Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Who Are These F***ing Guys?
1:03 PM EDT on October 6, 2022
Major League, the perfect sports movie, was released in 1989. Known mostly for foisting Charlie Sheen and Wesley Snipes into the realm of movie stardome, the film combined a classic underdog tale with fish-out-of-water characters in a buddy comedy while managing to predict future trends like a sci-fi story. A little more than three decades after its release, the film's conceit is playing out in Oklahoma City.
For those who have not seen the movie, the heroes are the Cleveland Indians, a real Major League Baseball team (now called the “Guardians” – they have uniforms and everything) that had perennially been at the bottom of their division. As cellar dwellers, the financial condition of the team was awful and the team’s new owner, Rachel Phelps—a former exotic dancer that inherited the team from her deceased husband—introduced the concept of “tanking” in order to improve the team’s long-term viability. Her plan was to make the team as bad as possible to invoke a contractual clause that would allow her to move the team from Cleveland to Florida.
Her blueprint for accomplishing this will sound familiar to an OKC Thunder fan. The experienced players on the roster were jettisoned and replaced with young, unknown players. The only high-paid players that remained were overpriced veterans whose salaries dwarfed their production. After releasing their training camp roster, the Cleveland fans reacted very much like the Thunder fanbase while watching the first pre-season basketball game:
As training camp began, the Thunder were without the players there were remotely close to household names. Hot shot rookie Chet Holmgren is out for the season with a foot injury. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is missing pre-season with a knee sprain suffered in a session with team trainers. Lu Dort is under concussion protocol after going too hard in practice. What was left was a menagerie of has beens and never will bes who, frankly, will determine whether this upcoming season is truly like the movie.
Who are they?
For the Indians to subvert expectations, they had a couple of players whose best days were long past that imparted their wisdom to the rookies. For Cleveland that was catcher Jake Taylor and pitcher Eddie Harris, and for OKC there is…
At 31 years of age, Muscala is the old man on the roster, and second place isn’t very close. Still, with the style he plays—stretch big—Musky could have a lot of time left in the NBA. The fact that he has begged the front office not to trade him the past two years, and even re-signed this off-season for a lower value indicates he embraces his role as the veteran yogi.
Every so often, he will trot out and knock down a few threes, and then he’ll head back to the bench where you’ll forget he’s even on the team.
Kenny Hustle is only old in that he is playing on the second-youngest roster in NBA history (behind last season’s Thunder). At 27, he should actually be hitting his prime, which is why it is surprising that he signed a contract extension in the offseason that was well below market for a glue guy like him.
Major League’s Cleveland finally found their bearings when the young players (“Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn and Willie “Mays” Hayes) reached their potential quicker than expected. For the Oklahoma City Thunder to shift from building mode into contender mode, it will take some leaps in development from the guys on this list.
In his second season, the Aussie Magic Johnson is poised to become a triple-double machine—a Thunder tradition. The thing fans will be watching for him is whether he can become more of a scoring threat, which would require him to improve his three-point shooting (see “Battle Hardened Skipper” section below). A development such as that could elevate Giddey to all-star caliber.
To date, Mann’s most memorable contribution to the team was being the catalyst to Coach Mark Daignault’s “Broccoli and Skittles” monologue. There is no doubt that Mann is a capable scorer that can occasionally go supernova. However, as Daignault put it, shooting the ball is Mann’s dessert. If he wants to play regularly, he needs to eat his broccoli and commit the same effort on the defensive end.
This is “J-Dub” in the Thunder Twitter parlance to differentiate him from his fellow draft class acquisition of Jaylin Williams. Others refer to him as “the Jalen Williams from Santa Clara” or “Santa Clara Jalen Williams.” Homophone discussions aside, there is a lot of reason to be excited about J-Dub in Oklahoma City. Overlooked throughout his college career, primarily because he played for a West Coast Conference team that wasn’t Gonzaga, Williams went from unknown to lottery pick by utterly destroying all competition during the pre-draft processes.
In Summer League, J-Dub continued his impressive performances, showing the ability to score inside and out and using his extraordinary wingspan to frustrate the opposition.
Technically taken before J-Dub in the draft, the Frenchman who played in Australia last year is not expected to make an immediate impact. From early showings, it is clear he has the excellent athleticism that the Thunder have valued in the past, and his size (6’11”) will be huge for his likely role on the wing. However, he will likely require patience to develop.
Pedro Cerrano could hit fastballs to the moon. Of course, the Cuban exile who came to the U.S. for religious freedom to practice voodoo found that his deity Jobu was little more help than Jesus Christ when it came to hitting curveballs. When he learned to do it himself, his bat leveled the playing field against the Yankees.
Going into his third season, Thunder fans are losing patience with the development path of Poku. Selected during COVID as the youngest player available to be taken, the 7-footer who has the weight and desire to play point guard gives the fans glimpses into what he can do. He will make ridiculous no-look passes that light up the crowd and go on a spurt where he knocks down a few three-pointers that send them into a frenzy. In between those glimpses he either disappears or worse, makes the most puzzling decisions imaginable.
This Summer was actually his first real offseason as an NBA player, so there is reason to hope that the time off allowed him to focus on the things that will help him become the unique player that everyone wants to see.
As a second-round pick in 2021, it was fairly surprising that Wiggins received a guaranteed contract before his first training camp. Either in spite of the low expectations or because of them, Wiggins constantly surprises with his capable performances. How does this make him a wildcard? If you can get rotation-level minutes from a guy who should be in the G-League, that can be a real value to a competitive team.
When Baze was a rookie playing rotation minutes for a playoff-bound team, he looked like a lock to become a good starter in the NBA. All he needed to do was figure out the speed of the NBA game and learn to take what the defense gave him rather than make plays more difficult for himself.
Fast forward three years and Bazley still prefers to pass up open looks so he can dribble into a crowd where he has to attempt low-percentage acrobatic shots because passing is never a consideration. This lack of improvement has him on the precipice of following the path of previous Thunder players who never reached their expectations for the team (see Ferguson, Terrence or Lamb, Jeremy).
This is an important year for Baze because the team did not offer him an extension this past Summer so now he has to perform in order to drive up his value on the open market next Summer. If the contract year motivation propels him, he could change the trajectory of this team.
The heart of the Major League Indians was manager Lou Brown who was plucked from coaching in the minors and selling tires on the side. Oklahoma City’s head coach Mark Daignault is similar to Brown in that his path came through coaching the OKC Blue. However, it won’t be his presence that will propel the Thunder to the next rung in the re-build. Instead…
In the off-season, the team’s biggest non-draft acquisition was in the coaching staff. A long-time assistant beneath San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Engelland brings a reputation as a shooting guru. What does every Thunder prospect’s scouting report include?
Josh Giddey – “Other worldly court vision. Great size for position. Needs to improve three-point shooting.”
Alexsej Pokusevski – “Good ball handler for size. Can alter shots around the basket with his length. Needs to improve three-point shooting.”
Darius Bazely – “Good effort on defense. Elite athleticism. Needs to improve three-point shooting.”
Ousmane Dieng – “Athleticism and size to be elite defender. Good ball handler for size. Needs to improve three-point shooting.”
During a trend in professional basketball where outside shooting has been the difference between contending for a championship or fighting for lottery odds, Oklahoma City has never been one of the better shooting teams in the league. In fact, they are usually one of the worst.
Bringing in an experienced coach with a proven record of improving young shot makers could be a coup for this team.
HOW WILL THIS PLAY OUT?
In the movie, the team congealed around a common enemy—Rachel Phelps—and won enough games to force their way into the playoffs. For the Thunder, Sam Presti is the Phelps stand-in who benefits from the team failing this season because it would improve the value of their draft capital. Unlike Phelps, Presti has been very forthright about his intentions of a prolonged and patient effort to build the roster with the strong likelihood that it will be painful to watch in the short term. Also unlike Phelps, Presti has indicated that the team will be given an opportunity to “declare themselves.” What this meant in the movie was that Phelps would give the team more hurdles to overcome (i.e. cold showers, broken training equipment, etc). However, from the Thunder’s perspective, what this implies is that should the young players over-perform expectations, the front office will make moves to assist in a playoff run (as they did in the Chris Paul season that was expected to start the tank plan). Otherwise, it will be another year of resting stars to focus on development.