Third-year wing Hamidou Diallo elevated in transition, springing up off the hardwood, soaring towards the rim over the heads of a pair of Utah Jazz defenders. A few feet to his left, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lifted off his toes as well, even though he didn’t have the ball. He had just dropped it off for Diallo on the fast break, but as a little moral support, Gilgeous-Alexander leaped alongside his teammate like a car passenger stepping on an imaginary brake pedal.
Two nights before that against Charlotte, this Thunder team with 11 new players on the roster started its 2020-21 season with eight assists on its first 11 made baskets. In two separate games against Orlando, the Thunder created flurries of spectacular ball movement, with extra passes manufacturing cavernous openings in the defense. Against New Orleans, the Thunder set a team record by attempting all but one shot either in the lane or from behind the arc.
Time on the floor together in a five-on-five setting was limited during training camp due to a quick start to the season and COVID safety precautions. Any expectation of on-court camaraderie, a spirit of sharing the rock and a coordinated balance would have been unfair, yet Head Coach Mark Daigneault has the Thunder on a solid track towards honing a sustainable NBA offensive philosophy, setting a template for developing layers for years to come.
“There's things like pace and spacing and execution that are taking precedent over where our shots are coming from right now,” said Daigneault. “We want to be a team that's got balance. We'd like to get to the rim, we'd like to get to the line and we'd like to get open shots, open threes. That’s the ultimate goal. Right now we're focused on the pace of our offense, our spacing and how well we execute and are just trying to tick forward there. We’ll layer on from that.”
The Thunder is the sixth youngest team in the NBA this season, with its average age inflated by a pair of 34-year-olds in Al Horford and George Hill. Seven of the Thunder’s main rotation players so far this season haven’t even turned 23 years old yet. As a result, there’s an opportunity for the Thunder and its first-year head coach to imagine anew the way the team plays on the floor with an ability to mold these fresh-faced youngsters into a forward-looking style of play.
"We can all push the break, we can all initiate the offense, and that's something that gives us the edge against a team with maybe a bigger five."
The roster construction has allowed for this future-oriented offensive style to be possible, with a slew of versatile wing players and a trio of centers who all can shoot the 3-pointer and play-make from the high post. That alleviates the burden of the offensive creation from falling squarely on point guards like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and rookie Théo Maledon, despite the creative passes both have shown – like Gilgeous-Alexander’s bounce pass to Darius Bazley after splitting a double team and Maledon’s lefty whip pass into the corner to Diallo against the Magic. After watching the Thunder in action, Orlando’s head coach, Steve Clifford, said the Thunder’s five-out style and balanced playmaking stretches and strains a defense.
“The game is blending into more and more of a position-less game. Hopefully we're kind of flowing up the floor in kind of a position-less manner,” said Daigneault before the season began. “Just like we can at times have three guards on the court, I also think there's times where we could have no traditional guards on the floor.”
Daigneault wasn’t just thinking out loud. So far in the early going there have been lineups that featured Hill, Gilgeous-Alexander and Maledon all at the same time as well as groups that feature three players with frontcourt size in Mike Muscala, Isaiah Roby and rookie 7-footer Aleksej Pokuševski. Every player that the Thunder has put on the floor this season can grab a defensive rebound and go, giving the team the opportunity to play with the type of pace that Daigneault has been pushing. That includes centers like Horford, Muscala and Roby, who can supercharge a fast break by eliminating an outlet pass.
“We have skilled frontcourt players, and you're faster when you get it off the glass and you push and you look to advance,” Daigneault said.
“We can all push the break, we can all initiate the offense, and that's something that gives us the edge against a team with maybe a bigger five,” added Roby. “It's just a nice little wrinkle that the coaches are allowing us to do, and it creates for a lot of mismatches.”
The Thunder’s tallest players are also some of its best shooters from deep. Muscala is a 36.8 percent career shooter from behind the arc and Horford is at 36.3 percent, including dagger jab-step 3-pointer to seal a win in Orlando last Saturday. During the preseason, it was Pokuševski, Horford and Muscala who led the team in 3-point attempts and makes. Either by spacing to the corners or popping back out behind the arc after screening, the Thunder’s bigs allow the team to space the floor and put extra pressure on the opposition to stop dribble-drives towards the rim.
“It makes the paint available for drivers, it makes the paint available for cutters and it makes the paint available for rollers,” said Daigneault.
“It simplifies the game,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “A lot of NBA teams are playing a drop coverage and their bigs are back, trying to prevent penetration from the guard. But when their bigs have to worry about our bigs shooting, it only makes it harder for them to guard and get close outs.”
Daigneault has noted that a foundational aspect of every young player’s offensive development is learning how to attack those closeouts, where a defender comes sprinting out to the perimeter to try to defend a player who has just caught the ball. Being a triple-threat in those situations, someone who can shoot, pass or drive with precision is the primary goal.
The complicated part is determining which of those options to choose and making that decision extremely quickly. That’s a major learning curve for any young NBA player. Turnovers are often a byproduct of that on-court education. Expectedly, that’s been the case for the Thunder, but these moments have been perfect opportunities to watch the film and learn.
“It's about us, making quick reads, quick decisions,” said Horford. “We're trying to make the right play. “Our guys will continue to work at it and we will continue to get more comfortable with what we're trying to do. That's collectively. We all have to do a better job of making those reads and helping one another get each other open.”
"At the end of the day, we want a team in the mindset of the whole being better than the sum of the parts."
Every morning after a game, Daigneault gets on a call with the Thunder’s data analytics team, which breaks down the previous night’s game in the context of the season thus far, with the perspective of randomness and small samples in mind. Even on the day in between games on a long road trip, the Thunder is thinking about the big picture view of how it is playing, not just what the scoreboard looked the night before.
Even with high-level one-on-one players like Gilgeous-Alexander on the perimeter or Horford on the block, the Thunder is committing to a balanced attack as a stress-reducer on individuals and as the underpinning of the habits it is helping the young players build.
“Having that balance and having five guys thinking in a way of generating the best shot that's what we're trying to develop,” said Daigneault. “Shai doing that from a primary creator standpoint is important because the better he does that, the more pressure it takes off him and the less defenses can just game plan for one guy.”
Five Thunder players are scoring in double figures and 10 are attempting between five and 15 field goals per game. Players like Diallo and second-year guard Lu Dort are learning how to backdoor cut and which angles to take to provide Horford and Muscala with passing angles. Pokuševski, the second-tallest player on the team, has shown a knack for finding rollers off the bounce.
In the early going, some teams have trapped Gilgeous-Alexander up top, forcing the ball out of his hands and on to the next guy to make a play. On other occasions, teams have sagged back into the lane to protect the rim, giving the Thunder’s whiz kid a chance to line up a 3 or probe into the lane, just taking what the defense gives.
“Every night is a little bit different, but it’s just about exploring the game and finding the right shot,” Daigneault noted. “If they're selling out on the ball and selling out on the paint, and you can't be stubborn.”
That is the sustainable style that the Thunder is trying to work towards – one that can adapt and still gash the defense regardless of the defense in front of it. There are going to be nights where the team does it for 48 minutes, some nights where that level of stamina, focus and concentration only lasts a couple of quarters at a time and others where it just isn’t there at all. As this young Thunder team gains experiences, makes strides on the fundamentals and sharpens its skills as professionals, consistency will grow. For now, Daigneault is fixated on the mindset and the approach, not the results.
“At the end of the day we just want a team that's in the mindset of the whole being better than the sum of the parts and everyone working together to try to find the best shots on offense,” Daigneault said.
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