This Thunder season has been unforgettable, but not in the way that we’ve grown accustomed to. Last season, they exceeded expectations and rallied to the playoffs behind the leadership of Chris Paul and the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, and Darius Bazley. In previous seasons, the Thunder were must-see television because of the star power associated with the brand.
This season, however, has become the most prolonged (even though it’s shortened) and least thunderous season that Loud City has witnessed in its 12-year existence. Before the All-Star break, things were at least promising. We knew the Thunder organization was looking forward to the offseason, but the team was still competitive. Winning games they’re supposed to win, and losing games they were supposed to lose, but while still playing a competitive brand of basketball.
It wasn’t until after the break that things unraveled dramatically. The Thunder were closer to a playoff spot than they were a projected high lottery pick, and anyone that questioned Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s intentions this season received a brutally honest answer.
After a (4-3) start after the break, the Thunder have gone (1-14) dating back to March 24. During that time, SGA was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, though he played at a career-high level up to that point. Al Horford’s season came to an end to avoid injury, with the hopes of moving him this offseason. Darius Bazley was sidelined with a shoulder injury, Lu Dort has been in-and-out of the lineup for various minuscule things, and Mike Muscala just hasn’t played, and the reason is still relatively unclear.
All of this is in the name of tanking, to get a top-five, and maybe even a top-three pick in one of the deepest NBA lotteries in the last several years.
While it’s understandable why the Thunder are eyeing names like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, or Jonathan Kuminga, it seems as if they’re toying with the growth of the franchises’ potential cornerstone piece, SGA, who through the first half of this season seemed to take significant strides, only to be effectively shut down for an extended period, and that’s where the problem lies.
If this were a perennial all-star or an established player, it wouldn’t be as perplexing, but SGA isn’t fully developed as a professional yet. He’s talented, but he’s very young, just like everyone else on the roster, and would benefit from playing, even in a lost season.
While Dort has played here recently, he’s not playing on the second night of back-to-backs. He’s missing games following big performances, like his 42-point night one week ago and his 29-point performance this weekend. He’s also missed games due to “soreness.” Not an injury, but soreness, which is a pitiful excuse for the strongest and potentially most athletic player on the Thunder who just turned 22-years-old on Monday.
Horford being out is understandable, plus it’s mutual. Muscala’s situation is questionable but still not a big deal, given his contract situation. Dort being in and out of the lineup is detrimental, and not playing Gilgeous-Alexander is the biggest mistake. The plantar fasciitis justification is a bit suspicious as well.
For those that are as skeptical as I am about the legitimacy of SGA’s injury, you have a reason to be. During this 11-game losing streak, the Thunder are losing by an average of 22 points. SGA isn’t at the point in his career where he can make up for a 22-point loss. Minus possibly three games during this losing streak, he isn’t the difference between a win and a loss.
It’s understandable why the Thunder want in on a top-five pick. It’s the most obvious way to return to NBA contention the quickest, and there’s no fault in that. The only thing that’s a bit worrisome is the prioritization of young, unproven talent over the proven young talent that’s already making strides. The tanking process isn’t the problem, but the way the Thunder are going about it is a bit questionable at times. Lastly, getting beat by 20-plus points on average isn’t healthy for the confidence of the young players playing, either.