To quote the wise and ageless Ron Burgundy, “Well, that escalated quickly”.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2020-21 season has mercifully come to an end.
The season itself was a tale of two halves. The first 43 games were often competitive, inspiring and fun to watch with the team surprisingly going 19-24.
The last 29 on the other hand, will go down in tanking lore as one of the all-time impressive (?) nose-dives in league history.
Losing 26 out of 29 games is not easy to do, but with the right amount of DNP’s, nagging foot injuries and soft tissue flare-ups, OKC proved that going one full month without a win is painfully possible.
Although nobody in the organization will ever say it, this year became all about positioning the franchise to within striking distance of one of the coveted top 5 picks in the upcoming draft, or quite possibly two.
In all honestly, if ever there was a year to purposely field a team composed of G-Leaguers and European journeymen, this was it.
Whether due to the shortened off-season, empty arenas, or lingering COVID effects, there was a lot of bad basketball across the Association this season, not just in Oklahoma City. Multiple 30-point blowouts on a nightly basis around the league mixed with inflated offensive stats due to inept defense made for one of the least appetizing seasons I can recall for some time.
For the Thunder, they used this abnormal season as an opportunity to revamp (TANK) and “explore” the young talent they had on the roster and elsewhere.
After Al Horford was sent home and SGA was shut down, the writing was on the wall for what the organizations plans were as far as building (TANKING) towards the future:
– Protect your assets (SGA / Dort).
– Give inexperienced players all the experience they can handle.
– Grow and nurture said players potential.
– Just lose baby!
The last part is not easy to get behind but it is what it is. The players and the fans ultimately pay the price in the present with the possibility to be set up for success in the future. Some might say OKC had no choice although the argument could be made that when the team was 19-24, the choice was made. Either play your best players in order to compete and possibly win some games now, or do the opposite. Sam Presti and Co. chose the latter and here we are, 22 wins and 50 losses later.
Exactly where the Thunder wind up when the dust settles in the aftermath of wheelman Sam Presti’s Tank operating excursion is yet to be determined. In the meantime, try musing over these lingering questions left behind after a mostly forgettable 2020-21’ season.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
First and foremost, we learned that constant losing is not fun and makes for uncompelling television. Let’s be real; Thunder fans have become accustomed to winning basketball. This makes a full month without a victory containing a surplus of double-digit losses hard to endure and a complete turnoff.
Label us spoiled, as we’ll proudly claim to be, due to the amount of amazing talent that has come through Loud City the past decade-plus. After yearly playoff appearances including several deep runs with 11 winning seasons out of the franchises 13, it’s not easy to reverse mental course and start supporting losses. Collectively, we all want what’s best for the organization and if a season of L’s is what gets us there, then so be it. Let’s just hope that this one 50-loss season doesn’t turn into a yearly occurrence.
We also learned a lot about the current players on the roster, such as who will be part of the rebuild going forward and who might be looking for work elsewhere. Obviously, Shai is the cornerstone of the franchise with Lu Dort being the Robin to his Batman. Unassuming youngsters like Theo Maledon, Isaiah Roby and Ty Jerome impressed and showed potential to be building blocks going forward. Aleksej Pokusevski and Moses Brown will be back next season with another opportunity to grow and improve. The future of Darius Bazley might be the murkiest as the former sneaker intern struggled with a mysterious shoulder injury and maybe some maturity issues. Bazley’s raw talent is unquestionable, but the mental aspect of his game has a long ways to go.
IS THE TANK COMING BACK?
Please no, but the reality of the situation says this could be just the beginning of what could be a long rebuild. Add to the matter the treasure chest of draft picks the organization possesses and one could draw a conclusion that more losing is potentially on the way.
There is no simple formula to follow in the “tanking” process. Some teams like the 76ers spent years losing in order to pick from the top of the draft year after year hoping to strike gold. While others like the Pistons and Timberwolves suffer a bit from Stockholm syndrome not even realizing they are still “tanking” after the fact.
Depending on how the draft shakes out for OKC, this summer will more than likely determine if we have to endure another ride in the Tank next season.
WAS ALL THE LOSING WORTH IT?
If Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley are wearing blue and orange next year than the answer will be an emphatic YES. If the Thunder somehow lands two lottery picks, one of those belonging to Houston, then again the answer will be YES.
With the experts predicting this upcoming draft to be a top-heavy 5/6 player draft, it would be disappointing if OKC didn’t somehow come away successful in either of those scenarios. Is either Jalen (Suggs or Green) worth 50 losses? Scottie Barnes or Jonathan Kuminga possibly could be game-changers down the road but aren’t quite considered franchise-altering prospects. Ultimately, the grand prize in Tankapolooza 21’ is Cade or Mobley, while everyone else is a consolation.
Lastly, the lingering effects of losing cannot be understated, especially when it comes to the psyche of young developing players. For the longest time, the word “culture” was synonymous with the Oklahoma City Thunder. What effect, if any, will the 3-26 stretch have on the organization as a whole? Sustaining loss after loss can be mentally debilitating and a growth stunt for some of these young men who are trying to find their way on and off the court. The winning ways and culture of the Oklahoma City Thunder are now a thing of the past. It was previously earned by others, and now it’s up to the new blood to earn it all over again.