Horning: In my head, the Thunder cannot tank

Transcript File Photo

Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan surveys the action from the sideline during the 2018-19 season. It's unclear the nature of the team Donovan will be directing when the 2019-20 season rolls around.

Don’t tank.

Never tank.

Not tanking is in my head.

It’s never all right.

Well, maybe it’s all right if you’re the Knicks or the 76ers when they’d made so many bad decisions, none of their horrible contracts were marketable, the franchise was spending a fortune to be awful and the only thing available as a strategy and penance for past sins was to collectively and cathartically own all of it, letting go of everything you once mistakenly thought might ever make you any good.

Only then can you tank.

Only that’s not tanking.

That’s cleansing.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have not committed sin after sin after sin, have not thrown bad money at bad money at bad money that was once upon a time believed to be good money.

No.

None of that.

They had a disgruntled superstar — who’s still disgruntled, by the way — bolt and, trying to keep the dream alive, eventually brought two other superstars to town.

One’s name was Carmelo and they were out from under that decision as quickly as the following season, and the other’s name is Paul and, had he not wanted out to return to his Southern California home, who knows what this team might have done once he had two healthy shoulders again, Andre Roberson back and playing excellent defense again, Steven Adams being Steven Adams, Terrance Ferguson playing like he played for about a third of last season for most of next season and Jerami Grant making another big leap, which would make it three big leaps in three seasons.

Maybe Dennis Schroder even defending a bit and Patrick Patterson hitting a shot or two and Hamidou Diallo bringing back his best moments, and more of them, from the year before.

Heck, maybe Russell Westbrook hitting free throws again and taking fewer dumb shots.

That team could have done something. And because Paul George decided to leave that team does not mean that team, that organization, which represents more than itself, the whole dang city and metro and state, gets to tank.

It does not get to tank.

Ever.

There are rumblings that Westbrook might be drawing interest from Houston — which might be the dumbest thing ever — Detroit and Miami. Listening to just a little bit of the national conversation, I’m convinced the Knicks or 76ers wouldn’t be insane to pursue him.

Do they have the offerings to make it worth the Thunder’s while? Good question.

Do the Thunder want out from under Westbrook’s contract right now? That’s another good question.

Does Westbrook want out?

All good questions.

If he could get to Philly, that’s a team that could win the East, but Detroit or Miami, really?

Are those places equipped to go any further than an Oklahoma City team, piloted by Westbrook, with all those players just mentioned doing their thing, continuing to get better just as they’ve gotten better before, yet now with the additions of Danilo Gallinari, the big-man shooter the Thunder have never had and always wanted, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who if they held the 2018 NBA draft all over again might just go as high as Westbrook went, fourth, in 2008.

Because they could do that and that team could be pretty good chasing, among others, the depleted Warriors, now without Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and, for a good portion of next season, Klay Thompson, too; or the Rockets, who could sink at any time under the collective bad blood of Chris Paul and James Harden; or the Lakers and Clippers, whose superstars will still be trying each other on for the first time.

Personally, I like any team led by the intangibles and two-way-ness of George and Kawhi Leonard, yet the rest of the West’s presumed major players, I don’t trust as far as I can throw them.

Or, the Thunder could do something almost nobody is talking about, locally or nationally.

They could deal Westbrook and thereby be freed of so much payroll and all their luxury taxes, keep everybody else and put the ball in Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands — he’s a point guard, by the way, who the world thinks the world of after his rookie season — roll the ball out on the Chesapeake Energy Arena Floor and see what happens. And if he's not quite there yet, they could give the ball to Schroder until he is.

The vibe would be Thunder, year one, after Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo and OKC became fun to watch and easy to root for. Or it would be the Hornets, years one and two, when Chris Paul and David West overachieved to the postseason’s edge.

They could do that, maybe make the playoffs and maybe not make the playoffs, yet still be a respectable team, its success measured by overachievement rather than the opposite, where the idea is to accumulate all the ping pong balls you can.

Spend time on Twitter, following local and national “voices” or just spend some time on local sports radio and you’ll find folks claiming to have the Thunder’s best interest at heart, looking forward to a couple or three years of bad basketball, all for the ping pong balls, forgetting entirely that OKC has more first-round picks that it can count through 2026 and, the nature of the league being the nature of the league, some of those picks might well be lottery picks anyway.

It’s maddening.

Not meaning to invoke Herm Edwards, but not only do you play to win the game, you coach and manage and general manage to win the game.

All of that and the greatest sin, the unforgivable sin, the don't-even-think-about-it sin of having a team, a city, a metro and state can call its own, would be trying not to win.

For the middle — outside the lottery but with no chance to seriously pursue a championship — is not the worst place to be in sports or the NBA, as so many claim.

The worst place to be in sports is putting your lot in with a team, an organization, a city that you cannot respect and you can’t respect any entity that’s trying to finish last.

OKC can get under the cap, it can save money, it can even start over, but it cannot lay low. It cannot root for L’s over W’s.

It cannot tank.

Never.

Ever.

This Week's Circulars