-40) have had some electric games lately, and why not? There is no real urgency to ‘try’ and Tank-like other teams, they can try their best every night and still end up with a top-3 draft pick now. D’Angelo Russell’s return means the Timberwolves are finally getting to see what this young trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell really looks like, and so far in the past three games, it has been interesting offensively, and disastrous defensively. No offense to the Indiana Pacers, but a starting lineup of Edmond Sumner, Caris LeVert, Goga Bitadze, Doug McDermott, and Justin Holiday should not be able to score 141 points on anyone. By all means, the Timberwolves should see what this core can do together, and it isn’t a secret that they can put the ball in the hoop, but someone has to defend, too. The only teams with worse defensive ratings than the Wolves this year are Pels, Blazers, and Kings, but they don’t have a Zion, they don’t have a Dame, and they don’t have a Fox to make up for it offensively. In the past 5 games, the only Western Conference team with a worst defensive showing has been the Thunder who are Tanking like Charlotte Bobcats right now. So, what can you do, except pray the lottery balls on draft night give you a new franchise guard that can usher in a new era of T’Wolves basketball?

Orlando Magic (17-35) are in the Tank race, but they don’t need to try as hard to Tank as some of the others like Oklahoma City. They just simply don’t have the bodies at the moment to put up a fight against reasonable competition. Terrance Ross, the last of the Gordon-Vuc era has put the team on his back this past week, being the Magic’s top scorer each night. Someone has to score the points, right? And while Ross is a fine player, he is no first option and it shows in the scoring punch the Magic are able to muster. The new blood in this team from the Orlando tear-down are still assimilating into the new Steve Clifford system, and after a good first week, the Magic have fallen short this week. Otto Porter Jr. is back on the injury report with foot pain and Gary Harris has finally made his long-awaited debut. Orlando has become somewhat of a new pastures destination for players who need a change in scenery to regain form, dating back to the gambles on Markelle Fultz and the acquiring of Michael Carter-Williams. This will be the same situation for all of the Magic’s new pieces like Harris, Porter and Wendell Carter Jr. who show inconsistent play. If all are on the roster and healthy next season, it will be interesting to see how they all fit in.

Houston Rockets (14-38) needed a renaissance game from John Wall this week to overcome their Texas rivals Dallas and to snap a 5-game losing streak, and that may be what the Rockets have left for the season. Scary good performances from Wall, Wood or Olynyk here and there, or the explosive performances from the youths such as Jae’Sean Tate who is having an All-Rookie type season thus far. He is ranked 3rd on the Kia Rookie Ladder this week for his promising two-way production. Tate is averaging 14 points per game as a starting forward for Houston and is well on-track to being at least a GOOD NBA-Calibre player. Considering he went undrafted in 2018 after four years in college, playing in Belgium and Australia, to scrapping his way into an NBA team’s starting lineup, Tate should be proud of his work ethic and determination. This is evident in his undersized game, where despite being 6’ 4 you can see him battling and barrelling his way through much larger wing players. Hustle and effort are rewarded in this league, and it will be rewarded for Tate when he is listed on an All-Rookie team at the end of the season.

Toronto Raptors (20-32) still can’t find their rhythm. Winning two, losing two, the Raptors remain on pace to be on the outside looking in for the play-in spots. Luckily, the Eastern Conference is so weak that all the Raptors need to do is catch a winning streak at some point and they could very easily sneak into the play-in games. When looking back on this season for the raptors, it should be important to remember that they are the only team in the NBA that are in a completely different city, state, country. Tampa Bay is very different to Toronto, and in a truncated COVID-19 riddled season, the Raptors have arguably been dealt the worst hand of any team in the league. Nonetheless, the new era is around the corner, is it worth pushing for the playoffs at all at this point? The Raptors won’t be able to ‘out-flank the likes of Cleveland or Orlando, so the front office may be thinking whether it is worth it to go all-in on this last guaranteed Lowry season.

Detroit Pistons (16-36) are nicely nestled at the bottom of the standings, so why not grab some wins now, right? With the help of newly acquired vet Cory Joseph, Detroit has been winning every other game recently, whilst not impacting their lottery odds. In Joseph’s first 9 games for the Pistons he has averaged just shy of 12 points whilst coming off the bench and a 24-point, 7 assist game against his former team the Sacramento Kings. Killian Hayes is finally back playing after missing the majority of the season with a hip injury and is showing promise at the Pistons’ somewhat crowded guard spot. For example, Hayes wound up a +12 on the box-plus-minus in their win over Sacramento in a game they won by 12 points should tell anyone that Hayes can make a nice contribution to a team in desperate need of any contributions they can find.

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