The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown over the last decade how a team can retool without tanking. They missed the playoffs once in the previous decade, with five different nuclei of star players. This season, the bottom has fallen out. Inspired by the 76ers’ model for success, they hope to draft and develop the best young talent available. But they have taken the methodology of tanking to epic proportions. They are the latest attempt to recreate The Process.
The Thunder are quietly 1-20 in their last 21 games, getting outscored by over 21 points per game. The Spurs and Pistons were both heavily criticized earlier in the year for benching their stars. The Thunder have quietly sat Al Horford and other vets and watched their performance plummet. They currently have the fourth-worst record in the league and are the latest team to undertake a tanking project.
Intentionally Ugly Basketball
The 76ers of the early 2010s were poorly constructed teams. This Thunder roster isn’t terrible. They were winning games before the all-star break and had reasons for optimism. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort showed promise. Veterans Al Horford and George Hill were putting up respectable numbers. Many thought they were on track to return to contention quickly.
And then the Thunder remembered they have with 34 draft picks over the next seven years, including 17 first-rounders. Or so it seems. Because since the all-star break, they have prioritized improving their lottery odds. Before discussing that strategy, one just has to appreciate just how terrible OKC has been.
In their 21-game stretch of horror, they have lost games by 31, 36, 37, 39, 48, and most notably, 57 points at home. While the internet has loved Poku-mania, this is embarrassing for the Thunder and brutal for NBA fans. The Thunder’s play rivals the level of play during The Process.
Benefit of The Process: Opportunities for Development
Besides improving their draft odds, tanking also helps the Thunder develop some of their young talent. Pokusevski has gotten some minutes to explore what he can do, and he has shown flashes of potential. Dort exploded for 42 points in a game as he experiments with the role of volume scorer. And SGA has made improvements across the board this year as the team’s primary ball-handler and leader. Big men Tony Bradley and Moses Brown have gotten big minutes. All of this allows the Thunder front office to evaluate what they have with their current roster.
The Thunder’s Embarrassment of Riches
Why the sudden urgency to be so bad? The short answer is that Oklahoma City has a treasure trove of picks. GM Sam Presti has amassed an unprecedented number of picks over the coming years. When Paul George asked to go to the Clippers, Presti netted five first-rounders in return. He extracted three more picks when moving Chris Paul this past summer.
With all of this draft capital, the ideal plan is to get some high picks, develop the talent, then trade some picks for star players. The Clippers, where George now plays, embody the perfect execution of this strategy. They built from within, forming a solid foundation to lure stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George then. If the Thunder hope to execute their tanking mission, the time to lose is now. Even the 76ers didn’t have so many picks when they began The Process.
Does The Process Work?
This is the million-dollar question. The results are mixed. The Sixers managed to figure it out, but they might be the exception. They hit on draft picks with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but also missed with plenty of others (e.g., Markelle Fultz). And that’s a successful case. Some teams (*cough cough, Minnesota*) have languished at the bottom of the standings for decades. Tanking requires luck in the draft lottery, luck in actually drafting the right player, and luck surrounding health and development.
It is far from an exact science. And there are arguments to be made for consistent and steady improvement. The Spurs are the prime example of this, though they have one of the greatest coaches of all time. They also had three franchise cornerstones. However, two of the top teams in the West, Denver and Utah, both followed this model.
Will Fan Bases Tolerate Tanking?
Whether tanking works is still up for debate. Whether fans like it is a whole other question. Some accept tanking as a reality of the modern NBA, especially to succeed in a small market. However, The Thunder fan base has grown accustomed to tremendous success. They’ve had three different MVPs on their roster in the last decade (though Harden didn’t fully develop until he got to Houston). They missed the playoffs only once in that span.
Now, it appears they are headed toward the bottom and might remain there for a few years. Maybe they come back as the newest superteam in the NBA, loaded with young talent. Maybe their tank job fails. Until then, for better or for worse, it’s time to settle in for some more Pokumania.