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Tank Diaries: Six Is the Number of the Beast

The Thunder entered lottery night with a chance at two top-five picks. Instead, they wound up at six in a draft with five elite prospects.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Call these ramblings of a mad sad man. … All over the place. … Feeling sorry for myself. … Ellipses deployed with no regard for human life. … I’ll try to remain positive for the most part. That’s a lie. Woe, woe, woe is me. ... Why do we care? When disappointment is so near, around every corner, waiting to strike, why do we care?

My Thunder fandom has taught me many lessons. Menisci, they’re no good. Some people know so little about Oklahoma City they call it Oak City. Another lesson is this: If things are going to go wrong for the Thunder, they are going to go very wrong. In comes the meat wagon. It will not rain. It will not pour. Fate brings them typhoons. … What a whiner. … Feels good. … The Thunder find drama at every turn and the failures are often spectacular for the uninvested. Tuesday night was another crash and burn in Thunder history. An NBA lottery that held so much promise decided to mandible claw my soul into the inner bowels of basketball hell. It is super hot down here and I keep bumping into Zaza Pachulia. Him and Bogut strut around like the anti–Splash Brothers. The Trash Brothers? The Crash Brothers?

Nazr Mohammed zoomed in to virtually represent Oklahoma City for the evening. On the back of his laptop are many stickers.

There’s one for Legos, one for Vegas, one for Superman, one for Starbucks, one for Charlie Chaplin. I guess maybe there are some robots, too? A combination of computer decorations equal parts fascinating and [yawns until I forget I was typing]... I don’t mean to suggest that if he had better stickers the Thunder would have gotten a better pick, I mean to say that outright. It’s like an off-brand Times Square vomited a mall. I like Nazr, though. I don’t want to be mad at him. I’ll tell you who I do want to be mad at, though …

This guy …

2021 NBA Draft Lottery Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

The deputy commissioner of the NBA and my worst nightmare, Mark Tatum. Look at this monster.

2021 NBA Draft Lottery Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Hey, where’s the free candy, guy? What are you so happy about? Is there a Friday Night Lights reunion happening just off camera? Are Kyle Chandler and Taylor Kitsch getting drunk together? Is Chandler telling Kitsch that he will always have his back no matter what? “I talked to the Godzilla people. There might be something for you.” “Don’t tease me, Kyle.” I’m betting such a reunion is not happening, though, so why don’t we take the joy down several notches, Mark? Why don’t we implement some chill into the proceedings? After all, you bring nothing but death and destruction, do you not? Your beautiful smile is a trick, is it not? You are telling me the exact thing I don’t want to hear and absolutely beaming while you do it. You are very upsetting.

His teeth are perfect and his skin is probably really soft and I sat there on my couch like a good boy and watched neutralized Josh Hall isos in the hopes my loyalty would be rewarded in the form of lions, top-five picks. What happened?! Wretched luck. Just brutal. Could have gone worse, technically, but this was one of those worst-case scenarios. Six? A stupid number, first of all. What even is its deal? It just sits there, wants to be a G. Can’t. You’re doing a number puzzle, it’s getting confused for a nine every time. You try to teach a little kid their numbers and they’re like, “Why are these two the same?” and you’re like, “Because whoever made that decision is a bad person.” I’m getting the number entirely out of my life. Will be a miracle if my daughters learn math at all because six no longer exists. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t have a six-pack. That and pizza. And fries. And I like ice cream. And don’t mind me but Dunkaroos are back.

Come on! Sixth?! That’s almost seventh! To whom did Dan Gilbert sell his soul, and are they looking to increase inventory? I’m in the mood to make some bad decisions and I’m trying to barter. NBA lottery-wise, Gilbert, whose Cavs shot all the way up to no. 3, has the luck of a yellow-blazered Nick Papagiorgio, painting Vegas electric red in all his gold-medallioned glory. Since the first time LeBron left Cleveland, in 2010, the Cavs have gotten the no. 1 pick three times. That’s a lot of times. In that same span they’ve also picked fourth twice and fifth twice. In non-LeBron seasons since he went to Miami, the only time the Cavs haven’t gotten a top-five pick was in 2018, when they got Sexton at no. 8. When the envelopes come out, it’s all Vipers and Mustangs for Gilbert, Hummers and white sedans I cannot properly identify. If I had more talent and time I’d Photoshop Daniel on the hood of the Hummer. I have neither of those. I move on.

I don’t think this result means the Thunder were wrong to tank this season. The whole point of tanking is giving yourself the best chance. You put yourself in the best possible position for a franchise-changing pick and then you get out of the way and let fate handle you how it handles you. Was the tank “worth it”? The Thunder were not winning anything of consequence this season. They would have been fighting tooth and nail to remain in the playoff hunt, same as Sacramento and New Orleans and the other mediocrities in the league. What was true remains true. The best chance the Thunder have for “extraordinary success” was to give the young guys time to learn, gather their bumps and bruises, make their mistakes, get up to speed, and get a great pick. The results of the lottery, however terrible, don’t change that.

The Thunder will enter this year’s draft with three picks in the first round (6, 16, and 18) and three picks in the second round (34, 36, 55). That’s 10 percent of the picks in the 2021 draft.

I think I have mentioned this before, but due to factors outside my control, namely dumb people on the internet, I feel the need to wade into the waters of Lake Obvious and say on behalf of most Thunder fans and all basketballisticly reasonable people the world over: Yeah, we know they can’t use all the picks. Do you think they think they can? Do you think the Thunder front office is up there like, “All right, well, we got 30-plus cracks at this thing over the next seven years?”

You don’t think there might be some consolidation along the way? Some trading? Packaging? Maybe these people are right and the Thunder, a professional basketball team, don’t know how many roster spots they have available to them each year, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say they do. What can I say? I’m a homer. The hand you’re dealt is the hand you’re dealt. Small markets build their teams through the draft. Or maybe the better way to say it would be that small markets build their teams through draft picks. They either take the star of the future with their draft pick, or they trade for a star with prospects and, almost certainly, future draft picks. That’s the way things work. It’s what it is.

The Thunder already have been busy. Last Friday, they traded Al Horford, Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round pick for Kemba Walker, the previously mentioned 16th pick in this year’s draft, and a second-round pick in 2025. My response to the trade is a pretty emphatic whatever. The Thunder aren’t going to actively put themselves in a worse situation for the sake of a player wanting out, but they have been, especially lately, very committed to working with big-name guys to help them get to a situation they find desirable. The cycle of distressed assets continues with Walker, though. If we, for a moment, do the gross thing and think of Walker as only a salary slot, it’s kind of a miracle what the Thunder have been able to do with that strategy. They match the Portland offer for Kanter in restricted free agency way back when. On down the line, Kanter is how they got Melo. Melo is how they got Schröder. Schröder goes to the Lakers for Danny Green and Green almost immediately goes to the Sixers for Horford. Now Horford is headed back east and Kemba’s coming to town. Or maybe not.

And so the season of hand-wringing and misinformation begins. The liars will be out and about. Half-truths run amok. I would love to come to you with a good sense for what the Thunder will do. I cannot. I have no idea. One sexy name going around at six seems to be Scottie Barnes. I like Barnes quite a bit. Anybody who played point in college and projects (to some) as this new kind of Draymond redux hybrid point center at the next level is infinitely interesting to me. I’d like to add here, too, that I appreciate anyone with enough style to pull off high socks and still look cool. That is one of the hardest things to do in sports, period. He can pass. He can lead the break. He’s fluid. He guards. He competes. Really a lotta hustle. I like it. The thing that scares me very much, the shooting. It’s not good. Maybe it could be with work? MAYBE. But it’s not good right now. I say this with love but it comes out of his hand a little Dort-from-two-seasons-ago-ish. The type of shot that has a parachute attached to the ball. If the Thunder took Barnes, I don’t think I’d have too much of a problem getting excited about it. There’s Keon Johnson taking regular trips to the thermosphere. There’s Davion Mitchell getting things done. It’s not as if there won’t be talent available, but my God, we’re a long way from Cade dreaming. It was so close! I have to stop.

Another option I’ve heard thrown out is the idea of bypassing the draft altogether, packaging some picks and Kemba and maybe someone else for Ben Simmons. Distressed assets, so hot right now. I have a hard time believing the Sixers would bite for a package like that but stranger things have happened. They’ve lost quite a bit of leverage in the situation. I could also see Kemba staying and playing. He takes his time getting back to full strength, shows he can still score when he comes back. He’s got only one more year on his deal after this season. Those kind of guys, if healthy, become infinitely easier to trade once there’s only a year left on their deal. Maybe then the cycle ends? I don’t know, y’all. The sixth pick. Cold world. Woof.

I know now as I type it that this will not happen, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I convince myself the Thunder could trade into the top five with some combination of players I don’t love plus 6, 16, and 18. I am sure that will happen. By the evening of July 29, I will find some sick, twisted way to tell myself that for sure, it’s going down. Top five, baby, the land of fancy. What did Joan Didion say? We tell ourselves stories in order to live?

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.