At every level of basketball, substitutions cause some level of momentary chaos and spontaneous communication on the floor.
As the deck gets shuffled and new players check in at the scorer’s table, arms start pointing all different directions. Players and coaches identify who plans to guard the new incoming opponents, the players trot over to their new assignments and start recalling their pregame film study. This season, when Thunder changes lines on the floor, opponents are going to be doing even more head scratching and checking with the bench as they decide who each player should mark.
Over the first two preseason games of the 2021-22 campaign, the Thunder has played 35 different lineups, mixing and matching up and down the roster. Nine of those five-man groupings played fewer than one minute together, but the starting lineups from both games played the most total minutes – 8:00 and 7:55 apiece. The remaining 24 lineups played between 1 and 7 total minutes across the 96 minutes of action thus far.
The Thunder played big for 3:43 with four players over 6-foot-9 (Josh Giddey, Aleksej Pokuševski, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Mike Muscala) and small for 3:04, with three quick, shifty guards on the floor at once (Théo Maledon, Ty Jerome and Tre Mann). The Thunder has incredible versatility among the players on its roster, but it can also create lineups with extreme variance in terms of composition.
There’s size at the guard and wing spots, with Gilgeous-Alexander standing at 6-foot-6, Giddey at 6-foot-9 and Pokuševski at 7-feet tall. Frontcourt players on the Thunder’s roster can stretch the defense with the three ball and keep the offense moving from side to side as well.
“We have guys that can shoot, pass, dribble and make plays for the next guy,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “The better we get at that, the better we get at decision making, the better we'll be in the future.”
For the three members of the Thunder’s rookie class who attended college, Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Aaron Wiggins, the amount of experimenting that Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault has done so far is likely pretty foreign, but also freeing.
With fewer games, a shorter eligibility window and dynamics specific to the college game, most players are used to being put into a more defined box as a player and matched with a consistent set of teammates on the floor. During Thunder training camp this year, however, Daigneault is fostering a situation where everyone plays with everyone to fully stretch the team and its players as much as possible.
“In college a lot of times you have a certain set of guys who you just consistently try and pound certain things over and over with,” explained rookie Aaron Wiggins. “Here everybody's getting reps and trying to make plays.”
While the interplay between the guard and wing positions is especially fluid, it’s the five spot for the Thunder that is the most intriguing. Across the NBA, the player at that position is what determines your style of play on both ends of the floor. So far, Isaiah Roby and Robinson-Earl have started there, but Muscala, Derrick Favors and others are surely to be in the mix.
Some big men are hard rollers to the rim on offense, others like to pick and pop for three. On defense, some five men like Muscala are more suited to dropping back in pick and roll coverage to protect the rim or trapping to prevent an off-the-dribble three-pointer. When Daigneault slides a smaller, quicker forward like Darius Bazley to that spot, however, the Thunder will be in position to just switch every screening action.
“With the lineups, the way that we try to look at it is that every player has their own individual style of play, and the lineups are just a merging of those things,” said Daigneault.
When the Thunder does play small ball, as it has during stretches against both Charlotte and Milwaukee so far in the preseason, it will need to develop the type of scrappiness that typically reveals itself in veteran teams. With the abundant youth on the roster, that process of developing in-game toughness, including the ability to make the opposition uncomfortable right from the start, will be ongoing for some time. Battling the defending NBA Champions, at full strength, on Sunday night was a great lesson for Daigneault’s squad.
“If you're gonna play that small on the perimeter, which we can do and we've done in the past, then you’ve got to have some nastiness,” said Daigneault, who is optimistic that his team can grow into that tough streak.
What the Thunder did show strides in between the Charlotte and Milwaukee games, however, was a crucial aspect of that in-game toughness on the offensive side of the ball. After committing 22 turnovers against the Hornets’ swarming aggressive defense, the Thunder only gave away possession nine times throughout the entire 48-minute clash with the low-mistake Bucks defense.
Gilgeous-Alexander and the guards kept their dribbles low in the lane, away from the rangy arms of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday. On the perimeter, Thunder players made quick decisions to take three-pointers or slash to the bucket. Whether it’s a trio of guards paired with two bigs, five perimeter-oriented players or a variety pack of guys out there on the court, the Thunder will keep aiming to be crisp in its offense.
“A tall lineup or a small lineup, we always are going to have guys that can do a lot of things,” said forward Isaiah Roby. “We have versatile lineups but just taking care of the ball and competing on both sides of the ball is big for whoever's out there.
As the Thunder moves forward through training camp, which includes a pair of games against the Denver Nuggets – on Wednesday at Paycom Center and on Thursday at the BOK Center in Tulsa – it will have the chance to keep hammering home some of the core tenets that have been drilled in practice.
The top priority for the Thunder is to hone a free-flowing, selfless style of basketball on offense where all five players on the floor can make a play for their teammate. On defense, versatility and flexibility are crucial in matching up with the world’s best and most complex players to guard each night.
Within that framework, there are countless wrinkles for the Thunder to throw in – how much they invert the offense, whether they trap on defense and with which players they employ those tactics – but the key will be developing such a strong baseline over the course of the year that Daigneault can expect a reliable level of performance each night. In the end, that consistency is what separates NBA veterans from NBA hopefuls, so it’s a vital skill to sharpen at the outset of this year’s camp and these players’ careers.
“You try to really establish clear identity on both ends of the floor but then you want to layer stuff in,” Daigneault said. “You're going to have to make some adjustments. You want those built into your system. You don't want to have to do that on the fly in the season, but the challenge is always not losing your identity.”