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Tank Diaries: Unsung Gems

The Thunder’s draft-pick collection hit the mid-30s at the trade deadline, but the non-bold-faced names they acquire along the way could be just as important

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The trade deadline has come and gone. We did not know what would happen, we just knew something would. How wild would things get? Very, it seemed, but the NBA is packed with surprises. When noon PT hit, it seemed like one big ehhhh. Things had started off warm enough with Aaron Gordon heading to Denver and Vooch taking his talents to the Bulls, but then stuff commenced to cooling. A lot of it too boring to type. The rest, well, there was a Lou Will–Rajon Rondo trade that echoed the two Spider-Man meme, only they’d be standing back to back, not dressed alike at all, and pointing in opposite directions. Shaq and Muggsy Bogues have more similar games. More news started to trickle in. J.J. Redick’s a Maverick. Hornets get Brad Wanamaker. The Cavs are working on a buyout with Andre Drummond. The Spurs are finalizing a buyout with LaMarcus Aldridge. Oh, hey, Oladipo is headed to the Heat, too. The Rockets traded him for … wait … it says here a bag of chips, some paper clips, and a Toyota Corolla? That can’t be right. Don’t they play at the Toyota Center? Tilman Fertitta should be able to get even a 4Runner or something pretty easily, right? I guess I’d need to see what kind of chips they are, though. Are they BBQ? OH HEY the Raptors are keeping Lowry?! Masai! You fox! At the end, the whole deadline felt like Geraldo opening Capone’s vault. The bells and whistles you have, my eyeballs you have, but where are the goods?

We didn’t know how active the Thunder would be. In the end the answer was “somewhat,” with George Hill going to the Sixers. But Oklahoma City had already made a couple of trades in the weeks and days leading up to the deadline. The Hamidou Diallo deal kicked the Thunder’s trade season off. He went to Detroit for a 2027 second-round pick and Svi Mykhailiuk, who is apparently upper-middle-class Turkoglu all of a sudden? I’m trying to do the responsible thing and drop a couple of games here to set the tone for the second half of the season and I got the Ukraine Maker flying into town dropping hammers? What’s the meaning of this? This pick is important. I appreciate the effort and I want all that and more the first three quarters, but come winning time you got to chill out.

Then last week they traded Trevor Ariza for Meyers Leonard(’s contract) and another 2027 second-round pick. 2027 second-round picks are some of this year’s hottest gifts. Ariza, famously, wasn’t with the team at all this season. Leonard, famously, is an anti-Semitic fleck of shit. The Thunder waived him yesterday.

We’re hopping around. Before all that went down, about a week before the deadline, Oklahoma CIty fully guaranteed the final two years of Lu Dort’s contract, so if you saw a double rainbow on March 17 that’s what was going on. When the Woj bomb exploded across my timeline, I danced a gig. The Poku had not yet been discovered, but if it had, I’d have obviously done that. I already wrote too much about him last week, but it feels like it’d be irresponsible for me not to comment on his dance. It moved me. I saw it happening and I said this should be its own channel. If we pay close attention there are echoes of Michael Cera dancing for the Superbad DVD menu within the Poku. I’m not saying it’s a one-to-one. It’s not. I believe the term is spiritual sequel? Anyway, I’m in the process of learning it. Hoping to conquer it here in the next few days. I’ve got the beginning down cold but hand jives always have given me fits. Let us kneel at the feet of the creator and let him show us the way, the way to Poku.

I’m ashamed to admit it now but there was a moment, writing this, when I hesitated to call Woj’s Dort tweet a “bomb.” ’Cause look, there are levels to these Woj tweets. No offense to the parties concerned but “The Detroit Pistons are trading guard Delon Wright to the Sacramento Kings for guard Cory Joseph and two second-round picks” is not the same as “The Pelicans have agreed to a deal to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks.” I toyed with something like “projectile” or “grenade” or “tripwire.” I almost did that. I’m so glad I didn’t. Anthony Davis and Lu Dort are pretty obviously in the same stratosphere. It was the right call. My family is proud of me and so am I.

Hill is in Philly now, playing for a contender. He was traded for Tony Bradley and two second-round picks. Terrance Ferguson was in the trade, too. He’s headed to the Knicks. The Thunder got back Austin Rivers to complete the deal. Nobody knows whether he’ll suit up for Oklahoma City or not and frankly I have no clue what I want so I’m just going to go back to Hill. He was fantastic for the Thunder this year. Played well when he played and cheered hard when he didn’t. He was in street clothes but still engaged, still invested. That’s what you want out of your vets at any time, but especially in the midst of an attempted tank. I could sit here and pretend I know a lot about Tony Bradley’s game but I don’t. He won a title with North Carolina in college, the first big off the bench, and got drafted no. 28 by the Sixers in 2017. Joel Embiid’s a big fan.

It’s a fringey move but those moves matter to organizations in the position Oklahoma City is now. They’re in the business of finding gems others missed. Small markets in the midst of a rebuild have to be. Some of the biggest success stories on the Thunder right now are guys other organizations just missed on. You’ve got the aforementioned, undrafted, destroyer of dreams in Dort, but you’ve also got Kenrich WIlliams. He’s playing far and away the best basketball of his career and is a prime example that players that seem like inconsequential throw-ins can wind up mattering a lot if the situation is good and they take advantage of it. He was an afterthought in the Steven Adams deal. Frank Jackson piqued my interest more. But when a report came out midday Wednesday that said the Thunder weren’t interested in moving Williams, I dropped my phone and did the Poku where I stood.

Williams is easy to root for, steady and tireless and smart. He’s one of the best cutters in the league and his instincts off the ball find him flashing behind the defense for dunks or runners or bunnies that drop through the net before a majority of the defense realizes what happened. Kenny Hustle’s shooting has been a revelation. He’s hitting 58 percent of his field goals and 44 (44!) (Forty-four!) percent of his 3s. Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s in the 98th percentile among players at his position in efficiency differential, at plus-15. That’s good for eighth in the league. I’m with most that plus/minus isn’t always the most trustworthy number to look at on a game-to-game basis but over the course of the season I think it’s safe to consider it significant. If it’s not a major development in the Thunder’s team-building future at least it’s a medium one.

It’s like he’s always going downhill. Tries to catch on the move, attack immediately. He’s decisive with the ball in his hands and his versatility on both ends opens up a world of different lineup combinations. And there have been a lot of DIFFERENT lineup combinations. Very different. Lou Will and Rondo different. The other night Daigz—I’m doing it, you can’t stop me—had Al Horford, Isaiah Roby, and Moses Brown all on the floor at the same time. You could’ve given me a thousand hours to come up with all manner of plausible lineup possibilities the Thunder could’ve rolled out this season and there’s no way on Dort’s green earth I would’ve come up with that combo.

With Williams, pick your cliché. He’s a glue guy. An overachiever. Brings toughness and energy off the bench. Changes the game when he checks in. Spark plug. Competitor. Will do whatever it takes to win. And I’m not a coach but I played one on the internet so I know, this is the type of guy who gets coaches gushing. “A joy to coach.” “If I had five of him we wouldn’t get out-toughed, I’ll tell you that much.” The nickname Kenny Hustle did not happen by accident. The Thunder won’t win enough games—thank God—for Williams to win it and this award is kind of stupid but he belongs on any potential Most Improved Player list. I know he’s 26 and maybe he’s not right in lock-step with Shai’s timeline, but Williams is a winning player on an amazing contract who can handle it a little bit, is thrilled to do the dirty work, and can hit 3s. He can also guard 1 through 4. These men are not just everywhere.

Hustle’s been the leader of a Thunder bench that’s been surprisingly potent of late. During the first quarter of the Thunder’s loss to Memphis on Wednesday, Paris Lawson, the great broadcast and digital reporter for the Thunder, dropped these nuggets about Oklahoma City’s bench. I adjusted the numbers to account for the Grizzlies game.

  • 40-plus points in five of their past seven
  • 48-plus FG% in six of their past seven
  • 40-plus 3P% in five of their past seven
  • Three players with 10-plus points in six of their past seven

Again, an underdiscussed joy of blowing it up and flipping your tentpoles like Russell Westbrook and Paul George and Chris Paul and Steven Adams is, sometimes a guy who looks wholly unimportant to the future of your team winds up being able to do a whole lot more than you previously thought. And he fits well. And you want him to stay. Hidden gems get found. I mentioned Williams earlier but similar things could be said about Ty Jerome. I didn’t think much at all when he got named in the Chris Paul trade. Like most, I was distracted by the Oubre of it all. And I fall in love too easily and let me give all the normal caveats about trying hard not to just see what I want to see but I think Jerome can play.

The Thunder are the strong silent type. You don’t hardly ever hear a peep out of them in advance of trade talks. You get the sense if you do hear about something involving them it’s always the other team spilling the tea. Their trades can land like a tray hitting the ground in a school cafeteria. A crash out of nowhere. Everybody looks and a fuss is made.

This was true before the deadline but as of today Oklahoma City has—say it with me, Thunder fans—at least 34 future draft picks over the next seven years. That’s 18 first-round picks and 16 second-round picks. You wanna talk about a trove!

I don’t think this rapid accumulation of picks means the Thunder intend to use every one of them on physical players. Some have acted like they’ll all be used and that’s mathematically impossible—there are only 15 roster spots and players need time to develop and on and on—but many of these picks are ammo to be packaged together to move up in the next few drafts, sweeten the pot on future trades. They’ll try to surround Shai with as much young talent as possible, get as many high-upside guys on a similar timeline, maybe spend several on the next disgruntled star. The Harden Trade: Part 2 was in January. Surely someone else is pissed by now.

They should make future picks physical objects. A pick should resemble a gold bullion coin. Put Stern’s face on it. Give him a little speech balloon over his head that says, “The boo is an American sign of respect.” Each team could be issued a treasure chest and when it’s time to trade the future pick a member of each organization goes to an undisclosed location, preferably an abandoned parking lot or nondescript tunnel somewhere, and makes the transfer. Maybe the person carries the bullion in one of those silver briefcases like people in the movies carry and the briefcase is handcuffed to their wrist? I don’t want to tell Adam Silver how to do his job. Actually, I guess I kind of do but I don’t want to have any actual responsibilities. I don’t like emailing or talking on the phone and honestly sometimes even texting is a lot to deal with. I’d be bad for the job. I’d like to remove my name from consideration.

If the future pick gets traded in the offseason you could go the opposite direction and broadcast the bullion transfer.

Raptors. Trail Blazers. Drake. Dame. When gold changes hands. Live from the Beverly Hills Hotel, tonight at 8 on NBA TV, brought to you by the all new Gillette ProGlide Shield Men’s Razor. Featuring Gillette’s patented FlexBall Technology, the ProGlide Shield offers two times the lubrication* for unbeatable closeness and way more comfort. (*When compared to the ProGlide.)

Basically, you let prominent members of the organization/people affiliated with the organization be in charge of the giving and receiving of the bullion. Teams would pick them the same way they pick their representatives at the lottery. Do it up. Big, elaborate event. Red carpet. Step and repeat. Tissot Style Lounge. With a performance by Sting introduced, once more, by Carmelo Anthony. Sting would be good because, as Melo told, he has “tons of hits.”

Another option is these are terrible ideas.

Two brief asides. First, I’ve started to treat my trips to the way I used to treat going to the gym and getting up shots. When you’re done working out, you have to leave on a make. When I’m done spinning, I don’t leave until I get the Thunder in the 1 spot and the Rockets (and therefore the Thunder) in the 5. Then I take that positive energy, let it lift me, and do the Poku.

And second, I look exactly like Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins and find it disorienting to watch Grizzlies games. Jenkins, of course, is the first-born son of American actor Richard Jenkins* (Step Brothers, Fun With Dick and Jane, The Shape of Water). In some of my more intoxicated moments I’ll look at Coach Jenkins on the television and be like, “Wait, where did I … I’m not there. I’m here. Hey! Tyler! You’re here! Not there!!” It’s truly distracting. If Jenkins was a fugitive on the loose and his picture was plastered everywhere like a Wanted poster, someone would see me and call the cops.

* This is true.**

** No it is not.

This past Wednesday, before the Grizzlies game, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault broke the news Shai will be out for an extended period of time with plantar fasciitis. Let’s go to Daigz.

“I don’t want to use long-term because it’s vague but it’s not day-to-day. It’s going to be a more significant amount of time than day-to-day. This one is an injury that we need to now take a look at.”

Injuries are never good. Nothing to be celebrated here. The Thunder have reason to be overly cautious. They’ve had faces of the franchise with serious foot injuries in the past and they’ve come back too soon and reaggravated the injury. There’s no reason to rush him back. Let him rest, take his time getting his body right. You be careful with stars.

I’m not suggesting the Thunder are faking the injury. There are clips of him landing and wincing that I’m too lazy to find. This is obviously the right thing to do, the best for his future and the franchise’s. I’m only saying they’ll use this as an opportunity to take every single precaution possible. So many, in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Shai didn’t play again this season. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he did play, late in the year, if he really, really wants to, and there’s no chance for reaggravation, and there’s no uncertainty surrounding the team’s lottery odds. Speaking of, the Thunder are 19-25 and 5-5 in their past 10. Five wins in that amount of time is honestly so many wins it makes me dizzy, but I touched on this briefly last week—it’s difficult to get too mad at the W’s when the young guys with staying power are the ones making them happen. And even though they’ve defied win projections and low expectations thus far, a hell run is coming on their schedule. Outside of a couple of games against the Pistons and one against the Cavs, every team they play between now and May will be gunning for at least the play-in and the Thunder will be without Shai. Losses should mount but honestly who knows at this point. Moses Brown’s getting double-doubles in 14 minutes. Clearly anything is possible.

Right now the Thunder have the eighth-worst record in the league. If the season ended today, they would have a 26.3 percent chance at a top-four pick and a 6.0 percent chance at no. 1. On some level I have to fight the urge to want to speed up the rebuild and get back to a place where I’m not hoping for losses, because absolutely it can feel a little gross. With this team, I have so much respect for the way they play I start to trash myself. How dare you call yourself a fan? These are people. They work hard. They bring you joy. Why would you wish failure upon them? Because the world is backward and bad is good. And actually, sorry, I just realized I did have it wrong earlier. The Rockets traded Harden for a bag of chips, some paper clips, and an all new Kia Sorento. I take back what I said earlier. I like that deal a lot.

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.