Dear NBA, the Thunder are kicking your ass
Coaching, caring, and a superstar have made OKC relevant again
BY DAVID THORPE
Before the season, Vegas forecast the Thunder would finish with fewer than 25 wins. I projected they’d win just 23 games, and even suggested some good trades for the Thunder should Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tire of what promised to be a grueling rebuild. The story of this season seemed to be that second-overall draft pick Chet Holmgren would miss it with an injury.
But over their last 16 games, the Thunder are 11-5, good for the league’s fifth-best record since December 17. They beat the Celtics, Sixers, Mavericks, and Nets by a combined 73 points, and are 7-2 in 2023. All seven of those wins came by double digits. The Thunder are rolling.
You could pick almost any stat and they’re elite right now:
Points per game: 2nd
Points off turnovers: 1st
Points in the paint: 7th
Pace of play: 5th
3-pointers made: tied for 7th
Free throws made: 10th
Offensive rating: 9th
What are we seeing here? I asked a current NBA coach, who has been examining the Thunder, how it all works. This was his response:
Their coach gives them royal jelly. They all play with confidence and joy. They play different, which is hard, because you basically prepare for every team the same way more or less. They play small; run a lot of guard-to-guard slip-outs; usually have five players on the floor who can shoot and drive. [Shai Gilgeous-Alexander] is a fucking problem. They force a lot of turnovers. They play hard as shit.
[Daigneault] gives them all confidence, but the players don’t play with arrogance except SGA; he’s done a great job.
It’s time to talk about Mark Daigneault.
“The NBA is a coach’s league.”
Going way back to 2007, my first year covering the NBA at ESPN, I’ve emphasized no point more consistently. That doesn’t mean superstars are inconsequential, or that role players are unable to elevate an underachieving team into a contender, or that average coaches are incapable of winning championships. Even for those few superstars lucky enough to be armed with a good-to-great coach, only a handful ever win a title. However, getting a superstar-led team to the Finals with a net-negative (or even net-neutral) coach just doesn’t happen.
As the late Bum Phillips once said about legendary coach Bear Bryant: “[He] can take his'n and beat your'n, and then he can turn around and take your'n and beat his'n.” This quote meant the most to me early in my coaching career, when I felt like I needed to be the difference between my team and our opponent.
Of course, NBA coaches are faced with a new grandmaster-level chess problem every night; everything is in constant flux. All too often, they begin a match already down power pieces and somehow make do with two bishops and three pawns. Somewhere in that game within the game, NBA coaches have to figure out how to employ their teams’ strengths to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses while minimizing their own. Stifle enough opposing attacks, and your team has a very good chance to win a game or—in the case of the Oklahoma City Thunder—maybe even a playoff series.
Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault is showing some grandmaster-level skill in Oklahoma City, and his team looks as if they’re about to jolt the rest of the league.
Daigneault has the Thunder playing swarming defense as well. During this 11-5 run, his team has the league’s third-highest defensive efficiency. They have forced the most turnovers (tied with the Heat) while surrendering the second-fewest fast-break points—all despite being very young and, by NBA standards, quite small (more on that later).
In today’s NBA, it stands true that most coaches are interchangeable. Not here. Most NBA coaches would have this Thunder team losing consistently and painfully. They were supposed to be little more than a pile of young draft picks, an injured unicorn, and one skyrocketing young star—Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—seemingly destined for relocation. In other words, nowhere near ready to win. Instead, Daigneault has found a way to employ his array of young weapons successfully; he’s also sold Shai on what this team can become.
The question is: “How?”
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