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, HOU, MIN
Oklahoma City Thunder (20-40) keep doing their thing, and by their thing, I mean lose every game possible. With another 4 losses in a row since the last Tank Watch (probably 5 by the time you read this as the Thunder take on the Sixers) it feels inevitable that the Thunder are going to achieve a top-5 pick on lottery night, as the other teams Minnesota, Detroit and Orlando are simply bound to pick up a few wins along the way. That isn’t the case for the Thunder, who have somehow turned themselves into comfortably the worst team in the NBA after the trade deadline. They are dead last in both offensive and defensive ratings in the past 20 games and it is by no coincidence that this occurred with the changes in lineups. Presti and co. shut down Al Horford and has taken the cautious injury management with Shai and others for a reason, and this is that reason. Catching up on the Ls that Detroit, Minnesota, and Houston accumulated across the season is no easy task, but they are giving it their all down the stretch. They are still only two games ahead of Orlando and 2.5 games ahead of Detroit, and with only a few weeks left it is unclear if Orlando or Detroit would pick up enough wins to flip the standings in OKC’s favor. But for now, OKC’s Win column will probably remain frozen for the foreseeable future.
On the court, however, the Thunder remains a tad uninspiring which is to be expected for a team that has lost 13 straight games. Be that as it may, Darius Bazley has been putting up numbers and digging into his volume shooting bag. Since returning from a fractured scapular, he has scored over 15 points in 7 of his past 8 games, and whilst it hasn’t been terribly efficient, that’s okay because as we pointed out, this team isn’t trying to win many games. Bazley is getting the reps in as the primary option and still shows flashes of potential along with all the physical tools to be an effective wing in the NBA, bear in mind he is still only he is only 20. He has a quick first step and can burst to the rim at times and he has the length to be disruptive on the defensive end. The jump shot however hasn’t been falling as everyone had hoped so far, he is shooting a worrying 29% from deep, with volume (that is half the worry), and only 33% on two-point jump shots also. If Bazley pans out to be a slashing wing for his future, it won’t be the end of the world but I know many have been holding out for his jump shot to come around as it looked good in his rookie season. It could be a case of the sophomore slump or maybe just the effects of being a bigger focus for the defenses without Chris Paul, Schroder, or even sometimes SGA out of the lineups compared to last season, but it looks like Bazley may still have a long hill to climb towards potential stardom. His ceiling is still very high though, as previously mentioned, the kid’s only 20, he has time on his side.
Orlando Magic (18-42) has been tanking almost as good as the Thunder. They have lost four in a row since the last Tank Watch and are now 1-9 in their last 10 games, and probably another loss to the Lakers by the time this Tank Watch is released. They have a big match coming up on Wednesday with the Cleveland Cavaliers which could help turn the tide in Orlando’s favor in regards to lottery odds. It is a hodgepodge of players down in Orlando right now and I mean, whatever they are doing isn’t working in terms of the win-loss columns, but it is interesting to see these players who otherwise wouldn’t be seeing many NBA minutes getting extended runs out there. We mentioned the extended minutes and better play from Wendell Carter Jr. last week and that has continued, for the most part, notching decent games this week also. He has scored over 10 points in the three games he played in the past week along with two 10+ rebounding games too. The other problem of WCJ has flared up again, however, his health, this time being a sore ankle. Health has been a long-term concern for WCJ where he had not played more than 45 games in his previous two seasons with the Bulls. With a good run of health, he could really cement himself as a starting center for Orlando as it isn’t looking likely that Mo Bamba will be snapping up that position anytime soon. Bamba got his first start of the season in WCJ’s place Thursday night against the Pelicans, and it wasn’t really fair for Bamba who was sufficiently ripped apart by Zion in the 35-point blowout. Who isn’t ripped apart by Zion though, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the fact that he couldn’t contain Zion on drives, it was that he could not really contain anything. Bamba seems to be traffic coned by anyone that tries him and it is a little perplexing to watch. He still looks a little lost out there defensively which you would hope can be cleared in time, but I wouldn’t hold out as much hope for Bamba as I would for WCJ as a starting calibre center. He was a team-high 17 points and 12 rebounds in the contest though, so it clearly isn’t all bad, but it isn’t pretty either.
Detroit Pistons (18-43) have done the unthinkable, and won another game, don’t they know what Tank Watch is!? They are 1-3 since the last Tank Watch and a promising 3-7 in their last 10. By the time of this article they would have played the Atlanta Hawks who are without Trae Young due to an ankle sprain, so they could pull another win out of the bag also. The Pistons have looked better in the contests as of late and it may have something to do with their backcourt, in particular Josh Jackson who has been having himself some decent games. In the past 10 games, Jackson has been balling, hitting 18 points per game including 35.4% from three. Most importantly, he has been a team-high BPM +23 across those 10 games in a roster where only two other players are netting a positive plus-minus rating. That is no easy accomplishment on a team at the bottom of the East, and hopefully, Jackson can receive more of a spotlight in the future when the Pistons become good again and people watch their games. He is carving out an effective scoring role for now on this Detroit roster that is devoid of scoring. Jerami Grant has been nursing a bruised quad this past week, missing a few games and not playing to the same high standard he set earlier in the season. Recency bias in NBA voting is very real, so this may go against Grant in the Most Improved Player race, an award he seemed a frontrunner for a couple of months ago, but if Grant gets back on the floor and starts looking like the player we saw in January, he could propel back into the MIP award spot.
Houston Rockets (15-46) sport the worst record in the NBA now, and by a margin. They have lost another four in a row since the last Tank Watch, 1-9 in their last 10. They really, really don’t want that lottery pick to fall outside the top-4 and have it conveyed to the Thunder. Even the Timberwolves are playing better these days, but the Rockets are committed to this tank whether they like it or not due to how weak the roster is. Without a potential franchise player like Cade Cunningham arriving in the draft, the Rockets look like a team that could be in serious trouble moving forward, they seem to be missing another real offensive (and defensive) punch next to Christian Wood. Only OKC have a worse offensive and defensive rating in the past 15 games, and whilst OKC’s looks intentional, Houston’s actually does not. The excuse during their 20-game losing streak this season centred around the injury of Christian Wood, but they have not looked more inspiring since his return, even if his individual stats look good. The Rockets play the Timberwolves Tuesday night in the Tank match of the week, and it will show which of the two teams are displaying signs of growth.
Minnesota Timberwolves (17-44) are the team who are showing that promise (between Houston and Minnesota), they are 2-2 since last week’s Tank Watch and 4-6 in their last 10. What they hoped to show this season is finally taking shape whilst being relatively comfortable in their top-3 pick status (remember if their draft pick falls out of the top-3 it will belong to the Golden State Warriors). The trio of Russell, Edwards, and Towns is looking really good considering the year the Twolves have had. Having D’Angelo Russell playing off the bench in a 6th man role has proven to be a deadly combination, Russell can attack bench units at will and get himself going in time for the fourth quarter whilst the pass-first veteran Rubio can steady the ship for the starters next to their bright shiny player Anthony Edwards. They may not have had many close games this year, but the Timberwolves were able to close out a tough game against the best team in the Western Conference Utah which saw clutch buckets from Towns and Russell. Is this a sign? Can this core really work after all? Could Russell have found his calling as a 6th man of the year candidate moving forward? Let’s hope so, but the future looks brighter than before in Minnesota.