Some families have unique sayings that are passed down through generations, little phrases that are a reminder of identity or provide a pathway toward success. Plenty of NBA players have personal mottos as well – something they can latch onto that grounds them as they attack their daily grind.
In Oklahoma City, the words “Committed Community Together” have always stood boldly at the top of Loud City inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, setting the overarching standard for the organization as its players whiz by below on the court. This season, however, with Mark Daigneault at the helm in his first year as an NBA head coach, there have been a few other key catchphrases that have caught on with Thunder players on a more granular, basketball-oriented level.
While the following key mantras don’t encompass all of the wisdom Daigneault has imparted so far in his tenure, they do reflect something vital – a young coach’s ability to connect to players with real, tangible messages that they can rely on through the course of this year’s arduous 72-game season.
Approach, Not Results
The Thunder’s outlook has always been process-driven and not outcome-oriented. That was true when the team was barreling into the Western Conference Finals and it’s been consistent during all of the years in between, including this one.
The top focus for the Thunder coaching staff has been to push every single player to grow and improve, without cutting any corners. It won’t always look pretty given that improvement, while incremental, is not linear. But as long as Thunder players keep a consistent approach and they learn from each experience, they'll continue to grow. With young, talented players in the pipeline, that’s a strategy the Thunder is betting on to bear fruit in the future.
“It starts with Coach (Daigneault), his approach to how he wants us to handle everything,” said veteran center Al Horford. “We get a win or loss, we’re back to square one, back to work, back to trying to get better and our group has really taken to that.”
So far this season, the Thunder has taken its fair share of lumps at the hands of elite teams, including the reigning Eastern and Western Conference Champions, the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. In each game following those big losses, the Thunder bounced back with an extremely competitive performance and a crunch-time win.
The reason the Thunder has shown that ability is not because it had a vendetta, but rather because it trusted the effects of continuing to pour into the foundation day-in and day-out by finding lessons to learn from each competitive experience. The Thunder’s worth comes from the work, and when those seeds bloom throughout a season, it can be a thrilling sight.
“The most important thing is our preparation and then our reflection,” said Daigneault. “We're just trying to make sure that our feedback loop individually with the players and as a team is really tight and that we're learning and growing. So, the outcomes of the games right now are kind of secondary to that process.”
“Be Where Your Feet Are”
During Daigneault’s five-year tenure as the head coach of the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate, he often dealt with changing rosters and players coming in for assignment. Amid that potential chaos, the key to solidifying a positive environment was adopting the philosophy of “being where your feet are”.
Being present, living in the moment and being grateful for the opportunity that each game, each practice, each film session and even each conversation provides helps players stay locked into what is right in front of them. That extends to the social side of being a team. To comply with COVID precautions, Daigneault and the Thunder staff have used technology as much as possible to check in with players and even more importantly, ensured that any moments actually spent together are quality time.
“Being able to adapt to uncertainty and to changing circumstances is a life skill, and it's certainly one that's relevant in competition,” said Daigneault. “So one thing that we've really tried to embrace as an organization and as a team is as these circumstances change and as things outside of our control pop up, we just want to be able to plant our feet on the ground, operate inside of the constraints and get the most out of every single day.”
That intentionality of thought and action is most apparent with the way Daigneault has approached his relationships. That was a hallmark of his time with the Blue and his one season as a Thunder assistant coach before taking over the head job this season. Veterans like Mike Muscala and an emerging leader in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both praised Daigneault for his awareness, thoughtfulness and ability to make players feel comfortable. When a coach creates that type of environment, it gives players a feeling of togetherness and care that is invaluable during the throes of the grind of a season.
“I feel like I can come to him with anything,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
“First off, Mark is just a great person,” said fellow third-year guard Hamidou Diallo. “He's just a positive guy. He always picked me up when I was down, every time I faced adversity. He was always by my side, whether it was sending me texts or whether it was just keeping me focused and keeping me level-headed, just making sure that I'm controlling the things that I could control.”
"We're not trying to build a resilient culture. We're trying to continue a resilient culture."
“‘What Else’ Mentality”
The Thunder has always had high internal standards. The bar for not just performance but professionalism, teamwork and sportsmanship was set in the first few months of the Thunder organization’s time in Oklahoma City. As each year has passed, Thunder players have carried on that legacy and looked internally for motivation to make an impact – be it on the floor, in the locker room or in the community. In the opening weeks of Daigneault’s tenure, that attitude has been succinctly summarized into an oft-repeated phrase:
“What else can we do?” veteran George Hill echoed.
When shots aren’t falling, the opposition is on a hot streak or the team just seems to be off balance, each player is encouraged to ask themselves that question. There’s always something within a player’s control, a factor on the margins of the game like setting a screen with the exact right timing, getting into position a split second earlier for a box out or maintaining legal guarding position by bodying up with the chest instead of reaching in.
More than what the box score looks like, that type of attention to detail and concentration is what Daigneault and the coaching staff is looking for when it evaluates players game to game. In practices and film sessions, during timeouts and in the locker room at halftime, players are then provided honest and constructive feedback, regardless of their stature in the league.
“I love Coach Mark,” said forward Justin Jackson. “He's gonna let you know if you need to do something better but he's also going to encourage you if you're doing something right.”
In two recent games on the road against the LA Clippers, one of the Western Conference’s best, the Thunder got down big in the first quarter. Against a veteran, All-Star-laden team, it would have been easy to let the game slip away completely in the second half. That wasn’t the case. In both games the Thunder outscored the Clippers in quarters two through four, digging in its heels and taking it possession by possession.
That was the spirit that led to the Thunder’s comeback from a 22-point third-quarter deficit in an overtime win over the Chicago Bulls. The Thunder is fostering a mentality of competitiveness for 48 minutes for the sake of competing, regardless of what the standings say, what the scoreboard says or what just happened on the previous possession. That mindset has clicked on the group level, but also with individual players.
“They always say next play mentality, but I did find myself a lot last year thinking about previous plays,” admitted Gilgeous-Alexander. “That's one of the things that Coach Mark has been working on with me going into this new season – having the next play mentality no matter how the game is going, having a positive attitude and not wearing your emotions on your sleeve.”
Watering that ability to summon the exact same energy after a great play or a poor one and after a string of losses or a hot streak is what has made the Thunder, and Oklahoma City, places that are more than the sum of their parts.
“We're not trying to build a resilient culture. We're trying to continue a resilient culture,” said Daigneault. “That's one of the things when the team came here that I know was a high priority – that the team's resilience and spirit was matched to that of the city’s. There's a lot that goes into playing here in this community and there's a lot that goes into representing the logo. That's what we're trying to teach every single day.”