“Is This Tanking?” And Other FAQs for a Rebuild
Rylan Stiles hosts the Locked on Thunder podcast, and just launched a new project — Bricktown Buckets.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are embarking on a new but familiar journey. For the first time in Oklahoma City, the Thunder organization has updated its roster in such a way that has decreased its immediate ability to compete. Some call this “tanking”, some call it “rebuilding”; VP & GM Sam Presti has called it multiple names, but “shifting the odds” is one of his more descriptive phrases regarding this era of Thunder basketball.
This is a scary journey for some OKC fans who have seen a total roster turnover leaving Hamidou Diallo, drafted in 2018, as the longest-tenured player on the roster. It has left most fans with a host of questions, some legitimate–“Even Steven Adams?!” or “When will the rebuild be complete?”– and some less reasonable–“Are the Thunder going to relocate?”
Maybe you have these kinds of questions, or family members asking you what comes next for their beloved hoops franchise. Allow this article to be your reference for frequently asked questions about the so-called tank (which I do think is a fair term, but a positive one when done correctly).
1. Why rebuild?
Before diving into the many questions surrounding this time in Thunder history, you first have to understand the options Sam Presti had at his disposal.
The first option, which a surprising amount fans seem to unknowingly prefer, is to become the Orlando Magic. Oklahoma City has not made it out of the first round of the postseason since Kevin Durant departed. Unlike the Magic, the Thunder have tried their best to reinvent and improve their roster each season by adding the likes of Victor Oladipo, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul. But no matter the parts, the results stayed the same…a first round exit.
Even after trading Chris Paul this offseason, the Thunder could’ve found a path to competing, possibly turning out another scrappy team that middled their way through a slog of a 72 game season. Or even worse, putting the team in a position to not quite be good enough to make the postseason, but not bad enough to finish toward the top of the lottery. This has been dubbed accurately: the NBA’s treadmill of mediocrity.
Do Magic fans really get excited over their one good day a year? You know, that annual Game 1 victory over a higher seed in the opening round that makes the NBA world perk up for 24 hours? Is that enough to satisfy a fanbase that knows from the first day of the season that reaching that point–a single playoff win–is their ceiling? That suffering a gentleman’s sweep is their peak?
While the losses will take some getting use to, they are part of a process that is putting Oklahoma City back on a path to a championship. Sam Presti’s been open about his plans, acknowledging the rebuild’s inevitability in the summer of 2019, and adding detail to the strategy to after the draft. Much like Philadelphia’s “Trust the Process” Sixers days, it all ties back to a unitary vision and execution: sacrifice short-term competitiveness in order to get (much) better in the long-term. The phrase you may hear a lot between now and when the Thunder eventually hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy? “Shift the odds.”
2. Won’t the fans stop caring?
For everyone questioning the strength of the fanbase through a tank, I offer another question: What would stop the fan base from drifting into a state of apathy, the most dangerous state fans could be in for a sports organization, after yet another first round exit? Or after the team started regularly missing the playoffs with an aging group of veterans that was never replenished–to use another Presti phrase.
Eventually, people would not be interested in a team that has such clear shortcomings and gets bounced from the first round of the postseason each and every year. Fan interest will decrease during losing seasons, but massive interest from the local and global fan base will only exist when the Thunder are a legitimate contender once again.
3. Is this tanking?
If by “tanking” we mean putting a sure-to-lose product on the court in order to shift the odds while developing the young talent already on the roster, then yes. This is tanking–and it’s a good thing.
So what does it mean to shift the odds, and why is that so important for a team located in Oklahoma City? Well, at every turn, the odds of winning a championship are firmly stacked against the Thunder organization. A small market team first has to identify and draft multiple stars. But one mistake might cost them their superstar(s) via free agency, with no franchise savior coming down the pipeline of free agency. It is incredibly hard for an organization like this to win a championship. Unless you shift the odds.
The odds say you will not draft three straight MVPs again, the way Sam Presti did during his first iteration of, yes, tanking in Seattle. However, with 18 future first round picks in tow from now until 2027, the Thunder have every opportunity to not only identify and draft top talent, but to trade for it when the next disgruntled star becomes available (this happens roughly every five minutes in the NBA these days).
4. Doesn’t the lottery system make tanking a waste?
The draft has another set of odds stacked against the Thunder. Unlike in most sports, you can not just become the worst team and grab the top selection. The lottery system makes it difficult to secure a specific pick, but you can control what you can control. “Tanking” will not mean losing every single game possible, missing shots or defensive assignments on purpose, or letting players coach the team. But it may mean playing a roster inept enough to finish in the bottom-three of the season standings, ensuring them top-three draft selection odds and a 14% chance at getting the top pick in a loaded 2021 draft class.
No matter where they finish, as long as it is in the upper portion of the lottery, the Thunder will have the ammo to trade up. Remember, even a franchise-changing transcendent talent like Luka Doncic was had for a single future first-round pick and the five pick (Trae Young) in that class.
So rather than being a middling team that might wind up at 14, just outside the postseason, with only a 0.5% chance at the top pick, OKC can shift their odds: Finish in the bottom of the league, improve those lottery odds to 14%, and keep accumulating the assets needed to move up in the draft if and when the next Luka is on the board.
5. What does this mean for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?
TBD. Obviously, if the Thunder miss on every single pick and never improve the team from this state of tanking, that spells trouble for keeping a stud like SGA around down the road. However, if the alternative is routinely being a first round out, would that really make Shai happy? If all goes well, OKC will have drafted one or two generational talents to put alongside Gilgeous-Alexander, putting the team firmly in the mix for a championship at the end of SGA’s rookie extension to try and persuade him to re-sign for more of his prime years.
The bottom line is, as a small market, you never know how these things will go in free agency. Was a lack of success the reason Kevin Durant left or did he just want out? Even a massive market like Toronto lost their star, Kawhi Leonard, after winning a championship. Presti has to do what is best for the organization and the rest will fall into place. And so far, there is no indication that Shai is upset with the direction of the team as it seeks to build a contender aligned with his timeline.
6. Will the Thunder relocate?
Not because of the team’s success (or lack thereof). The only way OKC would relocate is if the organization and city got into a messy dispute about public funding for a new or renovated arena, which I do not foresee. I also have faith in the fanbase within the state to stay loyal and supportive of the organization that has given us so much high quality and entertaining pro basketball. The Thunder got our town in the big leagues, helping it become a top-25 city in America. Sending them packing would be a huge mistake.
7. When will the tanking end?
If all goes well, the pathway is simple. With a core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Lu Dort, Aleksej Pokusevski, and Theo Maledon, adding Cade Cunningham (or BJ Boston, or Jalen Suggs, or Jalen Green or any great talent in 2021) makes the 2022-23 team a fun, scrappy unit that still finishes with a high pick to add more talent. Then, in 2023-24 they turn the corner and begin to chip away at their goal of a championship.
Oklahoma City will not use all 18 future first round picks in the draft. After hopefully selecting a few franchise-changing stars to add to Shai and company, they will begin to use those picks to improve the team via an always fluid trade market
If all goes well, this will be a quick and easy rebuild. A fun one at that. They haven’t even gunned for a top pick yet, but even this roster will be fun and exciting to watch game in and game out. This team will rarely get blown out. It will be fun to see how Gilgeous-Alexander can elevate his game. Can he produce 25 points per contest? Can he turn into a lethal playmaker at his size? Darius Bazley getting a minutes boost will be huge for his development. And oh yeah, the international man of mystery Aleksej Pokusevski is here. There are plenty of reasons to still be invested in this team before we see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Staying invested during the losing will make the winning taste even sweeter. Lick your chops and Thunder up.