clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tank Diaries: I Don’t Like Tanking

The Thunder won their regular-season finale. It was one of the worst results in franchise history.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Make me pick the Four Horsemen of Disappointing Thunder Results and the first that leaps to mind is Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals. You might know it as the Klay Game. I might know it as a nightmare. Him and his jumper, setting everything on fire, ruining my night. For the unfamiliar, this game was dumb and good for nothing. I watched it at a bar during my wife Blythe’s college reunion. Five years later the game’s mostly an inebriated blur for which I want zero clarity. Among the saddest nights of my sports life. Messiest I ever got. Anxious drinking, trying to keep nerves at bay. I remember feeling very good, then very bad. There might’ve been karaoke happening? Or a band? Was someone singing “Burn”? I remember Blythe’s friend Ruth joined us at one point. She’s a Warriors fan. I don’t remember refusing to speak to her after the game, though I’m told I did. I guess she was trying to say goodnight and I wouldn’t turn around? Definitely what you want out of your significant other at a reunion. Not pumped about my behavior either. Ruth is awesome. For reasons beyond my comprehension, she’s since forgiven me. I texted her a novel of an apology the next morning. Fandom (and beer) makes monsters. On the way back to where we were staying I was almost arrested for public urination. Blythe said “cops” in time for me to get things back to neutral. That’s true love. Blythe is awesome. The game wasn’t. Haven’t watched it since.

Game 2 of the 2012 Finals would be one of the Horsemen. LeBron fouled Durant at the end. It wasn’t called. In front of God, Bill Hader, and (I’m guessing but probably) at least one member of Hinder, Tom Washington swallowed his whistle. I think I mentioned the foul in one of the earlier entries. That’s a lie. I know I did. It’s good to be over it.

The Third Horsemen would be another Game 2. This one against Houston, 2013 playoffs, Round 1, the night Patrick Beverley ran into Russ’s knee and knocked him out for the rest of the postseason. History and other failures have disappeared the moment into little more than the bolded beginning of the Westbrook-Beverley beef, but that Thunder team won 60 games, had the second-best record in the league, and were the 1-seed in the West. They were first in point differential, second in offensive rating, and fourth in defensive rating. A title was a real possibility. Then Beverley did his whole wreckless bit and tore Russ’s meniscus. Oklahoma City was still able to beat the Rockets in six, but were knocked out by the Grizzlies in the next round, bounced in five.

Several potential Horsemen duke it out for the final spot. There’s Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference semis, a win over the Clips, when Serge Ibaka injured his calf. That kept him out of the first two games (both OKC losses) of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs. He came back to play games 3 and 4, wins for the Thunder, but was hardly healthy. The injury got noticeably worse as the series wore on. He had no burst. A guitar without strings. Spurs in six.

That horrible win over the Celtics on April 27 would be another potential nominee. So would the win over the Clippers in the regular-season finale this past Sunday. I mean, what in Dort’s name happened? The victory pushed the Thunder to 22–not enough, tied with the Cavs for the fourth-worst record in the league. Had Oklahoma City lost, they’d have been in a tie with the Magic for the third-worst record, a triumphant coin flip away from being one of the three teams with the best odds possible at the no. 1 pick. The Clippers tanked the game to drop to the 4-spot in the West, and while it got a little hairy during Lakers-Warriors on Wednesday night, they guessed right and are conveniently located on the other side of the bracket from the man who has appeared in nine of the last 10 NBA Finals.

This was the first time I felt truly nervous for a game all season. Pretty odd feeling, being worried you might win. All year I’d wanted losses, but never felt it pregame. Before tip Sunday, I was fidgeting like I was about to play. Adrenaline roared through me. I wanted to lose so bad.

Let’s skip to the end. With a little over seven minutes left in a two-point game, Yogi Ferrell stole it from Poku, got out on the break, and hit a layup to tie it. The Thunder had trouble inbounding the ball and called timeout. When they came out of the timeout, Charlie Brown Jr. had checked in for Gabriel Deck and Luke Kennard had checked in for Terance Mann. From there on out, the lineups did not change. Not once. No subs, no nothing. These guys till the clock read zeros. This is who was on the floor.

Thunder

Charlie Brown Jr: Had just finished up his second 10-day. The Thunder announced they’d signed him to a multiyear deal the day before the game.
Poku: The sun and moon and stars; more later.
Jaylen Hoard: Two-way guy. Encouraging enough, but a two-way guy.
Josh Hall: Scored effectively in one game all season, just happened to be the one they needed least of all.
Moses Brown: In the end, he was the tallest guy on the floor and rebounded that way. If other teams aren’t playing hard and he’s the biggest one on the court, he can put up numbers.

Clippers

Ferrell: Played just under 27 mins in the loss. Had been with the Clips all of 13 games, appeared in eight. When L.A. signed him he’d been out of the league for more than three months. Could last be seen playing two games for the Cavs after signing a 10-day with Cleveland in January. He was waived two days later.
Kennard: Unless my television is broken, he has a serviceable tan going right now. My television might be broken.
Patrick Patterson: Still can’t hit a shot in Chesapeake.
Jay Scrubb: 2020 second-round pick, taken 55th by the Nets, then traded to the Clippers. First JUCO guy to get drafted since ’04, which is cool and makes me root for him. A foot injury kept him out almost the entire season. As recently as April 26 there were reports that L.A. had decided they weren’t even going to play him this year. Before Sunday he’d appeared in three games. The first two were wins over Toronto and Charlotte. He played exactly four minutes and nine seconds in both. Against the Raptors he took two shots. Against Charlotte he took one. His third game was against the Fighting Fertittos this past Friday when Lue played him [grabs bullhorn] THIRTY-NINE MINUTES AND FORTY-SIX SECONDS. In the loss to the Thunder on Sunday, Scrubb played 36 minutes. He had 14 points on 17 shots. I wish he’d scored more.
Daniel Oturu: Check out General Tankersley over here. Based purely on his actions, I have to assume he hates me. Prior to Sunday he’d appeared in only 29 games this season. In those, he averaged 1.1 field goal attempts. Before the loss to the Thunder he had never taken more than four shots in a game. Against Oklahoma City he took 21. He made five. They call that a tanker’s delight. Wish we could’ve traded for him at halftime or something. I’m fairly certain Presti would’ve offered a fully guaranteed two-year deal on the spot if he agreed to change jerseys and come miss some shots for Oklahoma City for a while. I’m worried I’ll remember Oturu the rest of my life. Even against the Fighting Fertittos, when L.A. first partook in a little microtank action, he played only 10 minutes. Then Sunday night they lost all sense of propriety and played him 37. They went to him on the most important possessions of the night in a game where, up to that point, he’d missed 15 of his 20 shots. Not exactly riding the hot hand. How did we not go out and get this guy? One of Presti’s biggest misses. Up there with bringing Derek Fisher back a second time and that time I saw him in capris.


I was wrong. “I’m knocking on wood as I type this but the Thunder are losing out.” Idiot. I thought it was in the bag. Both Utah and L.A. needed wins if they wanted to stay ahead of the teams behind them. I didn’t count on the Clippers having other plans.

Soon as the game started I had a bad feeling. Never went away. The whole night: “Something’s not right here. They need to go on a run and pull away a little. What’s the deal? Is Kennard going to show up at all? Where’s 2Pat’s pride?” Halfway through the fourth I wanted Poku out of there. He was playing too well. Daigneault should’ve benched him and brought Deck back. Let Moses bring the ball up, fire at will. This is 2021. There are no rules. Anarchy reigns supreme. Jokic can do it and I think their games have a lot of similarities. For instance, they are both tall.

I’m not clueless or angry enough to not see the irony here. The Thunder did get a taste of their own medicine, in a sense. I think the difference is, Oklahoma City was not, all year, running plays hoping they wouldn’t work. Oturu was a freezer the whole game and they kept giving him the ball. The Thunder, despite sitting guys/being terrible/actively tanking, were at the very least trying to get the ball to their best scorer on the floor coming down the stretch. Poku was feeling it and they kept feeding him. And here we are again, one last time, on the express spaceship to

POKULAND

WELCOME TO POKULAND, BABES AND BEEFCAKES. WE UNDERSTAND THIS IS A CONFUSING TIME FOR EVERYONE. HE MEANT NOTHING BY THE MAKE, THOUGHT HE WAS DOING WHAT HE WAS SUPPOSED TO. IF YOU MAKE HIM FEEL SAD FOR HITTING A GAME-WINNER, IF YOU HARM A HAIR ON HIS HEAD, WE WILL COME FOR YOU.

And so it was that Slim went for 29 in the finale. He shot over 50 percent from the field and made six of his nine 3s. Unbelievable. I loved it. I hated it. I can’t understand it. In the end it was Poku who was too good to tank. Had to go and tantalize one last time before summer.

A flood of emotions the entire fourth. Point Poku to close out the season. All I’ve ever wanted. And the guy got it done. Look at him out there.

Sports torture in special ways. In the end, all my dreams and nightmares visited me at once, the good and the bad, the Dort and the wrong. I had to root for my favorite to fail. And he didn’t.

And I felt bad. I felt bad wanting him to miss and I felt bad that he made it. Devastating to not be able to purely enjoy his success. I’m trying to simultaneously appreciate the performance and be excited for his future, without being happy about the make. It’s very easy for those things to be mutually exclusive, but I am a weak man and nuance is hard for me. Still can’t believe the Clippers gave Oturu 21 shots. They understood the only way to approach a hardcore tank is with shamelessness. We didn’t feature Charlie Brown Jr. nearly enough. He needed way more than 10 shots.


In the immediate aftermath of the game I considered the win a disaster. You have gone through all this trouble to get into the bottom three. It was the point of all this. We hit the eject button on 2020-21, as we should have, and it was so close to working perfectly. Then my sweet Poku hit the stepback.

I’ve tempered some on the “disaster” front. Like I said, the win is disappointing, for sure, but a disappointment is not the same as a disaster. It could still turn into one, but it’s not there yet. Just makes it easier for a disaster to occur. I have to remind myself, it could be far worse. From Week 2 of deez here diareez:

This thing should probably be called Tank Diaries? now. Or maybe it’s Tank(?) Diaries. What I mean is, Oklahoma City sucks at being bad. It might not happen, this whole top-five-pick thing.

I don’t want to miss the bigger picture. The Thunder were tied for the ninth-worst record in the league at that point. The tank fest to close out the season was massive, and mostly successful, in so far as it allowed Oklahoma City to sink into the bottom five. Ultimately, the jury is still out on just how bad of a win it was Sunday. The lottery will tell the story there.


I don’t like tanking. Had the realization the other day that I’ve yet to say it that plainly. Tanking sucks. It’s not fun. It is rarely exciting and when it is, the excitement often comes with so many caveats your head starts to spiral. You love what you’re seeing but hey, fella, chill. Let’s win them next year.

You’re being pulled in all directions. Back and forth.

“Are you sure he’s good? He might just be getting a lot of touches and you might be too quick to fall in love.”

“No. Trust your eyes. He’s doing this against quality defenders. This is real.”

I want to lose. I want to win. I curse myself. I want to lose. I want to win. I admonish myself. A continuation of insults.

“These are people, jerk. These are their jobs, their lives, their dreams. Don’t want them to fail. Karma is real.”

I work my way toward a galaxy brain I can believe in.

“This is the way to love the team. There’s actually nothing more competitive than tanking. It’s the way you prove your competitiveness the most. You don’t want to be good for a year. You want to be good for 10. Today’s failures are tomorrow’s world beaters.”

I wish it weren’t the best way for a small market to build a contender. I wish there were other viable routes to building a champion in Oklahoma City. There aren’t. Don’t hate the player, etc., etc. Until the powers that be abolish the draft, this is the best lever to pull, the necessary evil. I’d prefer this to be the only year it’s necessary to tank this drastically, but it might not be. The lotto and the draft will have quite a bit to say about that and both those events are capable of being lovely or rude in equal measure. No telling what kind of mood a draft is in.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s improvement has been so dramatic—he’s gotten great so much faster than anyone anticipated—that he has me and fellow Thunder fans trying to figure out how much we need to recalibrate our tanking time lines. This has happened with tons of tanking teams and will happen with tons more. Does Great Young Player X’s trajectory put even more of an emphasis on the upcoming draft? Does it mean the rebuild won’t go on for years, like Presti’s letter suggested?

I don’t know what to think. It would appear Shai is just too good to play if you want a bottom-five record. He gets better every season. Other young guys will improve just by virtue of getting older and getting a proper NBA offseason under their belts (some for the first time). It feels like that combination would make an extended tank very difficult.

But Presti had his end-of-season press conference on Thursday and rattled off more Presti-isms that held tightly to a long-term view. “Development is a process, not an event.” “Shortcuts cut long runs short.” And then this longer answer: “When we do get back to the postseason, we want it to be an arrival, not an appearance, arrival meaning that we can return, we can be there, we can take some chance or bad fortune and not have it sink us completely. We’ve seen the benefit of that during our earlier years. We don’t want to be in a position where we get there but we have no way to get back.”

And now we wait. The draft lotto is June 22. Oklahoma City’s final odds look like so: The Thunder have a 45.1 percent chance at a top-four pick and an 11.5 percent chance at the no. 1 pick. There’s also a 47.9 percent chance the Fighting Fertittos’ top-four-protected lottery pick will fall to Oklahoma City at five and a 22 percent chance the Thunder will get two top-five picks. Two top-five picks. Two of them. I’m getting dizzy. And you’re not going to get me jinxing things again. I know it won’t happen. But I’m getting dizzy.

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.