“The Thunder are tanking.”
How many times have we heard that since the Thunder and Russell Westbrook parted ways? This year after trading and cutting ties with most of the players from last season, people doubled down on the tanking talk, especially after Sam Presti obtained even more draft picks via some offseason acquisitions right before the season commenced.
Through nine games, OKC’s surprising most with an impressive start on the backs of their young stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort, and Hamidou Diallo off the bench. Not to mention, their three veterans, George Hill, Al Horford, and Mike Muscala have been more productive than expected. Even more unexpectedly, OKC’s bench who’s average age is that of a college sophomore, has shown competency, confidence, and improvement through this small fraction of the season.
Sam Presti isn’t trying to tank. That doesn’t fit his competitive nature, and after 12 years in OKC, he’s learned how competitive this city is and how it can’t afford the tanking process like larger markets can.
OKC, along with Utah, Portland, Memphis, and San Antonio, have to keep things competitive and fun to watch to maintain an engaged fanbase, which also bleeds over into being profitable. Going two or three years as a bottom two or three team in the NBA will damage Oklahoma City, despite the amount of draft picks they have moving forward. I’ve already witnessed a large percentage of fans losing touch and losing faith in the team, and they haven’t even proven that they’re a bad team yet. Imagine what things would be like if they went two seasons not being competitive.
Instead of striving to lose this season, the culture around the Thunder organization is carefree. They aren’t intentionally taking their feet off the gas to lose close games because they’re winning close games. They also aren’t looking to make moves to contend for a playoff spot or the NBA title. What we’ve seen through nine games are the Thunder “just going with it,” and whatever happens, happens.
Right now, what’s happening is the Thunder are winning. They’re 4-1 in their last five games, and those five games were on the road. Outside of a double-digit loss to the Miami Heat, they’ve knocked off the Orlando Magic, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets on the road. In two of those games, both in New York, Diallo averaged 24.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 2.3 steals on 66.4 percent shooting from the field.
SGA has taken his game to new heights, averaging 25.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 2.4 steals over the last three games, in which the Thunder have won.
The Thunder bench has more than stepped up by carrying the team defensively early in games, bringing them back from a first-half deficit to win their last three games of their winning streak.
The future of this team isn’t solidified. Presti could decide to trade George Hill and Al Horford. He could trade somebody else, but the Thunder aren’t a horrible team like they’ve been advertised to be…and they shouldn’t “tank.”
I think Presti IS tanking, trading off really good players like Schroeder and Adam’s for next to NOTHING in return. But the players are NOT tanking, and the coach is NOT tanking. This is their shot in the NBA and they are going to give it their best.
But make no mistake, Presti wants a lot of ping pong balls in the 2021 lottery, and this is the best season – with built in losses with no fans in the stands – to do it. Horford and/or Hill will be gone before the trade deadline, and the young players are all auditioning for a spot on this team or another.
I’d say that only SGA and Bazeley are untraceable. There’s plenty of time to go on a 8-10 game losing streak, after dumping a few more players, to get more ping pong balls…