As the Oklahoma City Thunder enters the second half of the 2020-21 season, the tanking narrative has once again made its way to the forefront of storylines surrounding the team.
The Thunder is 16-21 after a 116-108 win over Dallas Thursday, good for the ninth-worst record in the NBA.
OKC is now four games ahead of the Houston Rockets (11-24), who own the third-worst record and are one of three teams with the best odds at landing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
In some ways the Thunder was the NBA’s most improved team over the first 36 games, showing the roster’s potential while going through the ups and downs of developing a young, talented group.
The emergence of players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, and Theo Maledon, combined with the attention to detail first-year head coach Mark Daigneault and his staff pays to progression, has spearheaded a leap most didn’t expect so early in the rebuild.
Not only does the team have 16 wins, but in its 21 losses, 10 were by 10 points or less, four were by five or less and two came in overtime.
On most nights, opponents are in for a full 48 minutes against the Thunder, a trend that doesn’t lend itself to tanking.
So where does OKC go from here? Finding ways to win while rebuilding only benefits the roster, coaching staff, organization, and the overall concept of development, right?
Daigneault consistently points to finding little victories within games. He rarely concentrates on wins or losses, rather turning his focus pre and post-game to where players took steps forward or how different rotations performed during the run of play.
His level-headed approach reflects how he and his staff prioritize the win-loss column: just let everything fall into place.
But how will things change if the team is set up to lose at a higher rate down the stretch?
GM Sam Presti will likely be active before the March 25 trade deadline and could move a veteran like Al Horford, who seems to be a leader within the locker room as well as a valuable asset to the team’s starting lineup.
Daigneault acknowledged the organization’s long-term vision by saying it can’t be ignored but also said he wants to continue installing a competitive culture whether the team is rebuilding or vying for the playoffs.
That balance is likely OKC’s path over the next two months, trying to find a way to continue development, as a team and individually, while also coming away with a top-5 pick.
The roster is obviously not complete. Daigneault and Presti are on the same page. Long-term decisions have to be made during this type of process even if it disrupts the team’s already building cohesion.
If Presti can turn Horford, Hill, or even Mike Muscala into a package that better fits the future, he will make the move. If it leads to reworking lineups or rotations, so be it.
There are plenty of potential storylines left to play out for Oklahoma City over the second half.
What moves will Presti make? How will those transactions affect the team’s chemistry and development? Can the team really keep this pace and win 30 games and would that be good or bad? How will Daigneault use Aleksej Pokusevski once Darius Bazley returns?
The process is ongoing. The Thunder’s path in the second half will be somewhat uncharted territory, yet it will be traveled with a plan.
Whether it’s development or tanking or both at the same time, the focus will remain on the future.
The wins, losses, and draft position will just have to fall into place.