Even during a non-COVID season, January is known for being one of the most demanding and busiest months of the NBA calendar. The Thunder had already played eight of its 14 scheduled games in the 31-day stretch before it was announced that its game against the Philadelphia 76ers was postponed for COVID-related reasons. Anyone would have understood if the Thunder and its coaching staff took advantage of the unexpected respite from the cavalcade of games and simply walked back out to their cars to go home. But for a team and a staff rooted in gratitude and making the most of the present moment, those cards weren’t on the table.
Instead, the Thunder coaching staff gathered everyone in the locker room, divided the group in half and walked back out onto the empty floor of Chesapeake Energy Arena to run a full-out, five-on-five scrimmage complete with a public address announcer and crowd noise.
This was just one example of how the Thunder organization and the coaching staff led by Mark Daigneault, approached the wacky 2020-21 season – with gratitude, appreciation and competitiveness. These have always been hallmarks of the Thunder culture and Daigneault had been engrained in that culture for seven seasons, five of which were spent as head coach of the Thunder’s G League affiliate OKC Blue.
“He really believes in the way we operate and how and why we do things – that we stand for more than what we do, and that it's bigger than basketball in a lot of ways,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti.
For the players and the coaching staff, a shortened offseason with no summer league followed by a condensed 72-game season required a high level of adaptability and resourcefulness. Add on the daily testing and restrictive COVID-19 protocols and the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one of the most unusual in league history. All the while, the organization and coaching staff helped a young Thunder group stay true to the organization’s longstanding values of gratitude and competitiveness.
“I just thought the adversity of the season and the challenge of the season brought out the best in everybody, and it's a real character test, and I think the character of the people transcends age, transcends expectations, transcends anything like that,” said Daigneault. “I thought it was more a byproduct of the character of the people we have top to bottom, especially on our roster.”
“He believes in the way we operate and that's bigger than basketball in a lot of ways.”
In many ways, the novelty of the season fit well into the circumstances that the former G League head coach was used to. From rule changes to fluctuating lineups, adaptability is a top requirement in any G League position.
During the early parts of the 2020-21 NBA season, the league’s COVID protocols restricted players to gather all in one room. This meant no in-person team film sessions on the road. Rather than setting up a virtual film session via Zoom, the organization sought out a solution for all of the players to be together to watch video during a road trip. The staff ran hundreds of yards of extension cords through the hallways and out of the doors of the hotel so that the team could watch film together in an outdoor space.
That sort of adaptability also meant navigating new additions to the roster throughout the season. Not only ensuring a smooth transition into the organization, but also providing a clean slate and open runway for new players to showcase what they’re able to bring to the table without any preconceived expectations forced upon them. In doing so, players were equipped with empowerment to take on the opportunity ahead of them.
Players such as wing Svi Mykhailiuk who was acquired by the Thunder midway through the season from Detroit, took full advantage of the opportunity. Known previously as a sharpshooter, the third-year player demonstrated his all-around game with an ability to not only attack the rim but soar above it. By the end of the season, Mykhailiuk logged 14 dunks with the Thunder after recording zero during his year-and-a-half stint with Detroit.
Other newcomers, such as big man Tony Bradley didn’t need to step onto the floor before experiencing the empowering environment in the organization.
“It was actually just surprising, like, when we chatted it up, [the staff] knew a lot about me as a player,” Bradley recalled. “It just brings confidence in me, so it was positive.”
On the court, each player required an individual and unique approach to their development and Daigneault and his staff were intentional in tailoring a specific program that was most beneficial for each one.
For some players like rookie Aleksej Pokuševski, their development process included a trip to Orlando and a stint inside of the G League bubble midway through the season. The opportunity allowed the 7-footer to garner a wide range of experiences playing at multiple positions while also take on a larger playmaking role. In his return to the Thunder lineup after the All-Star break, the Serbian rookie demonstrated a new level of poise and control to his game.
“I got time to play,” said Pokuševski. “I grew as a player and as a professional on the court.”
For others, like rookie point guard Théo Maledon, that development took the form of what Daigneault referred to as a figurative “push in the back” to make mistakes and play more aggressively. After sliding into a starting role when point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was sidelined with plantar fasciitis in the second half of the season, Maledon had the opportunity to test the limits of his game in meaningful game minutes.
“I think I learned a lot from it, and it was really great to be able to get the chance to compete against the best point guards in the world,” said Maledon.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 3, 2021
Career-high 33 points (10-18 FGM) for #ThéoMaledon, he is the second rookie in Thunder history to have a 30+ game.#ThéoMaledon and @aleksejpokusevs are the first pair of teammates in NBA history under the age of 20 to score 20+ in the same game. pic.twitter.com/EyuewatqRW
In order to extract the valuable lessons and experiences from the tumultuous season both on and off the floor, it required an intentionality and a presence of mind to stay rooted in the present moment. Not letting the volatility of wins and losses or the unpredictability of the shortened 72-game season to affect each players’ daily approach. The mantras of ‘be where your feet are’ and having a ‘zero-zero mentality’ accomplished just that.
“It's not getting too high. It's not getting too low,” said Thunder forward Darius Bazley. “So just going out there and trying to compete and just get better is what we were focused on.”
The environment in the organization brought out the best of both the players and coaches during what was an unpredictable COVID season. It was a credit to the atmosphere in the building and the well-established environment in the organization – a culture that Daigneault both benefitted from and invested in for the past seven seasons.
“We weren't perfect, but the mark of this team is we plug back in and it was because of the environment that we had, and when somebody was down, the group lifted them back up, and everybody felt that,” said Daigneault. “There was a tremendous humility to that, and it was impressive to be a part of.”