Thunder must escape the tank
Oklahoma City has made an art of shutting down players in the name of losing games, but as soon as this season concludes, for many good reasons, it must stop
A year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder, trying to lose as many games as it could, shut down one of its best players, despite that player being a healthy starter, averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds.
It was the inconspicuous and underrated Al Horford, who had played in 28 of 44 games, but helped the Thunder win too many of them. A season later, Horford’s started every game he’s played for the Celtics, the No. 3 team in the East.
Of the 28 Horford played, the Thunder won 11. Though they were oddly 8-8 in game’s he’d missed to that point, OKC knew what it was doing, because a couple games earlier, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had also played his last game of the season, a victim of plantar fasciitis.
A significant injury, perhaps, the Thunder made sure it would be, shutting him down, deciding what remained would be about “development” and though playing alongside a sage veteran like Horford would appear to aid that quest, OKC wanted losses and got them, winning just three of its last 38 games.
This season, OKC’s got to be the unluckiest team in the league.
Of its original starting five — Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddy, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Derrick Favors — all are out for the season, not to mention Mike Muscala, Ty Jerome and Kenrich Williams, too.
Who saw that coming?
Well, maybe not that exactly, but everybody may have seen it coming.
To the Thunder’s credit, they’re not trying to lose on the court, they’re just more than happy to use every tool in the toolbox to create conditions by which they’ll lose on the court.
Only because it’s so understood does it cease to be embarrassing and kind of disgusting.
Because general manager Sam Presti fleeced the Los Angeles Clippers for a slew of first-round draft picks and swaps in the Paul George trade, before fleecing Houston for the same in the Russell Westbrook trade, the Thunder have more draft assets than Minnesota has lakes, and still this makes it a second straight season the organization has purposely self sabotaged in the name of making its own selection in the coming draft as high as it can be, too.
A year ago, damn the lottery luck, the Thunder still picked sixth. Yet, Presti being Presti, he got Giddy, who may be headed to the hall of fame.
The coming draft, we’ll see.
What’s clear is the tanking can last five more games and no longer for many good reasons:
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1. Gilgeous-Aleander signed a max rookie extension in August that will pay him $172 million over five seasons beginning next season, and the Thunder can’t have signed him to inflate his injuries, play as few games as possible and turn skills that have him averaging 24.5 points and 5.9 assists this season, when winning's not the point, into stats accumulated in vain yet again next season. At that price, he’s got to be unleashed.
2. The embarrassment has to stop.
On WWLS, which broadcasts Thunder games, the first hour of the 90 minutes of pregame air devoted to the team tends to be spent on how OKC can find a way to lose another game, because that’s the point.
Yet, when the communication is between media and team, it’s never so straightforward. Coach Mark Daigneault, in pregame, is not asked about what his team must do to win that night, nor is he asked the opposite.
Instead, he’s asked what he’d like to see, what the team’s focus will be, what the night’s about, because the media plays along, never asking, precisely, what he’ll be doing to secure another loss, even while going along with OKC’s not trying to win.
It’s theater of the absurd.
3. The fans aren’t going to put up with it and they’re hardly putting up with it now. Not so long ago, OKC was riding a streak of more than 400 straight sellouts. Last season they played in front of no fans and this season it only looks like it.
The Thunder rank 28th in attendance, outdrawing only Sacramento and Indiana, while many season ticket holders, from the looks of things, are coming disguised as very good and near-the-court seats.
The fans will come back when they get to cheer for a team trying to win.
4. Other teams are proving what Presti either doesn’t want to acknowledge or actually fails to understand.
The NBA is wide open in a way that demands a different kind of thinking than a tanking philosophy addresses.
A year ago, to begin the season, the Phoenix Suns were +4000 to win the NBA championship, meaning a $100 bet would have won you $4,000 had they pulled it off, which is what everybody thought they’d do after taking a 2-0 lead over Milwaukee in the finals.
The list of those with shorter odds was long: Lakers, Bucks, Nets, Clippers, Celtics, Heat, Nuggets, Warriors, Raptors, 76ers and Mavericks. The Jazz and Trail Blazers had identical odds.
This past preseason, the Suns were still +1400, behind the Nets, Lakers, Bucks and Warriors. The Celtics, who could come out of the East, were +4000. Memphis, currently second in the West behind the Suns were an insane +10000, the same odds given Indiana, Toronto and Charlotte.
Who knows where the Thunder might be now if they’d kept Paul, re-signed Danilo Gallinari for two years, and gone to war with them, Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort and whoever Presti could put with them?
Their odds would have been no worse than Memphis’ this season, maybe better than Phoenix’s last season and still OKC would have the same draft assets it has now, which are many, from the George and Westbrook trades.
The idea only four or five teams are capable of challenging for a title each season is kaput.
It’s a pretty good argument a team should never tank, and it’s an iron clad argument the Thunder cannot tank going forward.
That’s probably the best reason to retire the strategy, but the second reason would make next year feel the most different.
All this talking in code, from the team to the media and the media to the team, back and forth and back and forth, as though the T-world and L-world, tank and lose, may not be spoken, is the height of silliness.
All of it’s got to go.