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Decision time for the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder are at a crossroads, do they tank or push for the play-in?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder are approaching the mid-point of the NBA season and it is time for the front office to work out what the end goal for the year is. There are two clear options on the table, the first being to tank and hope that the draft falls the Thunder’s way in June.

The likes of Houston, San Antonio and Charlotte are going to be difficult to catch but if the Thunder chose to tank now, they would end up towards the top of lottery. This would mean sitting Shai, Giddey and whoever is contributing to winning basketball.

Oklahoma City still have 43 games in the season and it is not too late to start tanking if this is Sam Presti’s desired objective. This is a good draft class to tank in. Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson are in a tier of their own among their contemporaries. Both players have future All-Star written all of them.

After those two, you have a tier of four players who have All-Star potential and who would fit the Thunder’s needs. A player like Amen Thompson or Brandon Miller would be a highly useful connecting piece in the starting lineup next to Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey.

Tanking is a good method of adding talent to the roster but it does come at a cost. Losing games would require Daigneault to play lineups that are deliberately bad which may stunt growth for the Thunder’s current players. We are now past the point where Oklahoma City can be organically bad and lose games by simply playing the young guys a lot of minutes.

My other concern would be how tanking may affect Gilgeous-Alexander’s relationship with the organisation. Gilgeous-Alexander’s play is putting him into an elite group and he has a great chance of making an All-NBA team at the end of the season.

Sitting Gilgeous-Alexander would curtail this opportunity and he may become dissatisfied at not having the chance to be recognised as one of the best players in the association.

The other point worth noting that when Gilgeous-Alexander signed his contract extension, there was a provision in his contract relating to the ‘Rose Rule’. The ‘Rose Rule’ was a clause inserted into a CBA after the 2011 Lockout which allowed teams to pay 30% of the salary cap to a player who had recently made an All-NBA team.

The rule was put into place to incentivise young stars into staying with their franchises instead of leaving for greener pastures. LeBron James’ decision in 2010 worried the league office and they argued for a rule which would provide smaller teams with the ammunition to retain their stars.

If Gilgeous-Alexander is named to an All-NBA, his salary will increase dramatically. The total value of the contract would go from $179m to $207m. In effect, Gilgeous-Alexander would earn $5.4m extra per year than he would on a standard rookie maximum contract extension.

His agent could argue that the Thunder sat Shai to limit his earning potential and make the team cheaper to keep together in the future. These are waters that the Thunder do not want to wade into. Tanking would no longer be a competition matter, it would then become a labour issue for agents and teams to argue about.

Pushing for the playoffs would avoid these thorny issues and it is a feasible goal. Oklahoma City are only 2.5 games back from the Los Angeles Clippers who currently sit #6 in the Western Conference. The Thunder are 1.5 games back from the Jazz who sit in the last play-in spot at present.

The good news for the Thunder is that they have a relatively kind schedule for the second half of the season. As per Tankathon, OKC are 22nd in the league in strength of schedule. The Lakers, Warriors, Jazz, Suns and Clippers are 6th, 9th, 12th, 8th and 2nd respectively in strength of schedule for the remainder of the season.

Oklahoma City will have plenty of opportunities to pick up straightforward wins while their opponents are facing difficult teams every single nights. It is the ideal time to make hay and put together a solid win streak.

The Thunder are 6-4 in their last ten games and have been 0.500 since the start of December but the team’s overall play feels much improved. Adding Jalen Williams into the starting lineup has provided balance in the playmaking department and has bridged the play-style differences between Giddey and Shai.

When JRE gets healthy, the Thunder will have then relatively solid big man depth as well rather than having to rely on the likes of Kenrich to play up a position. Good health should allow the Thunder to shore up the defense even more and grind teams down.

Playoff basketball is immensely valuable for young players as they are able to learn acutely what is effective and what needs work. In the 2020 NBA playoffs, Luguentz Dort provided value with his defense but he seemed to realise within himself that his offense needed work for him to be a useful contributor in the long-term.

The same could be said for Gilgeous-Alexander. Houston’s switch everything defense made it more difficult for him to get into the lane and he had an inconsistent series. Out of the ‘Three Amigos’, he was probably the weakest performer. Since then, he has polished his tools and has become unstoppable in the half-court.

Memphis making the playoffs with their young roster in 2021 boosted the confidence and chemistry of their group. Tough, competitive series build bonds between teammates and provide players with peace of mind when it mattered most. Oklahoma City can do what Memphis did two years, this is an excellent opportunity that should not be wasted.