The first rule of tanking is you don’t talk about tanking. We are one month into the 20-21’ NBA season and while most things about the game of basketball look familiar enough (round orange ball, 10 ft. hoop, robust James Harden) everything else about this season has been anything but. Empty arenas have served as the backdrop for what has been a peculiar start with more blowouts than ever and some eyebrow raising numbers statistically as well as in the win-loss column. There are many new faces in new places, but none more so than in Oklahoma City where no team has had more personnel turnover than the Thunder. There have already been countless Google searches for “Josh Hall”, “Moses Brown” and “where is Trevor Ariza?”.
The one constant for OKC that hasn’t changed is the professional and competitive spirit of the franchise that has this current group of players hovering around .500 almost a quarter into the season. As January draws to an end, here are some observations on some of what has transpired so far in this young weird season.
SGA is playing like a future All-Star
Unfortunately due to its cancellation it wont be this year that SGA gets to join his peers for All-Star weekend festivities, but so far Shai’s junior season in the Association has been the breakthrough many were looking for when the team returned to play in the bubble last summer. SGA has the highest Player Efficiency Rating on the team at 21.00 while leading OKC in points per game (21), minutes (33), assists (6), and is third in rebounds (5). The 22 year old has shown incredible growth since we last saw him in Orlando displaying a decisive, aggressive style that suits his game and what the Thunder envisioned when they traded for him in 2019. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander remains building block “A” for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Lu Dort has the look of Draymond Green “Light”
And that is definitely a good thing. The everlasting image in all Thunder fans minds when it comes to Draymond is the infamous kick to the “Kiwi’s” on Steven Adams during the 16’ Conference Finals. Theatrics aside, Draymond Green is a former defensive Player of the Year, 2x All-NBAer, and most importantly 3x World Champion. This is not an assumption or attempt to crown Lu Dort the second coming of Draymond Green but there are many positive similarities in their games especially compared to when Dray was first starting out. Both were overlooked in the draft thus compete with an edge, both have defensive first mentalities, both play bigger than their size, and both can handle the ball and finish at the rim. The slight edge Dort might have over Dray is beyond the arc where Lu is shooting 43% from 3 in his second season compared to Green’s career average of 31%.
Stock Up – Hami Diallo
Diallo’s numbers are up across the board to start his third season in OKC as the former dunk champ is playing with something that hasn’t always been noticeable on his end in years past – confidence. Sometimes patience is a virtue with these young players and with today’s quick to dismiss approach to everything, giving players with raw talent and incredible athleticism like Hami time to develop can pay dividends in the end. Diallo, like ¾ the Thunder roster, is under the age of 23 and might just be scratching the surface of what type of player he can become given the right circumstances.
Stock Down – Darius Bazley
Again, the age of these players can not be emphasized enough when critiquing or praising, but the 20 year old former NB intern has struggled out the gate after a strong showing in the bubble. Decision making and turnovers have hampered Bazley’s performance 13 games in to the point where the young man seems to be questioning himself on the court instead of just playing ball. No reason to overact as growing pains are going to be the norm going forward in OKC with this group. Keep an eye on Bazley’s shooting percentage as he is coming off a season high 45 percent game from the field in Denver after a lowly 37% average to start the year.
“Tanking” is a naughty word
Tank (v.) – to fail completely, especially at great financial cost.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are not purposely trying to fail. In fact, Sam Presti and company are playing the long game and trying to achieve success that can be sustained. The same success the organization started to experience a decade ago with young, home grown talent acquired through the draft. Yes, this current rendition of the Thunder is constructed in a way that will make it very hard to win games on a nightly basis, but the team is not “tanking”.
Culture is one of the most important aspects of a team and organization. A losing mentality is contagious and a hard stigma to wash off once it gets on you. It is beyond important that these young players strive to compete and continue to improve no matter what the win-loss column says. Those same players must go out every night with the mindset that they are going to win the game. The Thunder are not only rebuilding the roster, but establishing an identity at the same time.
The word “tanking” is toxic and a culture killer so avoid using it. Reconstructing, renovating, restoring, reassembling, or my favorite revamping are all more positive terms that should be used when describing OKC’s current situation. More positive and less negative goes a long way, even if it’s just in the words we use.