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Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Lottery Night

Hey Thunder fans! Wasn’t that a fun season we just endured?

For a second straight year, the hometown team spent most of the season actively trying to lose games. Even though the strategy made sense from the point-of-view of wanting to have sustained success going forward, as a fan it seemed corrupt to get upset when the team overcame long odds to pick up a victory.

It felt a lot like this:

Even worse than the desire to lose was the lengths it took to achieve those losses. In a long stretch near the end, former OKC Blue bench warmer Lindy Waters III was the best player on the floor. Then, he got too comfortable, and the team benched him to go iron man with five guys who should never play in an NBA game again. Yet despite playing a roster made up entirely of players who spent time in the G-League, the Thunder still racked up enough wins to wind up in the exact same position they were in last season.

That position is just outside of the best odds for winning the draft lottery to improve the talent. Last year, the Thunder were hopscotched by both the Cavaliers and Raptors (the teams who wound up with the first and second-place finishers in Rookie of the Year) and actually fell from the fourth spot to sixth.

Tonight, all Oklahoma City fans need to pray for a better outcome. As Thunder GM Sam Presti made clear in his end-of-season press conference, he will continue the current strategy. So, unless the team forces his hand to begin competing, he may have to resort to giving me and Patrick a place in the starting lineup to get what he needs.

The good news is that hope springs eternal and until the results are announced, the team could still wind up with the top-2 picks in the 2022 draft. That is because they own their own draft pick, which has the fourth-best odds of winding up with the top pick (12.5%) and the pick which belonged to the Los Angeles Clippers that was given to OKC, along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, for Playoff P. That pick has a 1.5% chance of being the top overall pick.

With the top-4 picks all being determined by weighted chance, both picks could end up in that range. On the other hand, all four of those picks could potentially be given to teams who had better records than OKC and Sam Presti could be seeking options at an implausible 8 and14 in the order.

DREAM SCENARIO: The Thunder select first and second in the 2022 NBA draft

If this were to happen, much of the basketball media landscape would have their heads explode. While a half dozen teams were going with the same strategy as the Thunder, and three were more successful in doing so, the Thunder were the team that took the most criticism for tanking. For Sam Presti to get the greatest lottery outcome in NBA season, the talking heads would never be able to accept such a reward.

However, it would be amazing for the timeline of the Thunder returning to contention. Supercharging the rebuild with two elite rookie talents would absolutely mean a recalibration of the roster-building strategy. Instead of sitting out free agency, the team would start looking for veterans as complementary pieces to a suddenly very exciting young core.

If I were in Presti’s position, those two picks would go to (in no particular order) Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Jr. Both players would instantly be among the team’s best outside shooters. The 7’1” Holmgren was successful on 39% of his three-point attempts (3.3/game) as the center for the Bulldogs. Smith, at 6’10”, was even better at 42% while attempting 5.5/game. Holmgren comes with the added benefit of being a shot blocker that can protect the rim (4.9 blocks per 36 minutes).

The two players would come into the 2022/23 season as the revamped starting frontcourt. On the perimeter, they would have Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Lu Dort. That’s an incredibly versatile lineup that despite some growing pains should push for a playoff berth.

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: The Thunder selects eighth and 12th (or even 13th or 14th) in the 2022 NBA draft

Depending on who is in front of the team, Presti might be able to package the two picks together in hopes of moving up some. Where? Maybe sixth, or fifth if the team there is unhappy with the options. Assuming they aren’t able to move up, the hope is someone slides. Perhaps a borderline second-tier prospect like A.J. Griffin is passed over because of his injury history, or maybe mystery prospect Shaedon Sharpe is considered too risky by the seven teams ahead.

It's not a great place to be, for sure.

Even if the team manages to snag a surprisingly good player versus draft position, like they did with Josh Giddey last season, that player is unlikely to move the needle toward making the team competitive. He certainly will not inspire Presti to open the checkbook to bring in free agents. It may even open the door to considering a delay in the rebuild process, leading to alternate options being explored for the players closing in on their playing primes…such as SGA or Dort, who could be moved while the team focuses on positioning for next season’s Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.

Anyway, those are the stakes tonight. Enjoy thinking about the dream scenario for now, and worry about the nightmare scenario when it happens.

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