Thunder Journal: Tanking to the Finish
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The Thunder have pushed the gas pedal to the floor of the tank and are headed full speed ahead to get farther behind as the team nears the season finish line.
Over the first half of the season, this scrappy squad was clearly too good to tank. A healthy Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a pre-shut down Al Horford, a pre-76er George Hill, and a pre-worst ankle sprain of all-time Mike Muscala was much closer to a play-in spot than a top 5 draft lottery spot.
But over the second half of the season, the Thunder finally flipped open the owner’s manual that was just sitting unread in the glove compartment of their brand new 2021 Tank Tacoma. OKC has trusted the process to the tune of 19 losses in their last 20 games. That one win, over the Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker-less Boston Celtics, continues to draw the ire as the one that got away for Thunder fans.
OKC has just five games left on the schedule and is one of five squads fighting it out for a top 5 pick.
The confusing combination of the flattened lottery odds, draft pick protections, complicated pick swaps with multiple teams, likely ties and thus unknown tiebreaker rules, has some Thunder fans who have never had to worry about the draft lottery (Cameron Dancing Payne doesn’t count) understandably asking a lot of questions.
Here’s what we know for fact:
- Houston stinks and has the #1 overall top draft lottery spot wrapped up. And that is good news for OKC because that gives the Thunder a 47.9% chance of the #5 pick, also known as Jonathan Kuminga. Sure, there’s a chance the Rockets could win four or five of their final six against the Bucks, Jazz, Blazers, Lakers, Clippers and Hawks and alter the standings. Just like there’s technically a chance that the Serbian 7 footer who wins MVP this year is Aleksej Pokusevski.
- OKC is guaranteed at worst the #6 draft lottery spot even if the Thunder win out.
- OKC is guaranteed at worst a tie for the #3 draft lottery spot if the Thunder lose out.
- OKC still has a chance to finish in the #2 overall draft lottery spot, which combined with the 47.9% chance of the Rockets swap conveying, would guarantee the Thunder a top 5 pick.
Right now, OKC is the #4 overall draft slot but are tied with the Magic and Cavaliers at 21 wins. The Wolves and Pistons both have 20 wins. Only two games remain among the five teams all within one win of each other: Minnesota vs. Orlando and Minnesota vs. Detroit. Since either the Wolves or Pistons have to win their game, one of them will join the 21 wins club and create a logjam at the #3 spot.
There’s even a total chaos timeline wherein all five teams tie for the #2 spot. In this scenario, OKC, Cleveland and Orlando lose out. Minnesota beats Orlando and loses all other games. Detroit beats Minnesota and loses the rest of their games. Given each team’s schedules, this ultimate Windsor Knot of a scenario isn’t actually too far out of the realm of possibility.
So what’s the tiebreaker if OKC winds up knotted up with one or more teams? There isn’t one. The draft lottery percentage points will be divided evenly (as possible) among every tied team. Then a drawing takes place to decide the draft order (#3, #4, #5, etc) in case the teams’ ping pong balls aren’t drawn.
OKC just needs to avoid another Celtics-like slip up of a clutch, inspiring victory and hope that the Magic, Cavs, Pistons and Wolves each have one more win in them. This is when we find out which teams are in it to win it and which ones are in to lose it.
If the Thunder end up with one or two top 5 picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, then OKC may be able to let off that gas pedal and start looking in the tank’s rear view mirror instead.