Tramel: OKC Thunder's best option is tanking, even if it stinks
I learned in Mrs. Brown’s history class — or maybe it was from a book, hard to remember from almost half a century ago — how Chris Columbus sailed west to get to the East.
Made no sense the first time I heard it, and it still makes no sense to the Kyrie Irving crowd.
But the Earth is not flat, and what goes around comes around, which explains why Sam Presti has put the Thunder on full tank mode.
Lose to win. Get to the East by going west.
The Thunder roster has been scorched. One of the NBA’s most consistent franchises has been stripped. After 11 straight seasons of winning at a high level — 559 regular-season victories during that time, surpassed only by the Spurs’ 591 — the Thunder is assured of losing.
Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Steven Adams, all gone for first-round draft picks, assorted (non-)prospects and veterans.
The Thunder is in full tank mode. Lose a lot, pile up even more draft capital and think of better days ahead.
I’ll give Presti this credit. If you’re going to tank, tank. Go all the way. Cannonball!
- Related to this story
- Article: Tramel: OKC Thunder had to make another move in this wild NBA week
- Article: Report: OKC Thunder declines team option for Deonte Burton
- Article: Report: OKC Thunder receives Al Horford, first-round pick in trade with Philadelphia 76ers
- Article: OKC Thunder: Five things to know about Aleksej Pokusevski, No. 17 pick in NBA Draft
- Article: OKC Thunder: Five things to know about Theo Maledon, No. 34 pick in NBA draft
- Article: OKC Thunder: Five things to know about Vit Krejci, No. 37 pick in NBA draft
- Article: Tramel: OKC Thunder gets Al Horford, four years too late
- Article: OKC Thunder reportedly signs two undrafted free agents
- Article: OKC Thunder acquires Admiral Schofield in trade with Washington Wizards
- Article: OKC Thunder: Options exercised for Hamidou Diallo, Mike Muscala
- Article: 2020 NBA draft grades: How did the OKC Thunder fare on its report card?
- Article: What Sam Presti's draft room was like as the OKC Thunder selected three international prospects
- Article: OKC Thunder receives Vincent Poirier in trade with Boston Celtics
- Article: Report: OKC Thunder trades Kelly Oubre to Golden State Warriors
- Article: Tramel: OKC Thunder might not be finished collecting draft picks
- Article: Report: Thunder on verge of trading Steven Adams to Pelicans for draft picks
- Article: Tramel: Losing OKC Thunder fan favorite Steven Adams in trade to Pelicans is a cruel part of rebuild
- Article: Tramel: Steven Adams trade leads to even more roster turnover for OKC Thunder
- Article: OKC Thunder trades Steven Adams, losing last connection to past era: 'This is definitely a dark day for Thunder fans'
- Article: Report: Former Thunder center Nerlens Noel signs with New York Knicks
- Article: Report: OKC Thunder receives Kenrich Williams, Zylan Cheatham, Josh Gray in Steven Adams trade with Pelicans
- Article: Report: OKC Thunder trades Jalen Lecque to Indiana Pacers for T.J. Leaf
- Article: OKC Thunder: Timeline of 10 trades Sam Presti made to stockpile more draft picks
- Article: How Steven Adams created countless memories with OKC Thunder? Stache Bros, flip flops and a 3-point shimmy
- Article: Report: OKC Thunder signs guard Frank Jackson
- Article: Report: Former Knicks coach Mike Miller to join OKC Thunder staff
- Article: NBA free agency winners and losers include the Lakers, Suns and even the OKC Thunder
- Article: OKC Thunder preseason schedule released for 2020-21 NBA season
- Article: Tramel: OKC Thunder trading Steven Adams means a time to mourn & a time to dance
- Article: OKC Thunder: Five big questions heading into NBA training camp
- Article: NBA outlines extensive coronavirus health and safety protocols for 2020-21 season
- Article: OKC Thunder to begin season without fans at home games
- Article: OKC Thunder: Five takeaways from Sam Presti's press conference on Steven Adams, Aleksej Pokusevski and rebuild
- Article: OKC Thunder Q&A: Sam Presti on why the time was right to rebuild
- Article: OKC Thunder waives guard Josh Gray
- Article: OKC Thunder: Hamidou Diallo takes on unexpected title of longest-tenured player
- Video: Thunder Update: Presti on roster changes and new season
I despise tanking. Despise the concept that losing should be rewarded.
But I understand it. It’s the system the NBA created, on both ends. The draft rewards the worst teams. The economic system benefits the big markets.
The NBA leaves small markets with a sharp organization few options.
Free agency is the domain of the coastal franchises.
The trade market is run by the players. Superstars decide where they want to go and when.
That leaves only the draft for small markets to work their wiles. Some do it well. Thunder. Spurs. Blazers. Jazz. Pacers. Some struggle. Kings. Hornets. Magic.
So with CP3 aging, and Danilo Gallinaro’s OKC contract up, and Schröder and Adams having just one year left on their deals, Presti decreed that now was the time to get back in the drafting game.
“After 12 years, to think we're going to be above or beyond transitioning is probably a little bit ignorant,” Presti said Monday in his preseason press briefing. “We obviously wanted to get in front of that the way we did things this off-season.”
The Thunder hasn’t had a top-10 draft pick since James Harden, 11½ years ago.
Yes, Presti has collected first-round draft picks the way Imelda Marcos collected shoes, but those draft slots could land anywhere. Teens, 20s. Valuable, yes. Tickets to stars, no.
That’s where the tanking comes in. Presti’s plan is for the Thunder to lose big the next year or three, and try to hit the mother lode. High lottery picks, supplemented by all the other picks.
Drafting is a crapshoot. The more lottery tickets you have, the more likely you are to hit a winner.
The trouble with tanking is that there’s no guarantee. You might lose big and your ship still misses the port. Phoenix has been tanking off and on for a decade and still stinks; maybe Paul will fix that for a year or two.
Tanking requires a cast-iron stomach. A franchise must be willing to endure current pain for future gain. A fan base must be complicit, too. If the fans boycott the box office, ownership could get antsy and scrap the plan. That’s a quick ticket to mediocrity.
Like in Charlotte, where Michael Jordan’s brain trust just signed 30-year-old Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120-million contract on the off chance it lifts the Hornets to eighth place in the East.
That’s the thing about tanking. It’s the lesser of two evils.
“Transitioning the team at some point is going to be a necessity unless we were to lower our expectations and our goals, which require different methodology,” Presti said.
Presti talks in big words, so some translation is in order. You want to get back to the old days of Durant and Westbrook and George and Ibaka and CP3, with the ‘Peake rocking and the networks flocking and America gawking?
Tanking is the best way.
The Thunder, with an old CP3 and a young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as cornerstones and all those draft picks coming in, could have rolled it back and kept being the little engine that could.
Maybe the Thunder would have remained a playoff team. Maybe a draft pick in the teens would have turned into a superstar. Maybe Presti could have traded with Orlando another time or two and fortified the roster another half a decade.
But not likely. The high side of that plan would have been Indiana, a rock-solid franchise that wins consistently but never wins big.
The high side of the tanking plan is winning big. Lose to win. What goes around usually comes around, as long as we’re willing to wait.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.