Tank Diaries: All Tanks Ahead
Earlier this week, Tarkaida asked if I could please write about a purple monkey named Mila. As I touched on in the second installment of these here diaries, Tarkaida is the name our 4-year-old asked that I call her. Tarkaida, who said she wants me to call her that sometimes but not all the time. Tarkaida, who got really into pirates for exactly one day? Tarkaida, who came into our bedroom while I was working on this just to say, “Hey, X marks the spot.” She said it like “X marks the spot” was my name. Then she laughed maniacally, turned off the lights, and sprinted out of the room. She was wearing an Anna from Frozen costume and holding her sister’s toothbrush. I heard her fall in the hallway when she left. She said “I’m OK” before I could even ask and I heard her steps patter off into her room.
Like a lot of kids, she’s really into naming her stuffies. They change all the time, though. She gets hooked on a specific name for a while, then switches it up again. There was a six-month period when all her dolls were named Tony. Then there was another stretch when all her dolls were just named after her. She’s currently on a run in which they’re all named either Mila or Scarlet. To be fair, it could also be Scarlett. She might be maximalist. She does really go nuts with the beads when she makes necklaces. As far as I know, our family knows no one named Mila or Scarlet. She has no friends named Mila or Scarlet. We are mystified and totally on board. But I promised her I’d write about a purple monkey named Mila and, at this point, I feel like I have.
On to basketball. All tanks ahead.
There is one great what-if that occupies a majority of the basketball world’s attention as it relates to the Thunder. One great, “Can you imagine?” We’re all thinking the same thing:
What if the Thunder never traded Johan Petro?
And then there’s that other trade. But Thunder fans have a few other what-ifs we return to. Or, actually, I shouldn’t speak for the fan base. But for me, myself, there are four more OKC-related man-that-would’ve-been-awesomes that pop into my head at different times for different reasons.
1. What if the Suns hadn’t taken Devin Booker one spot ahead of the Thunder in the 2015 draft?
2. What if the refs had called that foul on LeBron at the end of Game 2 of the 2012 Finals?
3. What if the Thunder never voided the Tyson Chandler trade?
4. And what if Durant had come back in 2016 and Al Horford signed with the Thunder in free agency?
Horford was reportedly “really, really interested” but couldn’t pull the trigger without knowing Durant and Westbrook would be around long term. Horford wound up in Oklahoma City, just five years too late.
Now pour a glass of Tanqueray and turn on some Tank because that sound you heard on March 27, the one emanating from the bowels of the Liquid Gold Thunderdome, that was the sound of all the Thunder’s stops being pulled. Horford is being shut down for the rest of the year. He’ll still be with the team, but, quote, “will no longer be active for games this season.” He has, most likely, played his last game in a Thunder uniform. To the statements!
Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti: “We’ve talked with Al from the time he became a member of the Thunder this offseason about the many ways in which he would be able to help us as we entered the early stages of the necessary transition of our team. From day one Al has been a consummate professional and has had a tremendous influence on the team on and off the floor with his work ethic and total commitment to his teammates. … Al has been nothing short of spectacular and will remain a part of the team as we build on an approach and mentality that we have taken for some time.”
The early stages of the necessary transition of our team. Horford’s on board.
Horford: “When I arrived, I understood the direction of the team, we had a great individual plan in place for me, and I feel like as a result I’ve played really good basketball for the Thunder. At the same time, I know what it’s like to be a young, aspiring player, and at this point in the season I understand how important playing meaningful minutes is for their careers and their development. … I’m looking forward to supporting the guys who supported me, watching them continue to play the right way and play together as we have throughout the season, while still being around the team and continuing my training.”
This is so weird and so crazy and also makes perfect sense? I don’t like to throw around the word “unprecedented,” but this has to be the first time something like this has happened with a guy who has two full years left on his deal, right? Just shutting down a seemingly healthy, effective older player? Maybe guys have had a “nagging” injury that keeps them out for the remainder of a lost season, but to basically say he’s done here now and we’ll work to trade him this summer? This has to be the first time it’s been done so openly. Presti’s known for his transparency with players but this takes it to new heights. I love it. The Thunder are in no-man’s-land right now with the ninth-worst record in the league. If the season ended today, they’d have a 20.3 percent chance of getting a top-four pick and a 4.5 percent chance at no. 1. They’ve got to bump those numbers up. Drastic times, drastic measures. We have no way of knowing just how much of this was the team’s idea vs. Horford/his agent’s, but Horford’s sister made it sound mutual and that vibes with the reporting.
Oh no. Dumbasses are tweeting this at me like it’s a bad thing. You do realize it’s his decision, right? Sit down you look silly https://t.co/KJO5lN2DA2
— Anna Horford (@AnnaHorford) March 27, 2021
The move is right and necessary. It makes plain what’s been evident for some time: The youth movement is in full effect in Oklahoma City. In a March 21 win over the tanktastic Houston Rockets, the Thunder started Isaiah Roby (age 23), Lu Dort (21), Théo Maledon (19), Aleksej Pokusevski (19), and Moses Brown (21). That’s the second-youngest starting lineup in NBA history, even with the geriatric Roby in there messing with the mean. On March 29 against the Mavericks, the starting lineup was nearly identical, only Dort was out with concussion symptoms and Svi Mykhailiuk started in his place. Mykhailiuk’s also 23, another geezer. Still, that group’s average age was younger than the starting five Oregon State put on the floor that same night in the second round of the NCAA tournament. George Hill’s a Sixer. Mike Muscala, 29 years young, was the oldest person in the regular rotation when Hill and Horford were out. He’s played once in the last 10 games.
All that to say, again—the front office is trying. They’re doing all they can. It’s those meddling kids, though. Precocious, full of wonderment. They play too hard, scrap too much. Apathy has not taken hold the way it can in some teams that have no shot at serious postseason success. They seem to be genuinely interested in competing. It’s so frustrating. They continue to surprise. They continue to win games they have no business winning. They continue to make no sense whatsoever. I hate how much I love them watching them. They have the ninth-worst record in the league and their net rating says they should be the fourth worst. They should not be fun to watch but I have fun watching them. Never did I think I’d be personally invested in the destiny of each and every Justin Jackson floater, but here we are.
We were wondering how far the front office would go to try and get into the bottom five. Now we know. And I, for one, appreciate it. It’s the kids’ time and we’re sprinting for the future.
As far as I’m concerned, why stop here? Let’s get crazy. Let’s get reckless. Play with four or do Vivek’s idea where you just leave one dude on the offensive end at all times. Make the team play in weighted vests and work boots. Have them develop their off hands by using them exclusively every game from here on out. This season is about development. If you’re not evolving, you’re dying.
“When the size of the star doesn’t match the size of the market, the clock always ticks faster.”
That’s from a recent Kirk Goldsberry column titled, “The coastal elite status of NBA superstars and superteams.” Reading Presti’s and Horford’s statements got me thinking about it. It’s required reading for anyone interested in tanking, modern team-building, and the differences in building in small markets vs. big markets. There are a smorgasbord of small-market-pertinent lines and I’m grateful to have an opportunity to use the word smorgasbord there. That’s one of those, you just get really pumped up when you see it on the horizon. Feels very special.
Goldsberry also went on The Lowe Post to discuss the piece. The interview and the column are both great. If you’re a fan of a small-market team, though, or find small-market teams important to the health of the league, they can be a little sobering.
“If a small-market team in Orlando or Milwaukee wants to compete,” Goldsberry writes, “its only chance is to draft great players, wait a few years until they reach their early prime, then take advantage of a quickly shrinking window, while praying their talent doesn’t split for the coasts. The Bucks scored a massive victory when Antetokounmpo bypassed free agency. … But Milwaukee depleted its assets to make its case, and the new deal doesn’t prevent a trade demand after a playoff flameout.”
Paul George descends from the rafters like Sting, grabs the mic, and says, “Absolutely … absolutely.”
“More than 80 percent of the league has to patiently grow its own food from seed, while the top tier can just hit the drive-through in most offseasons.”
Let’s go to the hammer:
“Draft picks have never been more meaningful in origin markets and never meant less in the destination markets. As a result, the precious few teams that can reliably retain top talent are emptying their cupboards to extract unhappy superstars in mega-trades.”
In the interview, Lowe expounds on this:
“In other words, if I’m Brooklyn, I don’t care about draft picks. If I’m Oklahoma City, I need all the draft picks because I’ve realized that’s the only way I can build a championship team.”
All of this seems obviously true to me. With a small market, you either draft a lion or you’re dreaming. Even if you do draft a lion, oftentimes you’re still dreaming. Some small-market execs are also pointing to the recent buyouts that have resulted in big-name players migrating coastward as another way small markets are up against it.
When I first heard these grievances, like any good fan of a small-market team, I was ready to grab my torch and pitchfork. Now that I’ve sat with the idea for a bit, though, I’m just not sure it matters much, at least not yet. It’s not not a thing, but I don’t think there are too many instances of a buyout guy swaying a title heretofore. Maybe Blake and Aldridge will change that this season, but guys that get bought out are typically past-their-prime vets who aren’t producing in line with what they’re being paid. They’re buyout guys for a reason.
I think the small-market gripes are legitimate with regard to free agency and glamour markets having a far better chance than their small-market counterparts at keeping a lion long term. Right now, though, that feels like a far more significant issue than whether or not Blake was dogging it on the Pistons just to get out of town and appease all the ringz lovers out there. That doesn’t mean I don’t think this big-name buyout thing can’t become something worth worrying about. If a few seasons from now, an older, still plenty effective former star with a couple years left on his deal decides he doesn’t dig his current situation and wants to go to a contender, and said former star either gets paid too much for another team to want to trade for him or just doesn’t want to go to any of the places that will (or threatens he won’t re-up with the team trading for him), and then decides to James Harden it for an extended period of time unless his current team buys him out—actually, wait, this all sounds super plausible, maybe I do think it’s something worth worrying about?
I’ve been surprised at people’s surprise, though. If the only thing that ever ultimately matters to anybody is ringz, if that’s the main accepted indicator of a player’s greatness, then of course this stuff will keep happening. I’d go on an impassioned rant here and say we must change the discourse but that’s like asking the waves to stop.
My wife got her first round of the vaccine the other day. I am extremely relieved and extremely jealous. I just now became eligible and have not yet been quick enough on the draw to snag an appointment. When my wife told Tarkaida she’d gotten a shot, Tarkaida burst into tears. Tarkaida’s not a fan of shots. She’s the type you have to hold down and bribe with post-checkup lollipops and Disney-themed Band-Aids. Once, when a nurse was about to give her a shot, Tarkaida said, “That’s OK. I don’t think I need it.” I don’t like needles, but I handle shots OK. I just can’t watch. I look away, try to talk through it. Shai’s different. He watches it happen.
This photo enters top five territory on my Most Adorable Things I’ve Ever Seen Power Rankings. Currently it goes:
1A and 1B. Anytime a baby sneezes.
3. Donut holes
4. Baby Yoda
5. All koalas
Myself and the rest of the MATIESPR board will be deliberating for the next few months to come to a decision on whether or not the picture leaps no. 5. It might also leap no. 4. The board is honestly really weird and sometimes things happen that are out of my control. We could leave the picture off the list altogether and only switch koalas and Baby Yoda because we feel, you know, we’re just in a phase as a board where we’re especially into koalas. It’s like Poku—anything could happen. Please respect our privacy as we work through this difficult decision.
The Thunder should have T-shirts made. Just put that picture on the front with the words DORT: THERE WHEN YOU NEED HIM and sell it for like $50 and I’ll think that’s way too expensive but buy it anyway because it’s a great moment in time. Dort will thwart LeBron and your fears. He’s a pillar, a shoulder on which to rest your weary head. Always there, always true. For his friends, for game-winners made, and game-winners blocked. May we all have a Dort in our lives. May we all be a Dort for someone else. I forgot to say it last week and I’m sorry—God bless Canada.
Moses Brown signed a four-year, $6.8 million deal with the Thunder on Monday. This comes after averaging 13 and 12 since he came back from the G League bubble. He was going to get the deal already, but his showing Saturday, going for 21 and 23 against the Celtics, sure didn’t hurt his chances. That made him the sixth player in Oklahoma City history with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game, joining Thunder legends Steven Adams, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and SGA. Enes Kanter (look, I love Enes, but legend?) also did it. Brown played so well in the first half he prompted a tweet from another OKC OG, Kendrick Perkins. Big Perk was so excited by the performance he got patriotic.
Moses Brown is flat out give the Celtics that work!!! The man has 17 points and 19 rebounds at Halftime. God Bless America!
— Kendrick Perkins (@KendrickPerkins) March 28, 2021
On Wednesday night, before a win against the Raptors, Brown showed up to the game wearing a Gervonta Davis–Leo Santa Cruz T-shirt from their title bout in October of last year. In bold blue letters, above a picture of Davis hitting Santa Cruz with a right to the body, was Davis’s nickname—TANK. And as much as I want losses, I have to respect the wardrobe choice. Life’s boring without a little theatre.
Brown is huge (7-foot-2) and extremely active. His effort is abnormal for a big of his size. He’s tireless on the boards, rebounds out of his area, tips the ball over and over to himself, wears people down. I don’t think he’s a future starter in the league, but as a backup big on the cheap you can give spot minutes to depending on the matchup, for sure. He’s got an elite motor and his arms are everywhere. I think ultimately Oklahoma City will want its 5 of the future to be able to shoot it, be a threat with the ball in his hands. More Horford than Brown, I guess. Right now, Brown’s mainly dunks and putbacks, bunnies dropped into his lap. But this guy will go get the ball whether it’s in his area or not and he’s trying to dunk everything.
With a little over eight minutes left in the second quarter of that Celtics game, Svi Mykhailiuk came off a pick and drove the lane, threw up a contested layup. The ball came off the rim, Brown inhaled the miss—one of his six offensive rebounds that night. He gave Timelord a lift and Williams pogo’d on out of there. Then Brown punched it. The Thunder’s play-by-play analyst, Michael Cage, was absolutely giddy. He spoke with a laugh in his voice. “Bend the rim!” Cage was a fantastic rebounder in his day, the league’s rebounding champion in ’87-88, and you can tell he has a lot of affection for the way Brown attacks the glass. Except for maybe Brown himself, I’m not sure anybody has enjoyed his recent success more than Cage.
Later that same game, Cage got contemplative. “They say time is measured in minutes, life is measured in moments. Moses Brown has had a moment tonight, folks.” Like too many guys on local broadcasts these days, Cage skews homer more than I’d like (lol at me saying that), and he too often plugs the Thunder web shop right smack in the middle of a play, but he has high highs. During the Raptors game, he just started talking about Jurassic Park. “The dinosaurs came back to life.” After some plays, when an Oklahoma City player is particularly active on the boards and outworks another guy for the rebound, Cage will shout, “It’s my money and I want it now.” Then my personal favorite, there was a Grizzlies game earlier this year when, in back-to-back sentences, he compared Poku first to a hang glider, then to a locomotive. Here’s the thing—he’s not wrong!
And somebody’s ears were burning. Hey, Poku! It’s great to see you!
Poku performed this miracle the same Celts game Brown went bananas. Went and caught Timelord off the clock. When the detonation happened, I left our physical world and entered Pokuland once more. I’ve mentioned this paradise before, but it adds new attractions daily. There are Dippin’ Dots stands everywhere now. And they’re the good Dippin’ Dots stands, the ones with cookies and cream. They just put in a waterslide over by the Putt-Putt. There’s actually a pretty cool log ride. Blacksmith demonstrations. A petting zoo. Churros.
I could sit here and act like I’m not going to write something about Poku every week, but I don’t like lying. Not to me, not to you. I tried limiting myself to four Poku sentences a week; however, I am but a man. I have a season pass to Pokuland and I buy FastPass every trip. I should probably just have a dedicated Poku section in these called Pokuland so I can properly honor him and his many contributions to both my happiness and the world writ large. Actually,
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING POKULAND. WELCOME, FRIEND. WE MISSED YOU. PUT YOUR ARMS AND LEGS WHEREVER YOU WANT.
There are flutes playing, violins, electric guitars, an angel band, trumpeting elephants, a running of the bulls twice daily, various knife throwers, stuntmen and stuntwomen in flame-retardant suits light themselves on fire, jump out second-story windows onto pallets of fireworks. Hundreds of televisions the size of the lane are peppered all throughout the park. They alternate between Poku highlights, that halo jump in Mission Impossible: Fallout, the “Shook Ones, Pt. II” music video, and the scene from Planet Earth II: Islands when the iguana hatchling is chased across the beach by all those killer snakes. I mentioned the churros.
Also, I’m furious at myself. Last week I made two errors. The first one—I said the Thunder rushed Durant back when he had his foot injury. Researching for this week, I realized how off that was. They were super cautious with him and, still, setbacks happened. I think my mind is melting and my sense of time with it. I must have conflated Durant’s Jones fracture and that troublesome screw in OKC with his Achilles tear in Golden State? I’m not sure. I barely know what day it is anymore. There’s also a nonzero chance I’ve subconsciously done everything I can to block out the bad parts of that Thunder era altogether.
My second error involved Poku’s dance. I went on and on about that dance. Called it “the Poku.” I should be tarred and feathered. How could I? How could I call it that when the Okie Poki was staring me in the face. I’m absolutely disgusted. When the name hit me, I dropped and gave God 50 push-ups. Being a leader is about holding yourself accountable and taking responsibility for your actions. I have to be better.
Poku’s put together a nice little highlight package the past handful of games he’s played. Got a steal and went the length of the court to throw one down on the Mavs. Got me off the couch.
But then Saturday he went and yammed on Timelord. That got me to the moon. And you know what? I’m just going to put the video in here again. It’s so beautiful. Let’s bask once more in its glow.
For more on the play, let’s go to Shai.
I feel the same way.
This is a list of guys that were out for the Thunder on Wednesday night in a win over the Raptors:
- SGA (plantar fasciitis)
- Dort (concussion protocol)
- Bazley (shoulder)
- Muscala (ankle)
- Poku (health and safety protocols)
- Ty Jerome (ankle)
- Horford (we talked about this)
If we count only players who have played at least 20 games with Oklahoma City this season, the Thunder were without their five leading scorers and still won. Honestly, y’all, what on earth? The guys who don’t often play produce when they do. Justin Jackson’s playing free, pulling from distance without hesitation when his man goes under the screen. Darius Miller’s hitting stepbacks and contested 3s off the dribble. Brown put up another double-double with 20 and 12. Even Isaiah Roby’s getting double-doubles. The Thunder had seven guys in double figs. Why couldn’t we have played over our heads like this when we were championship contenders? What sick joke am I being subjected to? Svi goes for 22 against Toronto?! Twenty-two?! This is not the Big 12 circa 2017. This is a professional basketball game in which he was guarded, at various times, by OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., and Pascal Siakam. The Raptors have had the season from hell (they’re playing in Tampa Bay for crying out loud) and their defense (ranked 22nd) has not been pretty, but still, these men are not wet paper towels. And Svi puts up 22. He’d scored over 20 exactly twice in his career before the Raptors game. Raptors haven’t had it this bad since that asteroid showed up. I don’t want this for them. I’ve made clear my stance on Canada. I feel passionately about that place. Everybody up there’s beautiful and gentle-souled. I wish for all of them heaven.
The dates have been set. The 2021 NBA draft will be July 29 and the draft lottery will be June 22. It makes me feel nasty typing it, but the time is now. Including Friday’s game against the Suns, there are 25 games left on the schedule. I worry some of this is too little, too late, that the team has already racked up too many wins, but this sentence is ridiculous and so is this league. Anything can happen. And that’s trite, but trite things can also be true. Twenty-five more games till the end of the season. Twenty-five more games until the lotto odds are set in stone … I’d love to lose lots of them. All tanks ahead.