By Paris Lawson | Broadcast and Digital Reporter | okcthunder.com
At the start of the 2021-22 season, the Thunder opened the first week of training camp inside of its old practice facility. With a team full of new faces and a blank slate opportunity ahead of them, the two-a-day practices were designed to set a solid foundation for the group to build on while also reconnecting to its core organizational values.
Six months later, having logged 82 games worth of experiences and lessons, the Thunder convened as a group one last time before the offseason – this time to reflect on how they built on that foundation.
“We're proud of the organization's origins and the teams and players that have been here before and we think tapping into that is an advantage for us, but we're also a new iteration and a new cycle of the team and we need to chart our own course,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “I think this season was another positive step in the right direction, environmentally, stylistically, programmatically and with the development of individual players.”
With the youngest roster in the league, the Thunder prioritized opportunities to its young players throughout the year. All of OKC’s rookies logged valuable and extended playing time on the floor to the point where the Thunder led all teams in points per game by rookies. Even returning players were given the opportunity and runway to expand and add to their games.
Throughout the season, the team celebrated each developmental win and banded together when facing a hurdle. When a player stepped up in a ‘Moment of Truth’ to block a shot or take a charge, the bench clamored in encouragement. In tough losses, there were no fingers pointed but rather introspection and added motivation. The result of that environment: a close-knit group who remained present in the highs and lows of the season.
“We had fun this year. I think that's the most important thing,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “We got closer on and off the court, and I'm excited for the future of this team for sure.”
“Super young team, so everyone was super-duper close,” said Thunder forward Darius Bazley. “Everyone was super proud of everyone else's success in different parts, whenever they had some. It was really fun to just go out and compete and get better with everyone every day.”
That competitiveness made itself apparent in multiple ways throughout the season, but perhaps none greater than the resiliency in the face of a large deficit. The Thunder’s no-quit attitude was responsible for 16 comebacks of 10 or more points which ties for the third most of any team in the league and eight comeback wins of 15 points or greater – tied for the most in the league.
One of OKC’s most memorable comebacks took place in October against the Lakers which resulted in the one of the largest come-from-behind victories in OKC history. The youngest team in the league, facing the oldest, rallied back to win after falling behind by as many as 26 points.
“It just shows the toughness and the grit of our team,” said Thunder rookie Aaron Wiggins. “When we're all on the same page and competing together and playing like that, any deficit we face we can come back from.”
That competitiveness also showed up on the defensive end – an area where the Thunder hung their hat each night. When operating at full-health, the Thunder held a top-10 defensive rating in the league despite oftentimes being the undersized and less-experienced team on the floor. What the team lacked in size and experience, they made up for in feistiness and competitiveness.
“The biggest ingredient you have on the defensive in the floor is the level of competitiveness that your team has, and I thought one thing that you can't deny about our team this past season is how consistently we competed,” said Daigneault. “That's the thing that we're most proud of.”
“One of the main things we said at the beginning of the year was to compete at the highest level every night, and that was just the standard we had for the whole year,” said Thunder defensive ace Lu Dort. “The whole team really was digging into that and came to compete hard every night.”
Offensively, the Thunder set out to establish a sustainable style of play that transcended individuals in the lineup. That meant playing through the paint, playing fast and moving the ball to generate the highest quality look on the floor. By the end of the year, though the Thunder’s lineup took on various iterations, the style of play remained intact.
“The most encouraging thing is stylistically, on both ends of the floor, we ended the season more actualized than we started it,” said Daigneault. “That's where we need to be right now with such a young team and guys that are growing and declaring themselves.”
In addition to solidifying its playing style offensively, the Thunder saw individual player improvement throughout the year. Players such as rookie Tre Mann, for instance, who entered the league with a high-level shot-creating ability but needed to adjust to the size and length of NBA defenders. By the end of the season after spending time in the G-League with the OKC Blue, Mann logged four games scoring 25 or more points.
Between the individual player development this season, the establishment of a sustainable playing style and the positive environment within the organization, there’s a collective optimism among the group for the future of the team.
“I'm excited about seeing what it looks like when we come to the gym in September and I think training camp in particular, just looking at who's on the team, knowing we're going to be layering in more guys. I'm pretty excited about the level of competition,” said Daigneault. “That level of competition inside your roster is an indicator of having an improving team and that's a good thing.”