The national media stirred into a frenzy when the Oklahoma City Thunder opted to “tank”, or in ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt words “abandon the slightest pretense of effort” late last season. Heading into this year, the Thunder’s less than glamorous resume from late year has carried over.
NBA.com has been the staple for weekly, monthly, and annual coverage on the league throughout the year. One release fans tend to salivate over the most, however, one of the biggest conversation starters comes in the form of power rankings. As published on Monday, NBA.com writer John Schumann sees Oklahoma City as the weakest team in the West.
One sentiment stood firm throughout the Thunder’s 2020-21 campaign — player development. Whether it was Isaiah Roby playing extended time at the five, Theo Maledon leading the team in minutes, Aleksej Pokusevski launching off stepback threes, or Moses Brown playing wall ball on the glass, Mark Daigneault looked to wrig every drop of potential out of his young core. Accordingly, the Thunder’s wave of youth scrapped just three of their final twenty-nine contests, ending the year second-worst in the West off a 22-50 record.
Schumann expects much of the same from the franchise, noting to expect the “long game” from the Thunder.
With the Thunder tacking on rookies Josh Giddey, Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Aaron Wiggins through the draft to pair with the likes of a 23-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 19-year-old Aleksej Pokusevski, and a slew of young returning pieces — the idea of tacking on a second developmental year is in play for the franchise. Oklahoma City ranked last in both Offensive Rating (102.8) and Net Rating (-10.6) last season, and with no major additions, Mark Daigneault and company will be essentially running things back. The one silver lining from these less than lustrous stats — Oklahoma City stood at 16-19 before Shai Gilgeous-Alexander suffered a season ending plantar fascia injury.
Gilgeous-Alexander is expected to lead the Thunder troops headed into next season, but as aforementioned, the incoming youth to add upon an already loaded deck of young pieces may turn their 82-game season into a learning experience.
As for other bottom-dwellers in Schumann’s rankings, the Houston Rockets stole the spotlight, leapfrogging the Thunder to punch a ticket with the 14th spot in the rankings. Houston was the lone team with a worse record in the West last season at 17-55, but their recent influx of youth coupled with returning talent bolstered their positioning. From entering the 2020-21 season with a duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook to concluding it with one of Kevin Porter Jr. and Kelly Olynyk, their pastures have gotten much greener. Though the Rockets are on a similar rebuilding track, Schumann put emphasis upon first-round selections Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun among others to help invigorate their current core, and ultimately accelerate the curation in Clutch City.
The San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, and New Orleans Pelicans rounded out the bottom third of the conference, being labeled at seeds 13, 12, and 11, respectively.
Preseason predictions are nothing more than dust in the wind once tip-off time starts, and with a full 82-game slate at hand, you can’t rule anything out of the equation — especially with Oklahoma City.