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Tank Diaries: To Tank Is to Live

When the only way to get a star again is to bottom out, every Lu Dort shot becomes a moral conflict

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It was Thunder-Spurs, 99 all, and I did not know what to want. Oklahoma City had the ball out of bounds, its end of the court, 3.9 seconds left. Typically, I’m wanting a bucket from the Thunder. Don’t care how it happens, so long as it does. This season, though, it’s more complicated than that. Oklahoma City has next to no chance of making the playoffs and no chance of making any meaningful push with the roster as currently constructed. It behooves the organization to lose some games, improve its draft position. This would be true in any year, but this year especially, with a draft class that’s loaded at the top. Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, USC’s Evan Mobley, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, and the G League Ignite’s Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga make up a quintet of game-changing prospects that have evaluators varying degrees of amped. It’s tantalizing stuff for a team with its eyes on the future. Also, I couldn’t find a good way to include it above but I do think Thunder Spurs would be a really cool band name.

But the Spurs game. Canadian dreamboat Shai Gilgeous-Alexander inbounded the ball to Al Horford. Already I’ve gone back and forth a few times not knowing the ending I want. It feels good when your team wins. It’s unnatural to want the opposite, and yet ... Horford got into the lane, drew a defender, and kicked to Canadian dreamboat Luguentz Dort in the right corner. Still not sure what to feel. I have a pulse so I’m a big Dort fan. I want success for him very much. He’s a beam of pure light and a defensive genius. I love him. I also love big wings with playmaking ability and omnidirectional vision. I think about how Detroit just keeps getting it done, catching as many L’s as possible. Troy Weaver went and signed 30 centers and y’all torched him for it. The Pistons are last in the East, have the second-worst record in the league, and drop games regularly. Chess not checkers. Got the double draft here soon too, if/when they let guys start coming fresh out of high school again. Emoni Bates would look great in a Thunder jersey. I should read up on Ypsilanti. Or what about Paolo Banchero? This dude. Sheesh. What’s train-sized and does everything? Paolo Banch—then Dort let it fly, and my mind went blank, and all I wanted was for the ball to go in.

Velveeta’s favorite player is typically a considerate shooter, cares about the basketball’s experience, wants it to see as much of the world as possible while it’s in the prime of its life. As such, he can fire off some moon balls. He reined it in this time and things went smoother. Red lights wrapped the basket and zeros lit the clock when it splashed through. Dort fell back like Devin Booker after his bubble buzzer-beater against the Clippers. The Thunder bench erupted, sprinted across the court. Pure giddiness. I think you can hear some of them yelling “Dortpile.”

SGA had 42 that night, too. God bless Canada.

We’re back in Chicago for several months for my wife’s job. She lived here for seven years. I lived here for five. We met here, love it, still visit as much as we can. But I forgot what the winters can do to a person. It’s weather that beats you up. A few days after we arrived it snowed sideways. At night the wind chill knocked temperatures south of zero. If I shower in the morning and leave the apartment hatless with wet hair, some strands freeze together.

The apartment, like most fresh off a move, is confusing and half-empty. Boxes galore. Some are still full. Some are broken down. Our sock bottoms collect pieces of packing tape and stickers our girls have destroyed. There’s very little difference between a 1.5-year-old and a puppy. She can reach the counters here. She’s currently into closing doors in people’s faces. She’ll hurl herself headfirst at an open dishwasher. I’m catching her with one hand midleap. Dad reflexes are real. I turn into Odell Beckham Jr. when the girls start to fall. The 1-year-old pinballs around the place. The 4-year-old waits off to the side for stuff to calm down so she can tackle the 1-year-old and get things going again. You’re on defense constantly. We’re like those soccer goalies who have to make like three insane saves in a row. When the threat’s been neutralized we make strongly worded suggestions for how they should handle themselves next time. I’d say our usage of the word “gentle” has increased upward of 2000 percent since we became parents.

I learn new things about this place by the hour. That light switch doesn’t work. We need more cups. That light switch actually controls the living room. That outlet’s busted. I’ll call Sebastian, the electrician. Do we know where the breaker box is? You said behind the trash cans in the basement? All right, cool. Sebastian’s gonna be pissed about that location.

A few days after the sideways snow it was a balmy 34. The sky was blue. Might as well have been San Diego. Chicago winters, it can be gray for days. Makes you appreciate the sun when it pokes its head out. I drove around with the windows down, listened to DOOM. Been listening to him more since he died. Everything that glitters ain’t fishscale. Tooled around south of Andersonville with “Licorice” playing, some wedges of snow hanging on. Saw a Waylon Jennings–looking guy in jean shorts. Had the carpenter strap with the Hilfiger flag. I can only bow down. He knows. Seize the day. The little improvements, they’re things to get excited about. 34’s not 70 but it’s better than zero. Small victories are still victories. Fall in love with progress. Warm days are coming. All that crap.

It’s a fine line. You want to see development. You want to see encouraging signs of growth, flashes of greatness yet to come. You want them to play hard and smart, lean on the culture that’s been created, use it to their benefit. You want to see seeds that might lead to rings.

You also want them to lose. All the time. I mean, not all the time, obviously, that would be terrible. But the draft is what the draft is. It pays to lose.

In today’s NBA, a small-market team has basically two ways to add premium talent. And let’s vaguely define “premium” in this context as a guy who could one day be a top-five player in the league, someone who could theoretically be the best player on a championship team. For the sake of this stupid diary, let’s call those players lions. Let’s do that because lions are awesome. They are majestic and cool. I like when they yawn. Check out this one.

That’s what I’m talking about. Fantastic. My guy’s savoring the yawn, making it last. We could learn a lot from him. I find I rush a lot of my yawns these days. That’s not even true. This bit’s run its course.

For small markets, one way to get a lion is through a trade. You acquire enough good-to-great assets and swap them for a lion when one of the lions becomes unhappy with his current setup. Seems like that’s happening a fair amount these days. More often than not now the lion has specific places in mind for where he’d like to wind up. Those who follow this stuff can rattle them off without thinking. Even if you don’t follow this stuff, you could probably rattle them off without thinking. If a small market trades for a lion when it’s not on the lion’s preferred list of teams, in those instances, it’s betting on its culture, hoping to impress the lion enough that he’ll re-sign when the time comes and not bolt for greener grasslands elsewhere. The Thunder have experience with this. Sometimes you impress enough to get the guy to re-sign and he still bolts. The Thunder have experience with this, too. Paul George contains multitudes.

The other way to get a lion is through the draft. It would be great if there were more ways to go about acquiring transcendent talents, but realistically, there aren’t. The best odds any small market has at getting a lion is getting one of those top-five draft picks. It would take a miracle to get a monster free agent to sign with Oklahoma City. And so the tanks happen, and they’ll keep happening, until either they get rid of the draft altogether, go Euro style with each organization having their own youth academies, or do something I’m not smart enough to think of right now. It’s not that this is the only way for a small market to win a title. There are others. You can try to luck out by hitting on Kawhi or Giannis at 15. It’s just, it bodes well to be the rule, not the exception. If you want lions, the tip top of the lottery is where it’s at.

Some fans and analysts disagree with this pro-tank line of thinking, and that’s cool. I’m not interested in changing anybody’s mind. I imagine I can offer no new argument you haven’t considered before and vice versa. And I’m sure you’ve rolled your eyes a fair amount thus far. I wish you well. Appreciate you reading this far. Enjoy the first round.

It’s odd, though. You want the shot to go in. You want the shot to miss. Tanking’s nothing new. Many fans are familiar with this conflict. Doesn’t make it any less strange. You love your team. You love them so much you want them to suck. It is counterintuitive and stupid but, unfortunately, it’s the best method that exists.

Even still, though, when Dort let that ball go, a make was all I wanted. I surprised myself. It floated toward the rim and I said to no one, “It’d be so awesome if he made that.” And he did. And I was stoked. And the team was stoked. An undrafted former two-way guy who’s worked so hard to get to where he is, he deserved a moment like that. And he got one. And it was great. It is great. But 20 seconds after the make I was back thinking, “Man, those are the kind of games you need to lose.”

The Thunder are having a hard time doing what Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said was in the team’s future. He published a letter in The Oklahoman on July 25, 2019. It concerned the future of the Thunder, where the franchise was headed. Among other things, he wrote:

Oklahoma City expects, and deserves, extraordinary success. Delivering this is what drives us. But I want to be transparent and realistic about the process that meeting these types of expectations may require. Despite our city’s rapid rise and growth, Oklahoma City remains the second-smallest market in the NBA. While this brings many benefits, it also poses strategic challenges. Given the way the league’s system is designed, small market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. This in no way means we cannot be extraordinarily successful — we, and several other small to mid-market teams, are our own best examples of the ability to overcome these realities. It simply means we must be thinking differently, optimistically, finding our advantages by other means.

In order to build — and then sustain — a truly great basketball team, it requires a method. This method is not guesswork or a convenient message that miscasts others’ good fortune as a repeatable skill. To build true excellence in any industry, and then sustain it, requires trading on time and playing the empirical odds. This will require strategic discipline and thoughtful patience, but these are values our organization has always held high. That’s how longevity is earned. It is important to remember that.

It will take us time, now, to reposition, replenish, and then ultimately rebuild our team. Things will inevitably get harder from here. At some point during this transition, we may not have the kind of team you’ve been used to. But we will be fearless, focused, and relentless in seeking opportunities to improve our long-term position.

I’m a sloppy interpreter prone to laziness and oversimplifying things but I feel like that’s basically, “Prepare to lose, my friends.” Presti’s made it clear he’s interested in building teams that have a legitimate chance to compete for titles for multiple years. “Extraordinary success.” He doesn’t want a team clawing its way to a 5-seed, like the Thunder did last year. If he did they’d have run it back with the team they had.

The Thunder have been a little too competent this season, though. At least so far. After a win against the Lukaless Mavs, Oklahoma City is 16-21. That’s good for the ninth-worst record in the league. They’re 2.5 back from the play-in and are a depressing 5-5 in their last 10. My friend D and I text about the team quite a bit. Things like, “Hopefully we trade every veteran of value at the trade deadline,” and “Klay wishes he was Lu,” and “Have you seen Minari?” We joke a lot about the Thunder firing head coach Mark Daigneault because he’s doing too good of a job. Oklahoma City outperforming expectations and threatening the quality of its pick isn’t even really an elephant in the room at this point. People are talking about it openly. Daigneault was asked about it on Wednesday. His response:

“The blunt answer is, when I accepted the position I wanted to develop a culture that transcended where the team is. Wherever the outcomes fall as a result of that process, that’s where they fall.”

I like the answer. The competency is frustrating (I’m mostly joking) for those of us intent on lions, but it says a lot about the players that the effort’s been so consistent. They’re clearly putting in the work to get better and guys are taking advantage of their opportunities. Hamidou Diallo has shown some things as a ball handler people didn’t know he had. Isaiah Roby’s continued to improve and has put both Jakob Poeltl and Nikola Vucevic on the bad end of two different kinds of highlights.

Théo Maledon’s far better than where he was drafted. Poku’s one of the 10 most important people in my life. It says something about Daigneault and the way he and his staff prepare, get the team ready. Says something about the system they’re putting in place, about the culture that was already established.

I don’t want to get carried away here. I don’t mean to say the Thunder are a good team. They’re not. They’re dead last in offensive rating, 27th in net rating, and outside of Shai they don’t get to the line at all. They don’t make a lot of shots and they grab none of their misses. After a glorious run of Steven Adams–led (Enes Kanter and Russell Westbrook deserve some flowers for this, too) years at or near the top of the league in offensive rebounding—for five straight seasons, from 2014-15 through 2018-19, Oklahoma City ranked 2, 1, 1, 1, 3 in the category; Steve’s a bull—the Thunder are dead last this year. When they win games, they win them on the strength of their defense. They’re ninth in the league in defensive rating and scrap every night. They somehow win these COVID-drained games where they’ve got only eight guys available and the other team has everybody. Daigneault will throw five forwards out there. Kenrich Williams initiates the offense every now and then? It works a weird amount of the time? For a Thunder fan this team can be disorienting because while they aren’t good they can be pretty fun to watch. I need to emphasize the “for a Thunder fan” part of that. To another person it could be like watching knee surgery. I don’t know. I can’t speak to your taste. I haven’t checked with the review board in a minute but as I understand it the Thunder aren’t exactly soaring to the top of anybody’s League Pass rankings at the moment, though I am expecting that to change soon considering Poku just got called up from the G League bubble and started Thursday night.

Says something about the strangeness of the season. A season that probably (how do you do the thing where you mark a line through the word probably?) shouldn’t be happening, but is anyway. The second half of the schedule this year is a sprint with a hippo on your back. A bunch of meaningful games in a short period of time. More injuries will undoubtedly happen. Until they get the vaccine, whenever that is, contact tracing will still keep guys out of multiple games. Nothing’s certain. The Thunder beat the Bucks with Giannis earlier this season in a game where Justin Jackson led Oklahoma City with 22. That was a game after he put up 20 in a loss to the Nuggets. Jackson literally didn’t get in the game Thursday night. DNP–Coach’s Decision. Twice this year the Thunder have taken the Lakers to overtime. Nonsense is bound to keep happening.

Oklahoma City’s inability to fully tank says a lot about SGA, too. The thing about SGA is, he’s just really, really good now. He adds something new to his game every year, becomes a more nuanced, thoughtful player by the game. Things have slowed down for him. His body’s starting to fill out. You see guys bounce off him now. He can take hits in the paint, finish through contact, effectively challenge shot blockers. The raw numbers are great: 23.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, and 6.2 APG on 51/41/80 shooting splits. He’s taking five 3s a game and is currently 12th in free throws attempted. He’s 70th in true shooting percentage at 62.7. For a lead guard with a 27.8 percent usage rate, a guy that’s no. 1 on every team’s scouting report, that’s good cooking. I’m not ready to call the bubble a mirage—the Lakers were the best team in the league and deserved the title, Dame’s always Dame, the Suns are good—but bubble failures get smaller by the day in my eyes. I think some of SGA’s struggles there have been overstated; he hit a gigantic 3 from the corner with under 15 secs left in the game and the Thunder down two to win Game 3, but I’m a homer so of course I’d say that. The Rockets were a rough matchup for him. The switching gave him problems. He couldn’t bring bigs out to the perimeter, attack them off the dribble. And his stuff in isolation wasn’t as good as it is now. He added to his arsenal in the offseason. His release is quick enough now he can get to his stepback when he needs to. He’s got that little sidestep 3 off of pump fakes. And in the lane he’s still slick. He dances past guys, slides around people, just kind of flows. He uses his long first step to get past the defender and turns them around in the paint until daylight presents itself. It’s shiftiness around the rim, finishes with either hand, floaters from odd distances at odder angles, and he’s really started to blossom as a playmaker. Let me clear out for my colleagues from Ringer NBA University, the Wednesday show on our Ringer NBA Show podcast feed. They discussed Gilgeous-Alexander’s development on the most recent episode. After a lyrical intro that opened with the line, “The Judds taught us that love can build a bridge,” J. Kyle Mann started spouting off beautiful numbers. One hit extra nice:

“Among players carrying at least 100 pick-and-roll possessions, and that’s 71 guys in the NBA so far, Shai has the second-highest score frequency in the NBA.”

I pound my chest a couple of times and scream, “Now that’s how you’re supposed to talk. From now on, that’s how you talk.” KOC comes in, pumps up the volume.

“Gilgeous-Alexander this year is averaging 6.2 assists per game. He has 13.8 potential assists (we hear an audible ooooh from Tjarks) which means 7.6 shots per game that could be assists have been missed by teammates. Of the 35 guys this season to log at least 10 potential assists, SGA ranks 34th in those assist opportunities being converted into made baskets. … With Gilgeous-Alexander I don’t think there’s any issue with passing accuracy. There’s no issue with feel or timing. It’s just largely a matter of the supporting cast around him. … As Oklahoma City’s talent around him improves you will see him maintain that elite scoring efficiency in the pick-and-roll but also get possibly even better overall because the threat of that passing ability is just going to enhance overall who he is as a player. He could be special.”

[Clapping my hands till they bleed, full-bore screaming at the steering wheel] “LET’S GO KEV!”

You have to have a certain kind of mindset. To tank is to live. It’s the hibernation period, the rope-a-dope. Take the hits now. Knock them out later.

Much has been made of the number of draft picks the Thunder have in their possession for the foreseeable future, but the Thunder have three this year that are of great interest to the fan base. The first is obviously their own. Us tankers would love to drop quite a few games the last half of the season, see that pick improve. The second and third are pick swaps with the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat. The Rockets pick is top-four protected. The Heat’s is unprotected. The Thunder will have the two best picks out of those three.

I am equal parts doomsday and dreamer as a fan. Depends on the day you catch me. I can sometimes be up in the clouds thinking things I have no business thinking, my fandom clouding my judgment into opinions like, “Mitch McGary is our 4 of the future” and, “Man, Jeremy Lamb’s really putting it together” and, “Look for that Daequan Cook signing to be sneaky huge for the Thunder during the playoffs.” Other times I just get super negative, hopeless.

At the start of the season it seemed like a top-five pick was all but a certainty. A foregone conclusion. Practically everybody in the West was going to be going for it. There’s only so many wins to go around. We did not know, then, just how good SGA was. We did not know, then, the ways Dort and Diallo would improve. We did not know then that the team would play so hard every night. They don’t quit trying just because they’re down double digits. They make you beat them. It’s inspiring. It’s maddening.

I’m so jealous of the Rockets. They’ve lost 14 in a row. Fourteen! Just incredible. That’s how you get it done. A stunning, transformative nosedive off a cliff. I would do horrible things for even, like, a six-game losing streak at this point. At the beginning of this Rockets’ skid I was ecstatic. When you have a team’s pick, their failures are beautiful gifts that fall into your lap like surprise candy. They brighten your day and make you forget Darius Bazley’s struggled with his shot this season. Now things are starting to feel a little too hairy. They’re losing too much! As I mentioned, their pick’s top-four protected and my visits to yield far too many spins with the Houston Fertittas landing in the top four. This, this is not what I want. Right now the Rockets have a 52.1 percent chance to be in the top four and a 14.0 percent chance of getting the first pick. After Thursday night’s win against the Mavs, the Thunder are at 20.3 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. Let’s flip that. We’re running out of time.

This … I knew about it before, but when your team has a vested interest in the lottery order, this thing’s a drug. I can’t get enough. I go to the site, click SIM LOTTERY a couple hundred times like a madman. Live and die with each spin. In this spin we have the first and fifth picks. I’m untouchable. I do the Antonio-Banderas-loving-what-he-just-saw-on-the-computer face and give middle fingers to all my little desk knickknacks. In this spin we have the third and eighth. Takes me 20 seconds to get to, “These are actually the two perfect picks for us.” In this spin we have the 10th and 18th. I vomit my own heart and throw it into the ocean. Back early in the season, when the Heat were really struggling out of the gate, you saw some Tankathon screenshots from Thunder fans that had Oklahoma City with picks one and two. If that happened—I’m well aware it won’t, but if it did—I would ascend to another plane of consciousness altogether, get beamed into the heavens like Tim Robinson’s motorcycle-loving alien after seeing a bus for the first time in that great I Think You Should Leave sketch. “It’s got a little house in it! Come on, it’s got a little house in it!”

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.