The Thunder were under-manned against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night and were expected to lose by a decent margin. The Grizzlies have been tearing through the Western Conference and have been a difficult match-up for the Thunder in recent years.
Luguentz Dort put those doubts aside and played one of his best games of the season. Dort scored an efficient 24 points and he played stifling defense on Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies’ streaky scoring wing. The numbers behind his performance were impressive but it was how Dort put his big night together which impressed me.
Dort played completely in control and showed great restraint in his shot selection. Luguentz went 8-for-14 on the night from the field and focused on playing within the flow of the offense.
Dort’s first two months of the season have been inconsistent. We have seen the same sort of ‘feast or famine’ data trend that we saw last year regarding his 3-point shooting. Dort is still a volatile shooter without much in the way of consistency from downtown.
He was horrible in October but then shot the lights out in November. For December, Dort’s shooting has settled down closer to league average but his shooting from this zone still needs refinement.
The same can be said for Dort’s defensive work. To start the season, he was slow coming out of the blocks and his play seemed lethargic. Dort’s numbers were fine across the board but it just did not feel that opposing teams were quaking in the boots in the same way that they did last season.
In recent weeks, we have seen the intensity crank up and Dort get back to his best. Overall, his play has been relatively solid but expectations for Lu changed this summer. He is now earning $15.3m this season, a huge increase from the minimum which he was paid by the Thunder in the 2021-22 season.
With the increased salary comes higher expectations, Dort’s production on the offensive end of the floor has to improve for him to remain as part of the Thunder’s long-term vision. Defensive specialists are few and far between in this league. Alex Caruso and Gary Payton II have found roles they fit on contending teams but neither player is remunerated in the same way that Lu is.
Dort’s inconsistency can be linked to a lack of focused development on the part of the coaching staff. Coach Daigneault preaches a philosophy in which the entire skill-set is worked on, not just individual areas. His approach as a whole has worked effectively but it is not ideal for a player like Luguentz Dort.
Dort is a highly confident individual who can turn his hand to anything with reasonable competency. He is a versatile player with one key strength, defense but has few other outstanding aspects of his game. I think that Lu would benefit from a simplified role and development strategy that adds polish to Dort’s game one skill at a time.
The Thunder coaching staff need to find a spot on offense where Dort is competent and highly effective. Some of that improvement will come from internal development and some of that will come from small coaching changes.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that Dort should stop learning how to handle the ball and run a play. Dort should maintain his desire to learn but I think that other skills such as shooting and cutting should be prioritised. Those two skills are what will turn Dort into a different proposition to what he currently is.
At present, Luguentz Dort is a fearsome defender with a spotty scoring game and a propensity for turning the ball over when he drives to the rim. I think that if Dort can get closer to league average as a shooter and cut baseline at least twice game, his scoring efficiency will improve significantly.
Daigneault needs to get Dort into the deep corner more often. Luguentz is shooting 39.4% from the corner three but this shooting zone constitutes just 21.2% of his 3-point shot diet. Dort is taking a ton of shots above the break and is not hitting those looks all that often. As per Cleaning the Glass, Dort is shooting 31% on non-corner threes.
In terms of adjusting the Thunder’s offensive scheme, Dort needs to start half-court possessions in the corner rather than starting on the left or right side break. When he is positioned in this area, he becomes involved in the Thunder’s weave action and he handles the ball more than he needs to.
Dort is most impactful when he is catch and shooting, not pulling up from distance with time on the shot clock. Moving Lu to the corner will give the option to shoot or cut and will not place pressure on him to orchestrate the offense.
Moving Dort off the ball will require Luguentz to refine other tools in his game, namely his cutting and ability to make plays off the catch. Dort was a bruising cutter in his first season with the Thunder who took advantage of over-matched defenders. He is capable of doing well in this situation and Daigneault needs to make him a cutter in the offensive scheme more often.
These tweaks are extensive, moving Dort off the ball is a big decision but I think it is a wise one. There are times when players have to be protected from overextending themselves and this is one of those times. Focusing Dort’s development on shooting and cutting will improve his long-term ceiling as a player and his fit with the Thunder.