Tank Watch: the Tank rolls on for OKC Thunder

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: ORL, DET, MIN, HOU, CLE

Oklahoma City Thunder (20-36) has been aggressively tanking since the trade deadline (or even earlier) and it is paying dividends gradually. Since the last Tank Watch, the Thunder have lost another 4 in a row, making their record 1-12 since the deadline. By the time this article is published, they may have lost another to Toronto. You may notice that both Washington and Toronto are not featuring in this week’s Tank Watch as they are stringing together some wins, pushing for that coveted 10th seed play-in spot. According to Tankathon.com, OKC is joint with Cleveland for the 5th pick (in terms of lottery percentage odds). Expect OKC to lose more and more games in comparison to Cleveland, as the Cavs seem to be having players return from injuries such as Kevin Love and Jarrett Allen, as opposed to OKC who are shutting players down like Al Horford.

There is still plenty to be excited about on the court for the Thunder, despite the occasional trouncing. Namely, Lu Dort (happy birthday Lu), who erupted for his career-high 42 points in the loss to the Utah Jazz this week. With SGA still out, Dort is trying out his high-volume game. Against the Jazz, he shot 16 of 31 from the field, 7 of 11 from the line, and 3 of 7 from three. Not bad for a player who many expect to be a pure lockdown defender, which he is also. The comparison that could be made is similar to the potential Victor Oladipo had earlier in his career: a serious on-ball perimeter defender with inside-out scoring capabilities. Dort has already proven himself on the defensive end, and his potential upside offensively is terrifying. If he continues to develop at this rate, he most certainly could be one of the greatest two-way wings in the NBA.

Orlando Magic (18-38) have won 1 of their last 4 games, with a crucial Tank matchup taking place after this article is released between Orlando and Houston. Since blowing the team up, Orlando has slowly but surely begun to sink away in the standings. Wendell Carter Jr. has been enjoying the extra breathing room and usage at the Center spot. In the Magic-Bulls revenge game, WCJ showed out against his former team with a double-double in their victory and continues to grow in confidence with each day. A big difference in this WCJ compared to the Bulls’ version is he appears much more disciplined on the defensive end. In a larger minutes role, Wendell is actually touting less and less personal fouls in the games compared to his time in Chicago. The ability to stay on the floor and not commit needless fouls is something that big men learn over time, the good ones at least. This may be due to Steve Clifford’s coaching staff or trying to impress in his new environment, but whatever it is, Wendell Carter Jr. is looking more and more like a starting-caliber center.

Detroit Pistons (17-40) have been steadily improving on the court this year, and it is understandable since the team was so inexperienced and flawed to start the season. Rookie wing Saddiq Bey is making an all-rookie case for himself lately and has been playing with more and more confidence. Since the trade deadline, Bey has averaged 13 points, and whilst he has an inefficient game or two, the reps he is receiving with the ball will serve him well for Detroit moving forward. Their other rookie Killian Hayes is looking good too, if it wasn’t for his injuries earlier in the season, Hayes could have built his resume for a Rookie Of the Year award himself. His playmaking abilities are shining just as they were advertised to be, and he would be a very interesting complementary player next to a Cade Cunningham if Detroit snags the 1st pick or a good running mate next to Jalen Suggs.

Minnesota Timberwolves (15-42) have really pulled themselves together lately, winning 2 of their 4 games in the past week, they defeated the Bulls (who have been somewhat disappointing since the Vuc trade) and the Miami Heat. The Russell-Edwards-Towns core looks to be potent…ish, and we can safely assume that given a full season, a new coach, and a clean bill of health this Timberwolves core could finally compete for a playoff spot. They don’t want to start competing too soon though, with every game won the Timberwolves run the risk of decreasing their odds of losing their top-3 protected pick and turning a high lottery pick over to the Golden State Warriors. Towns missed the two games that the Timberwolves lost in order to honor the anniversary of his mother’s passing, but on the court, he has been playing with a real focus and drive. The connection with Russell seems to have been worth the trade, as having Towns’ close friends around him in Russell and Rubio is paying dividends.

Houston Rockets (14-42) have found themselves in the theoretical 1st pick, holding the worst record in the NBA now since the Timberwolves have strung together a couple of wins. The past few games have seen the continuing form for Christian Wood. Should Wood be in the running for Most Improved Player? This had been a conversation piece early in the season before his ankle injury that saw Wood sidelined for much of the season, nuking the Rockets’ hopes of staying competitive. Many would want to point to the fact that Wood emerged as an offensive player late in the season last year for Detroit before the league shut down, and therefore his improvement came before this season started. However, the thinking against this would be sample size, as Detroit did not get to perform in the bubble, and Christian Wood really has shown the consistency that is needed for a MIP award. The MIP award would arguably be wide open, there isn’t any highly talked about narratives for players this season like there was for Brandon Ingram last year, so if Wood and the Rockets can string together some form of winning basketball to get some attention onto him, he should still be in with a chance.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36) are sharing their record with OKC, as mentioned at the top of this article, but would arguably have more upside and opportunity to win more games than the Thunder. A high draft pick is not to be scoffed at, but if the Cavs are being honest, they would probably rather string together some momentum and good performances from their young core than spend yet another season praying for the lottery night to fall their way. Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Darius Garland, and now Jarrett Allen is a strong enough core to scrape some wins, and as they play the Pistons, a Bulls team without Lavine (health and safety protocol) and a Hornets team without Hayward and Lamelo Ball this Cavs team will hope to create some winning plays down the stretch. Comparing the Cavs’ lineups with the Thunder’s lineups and the fact they both have a relatively similar strength of remaining schedule, expect the Cavaliers to pull away in the wins column compared to the Thunder.

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