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What are the challenges facing Coach Daigneault going into the new season?

Daigneault has a lot to think about with training camp starting later this month

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Daigneault has been in charge of the Thunder for the last two seasons and has done a great job so far. Daigneault has built a rapport with the locker-room and his development work has been excellent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort are three players who have got significantly better over the last two years.

In addition to this, Daigneault has shown the sort of tactical acumen that the Thunder lacked with Billy Donovan or Scott Brooks. His creativity with lineups and actions has meant that the Thunder performed really well on defense last season despite being a young, inexperienced team.

However, his job is only going to get more difficult as the Thunder progress through their rebuild. There is going to be an expectation that OKC play consistently well more often than they have over the last two years.

There have been moments when the Thunder have pulled off excellent victories but the team has been ‘feast or famine’. Last year, the Thunder would go weeks without winning a game before eventually getting a win to break the streak.

The only way to become a good team is breaking those losing streaks before they envelop the team. Good teams find ways to win ugly and get back in the win column. At the moment, winning ugly is not a characteristic that this Thunder have.

There are other matters for Coach Daigneault to consider as well. How does he fit Jalen Williams and Tre Mann together on the court? Where does Darius Bazley’s position lie on the Thunder? These are roster-related decisions to be considered.

Finally, Coach Daigneault has to think about the team’s identity. As Mark Schindler of BasketballNews expertly outlined, Oklahoma City have successfully employed a patient, game management approach to defense. This strategy worked well last season but it is difficult to say whether it is scalable or not.

In the past, we have seen teams like the Grizzlies soak up possessions on defense but that can be a double-edged sword. Reducing the overall number of possessions in a game places so much importance on generating efficient offense all the time. These are all points which we discuss in this article.

Develop resilience:

During Coach Daigneault’s time as Thunder coach, Oklahoma City have been prone to go on losing streaks that last weeks rather than days. Some of that losing is a symptom of having a young roster that is not used to playing such a long schedule. Young players tend to find it more difficult to reset after a tough loss and focus on the next game.

However, it is a trait that Coach Daigneault needs to break so that the Thunder can remain on an even keel more often. Losing games saps morale and losing streaks are embarrassing. Nobody wants to lose ten games in row; professional athletes are simply not built that way.

One of the Thunder’s problems is that the team can blow hot or cold depending on how they shoot the ball. When players like Ty Jerome, Aleksej Pokusevski and Luguentz Dort are scorching the nets, OKC have just enough offense to win games.

Without that outside shooting, the offense is pretty rough and a lot of burden falls on Shai’s shoulders. Gilgeous-Alexander is an excellent offensive player but it is simply unsustainable to carry an offense with little support; everybody has off nights.

Oklahoma City could do with playing basketball with a little more maturity and game awareness. The Thunder are already really solid on defense and do not make many lapses. Last season, it was rare to see OKC collapse on that end of the floor when Mark Daigneault had the full complement of players available to him.

The key for the Thunder finding resilience lies on the offensive end of the floor and specifically at the free throw line. Oklahoma City were ranked 28th in the league last season in free throw attempts per game. These are uncontested, standstill shots from 15 ft. It is one of the easiest shots in basketball.

When things are not going well and the long ball is not dropping, the Thunder have to get to the line and pick up points that way. Launching outside jumpers in the hope that a hot streak starts is not a strategy.

Maximising points at the stripe is one way to win ugly and grind down the opposition. There are other ways but these can be harder to implement; this is the easiest method to put a guaranteed 15 points in the bank every single night.

Building the bench unit:

In the 2022 NBA Draft, Sam Presti added two rookies who should be able to slide straight into the rotation. Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams both look to be NBA-ready athletes who can contribute to the team. For Coach Daigneault, he will have a bit of challenge to integrate these players into the rotation.

Jalen Williams, the Santa Clara guard, has a lot of skill overlap with Tre Mann. Both players are score-first guards which may disrupt the balance that Coach Daigneault found with last year’s reserve unit. Theo Maledon and Ty Jerome were both pass-first guards who did not really need a lot of touches to be useful.

Now, Williams and Mann go about getting their buckets in different ways. Williams uses screens adeptly to create separation from his man whereas Tre relies on a deep bag of tricks to shake off defenders.

Jalen is by far the better passer, he played point guard for the Broncos, but he is not quite a table-setter on offense. His passing vision and accuracy still has a way to go before he gets to that level.

Coach Daigneault has to work out an offense scheme in which both players stay involved with the game and do not go cold. Moreover, Daigneault has to consider how to align score-first players within the team’s structure.

Players like Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala can be relied upon to play selflessly and sacrifice their own glory for the benefit of the team but the 5th spot in the reserve unit is harder to determine.

Jaylin Williams would seem to be the ideal candidate; he is willing passer, plays tough defense and puts his body on the line for the team. The issue with playing Williams is that it does not seem particularly fair to Aaron Wiggins.

Wiggins earned his place in the rotation the hard way last season and was a valuable member of the team. It may not send out a great message if someone on the fringes of the roster who grafted for minutes gets that spot taken off them.

Bazley’s ideal position:

It sounds incredible but Darius Bazley has played three seasons with the Thunder and we still do not know where his best position is. Bazley has been equally frustrating and impressive during his time in Thunder Blue but it is now decision time.

After the 2022-23 season ends, Bazley can hit free agency as a restricted free agent. I do not expect him to draw any huge, obscene offers but stranger things have happened in the past. We saw the Cleveland Cavaliers offer Lauri Markkanen $67m last offseason despite Markkanen’s only notable strength being outside shooting.

Last season, Bazley took a step forward on the defensive end of the floor. He was very good at guarding without fouling and he was tireless in how he covered ground across the court every single possession.

His offense was still quite mixed. Bazley still cannot create a shot for himself off the drive and has a tendency to tank the rhythm of the offense when he has longer than two dribbles. He is also very inefficient from deep and his lack of shooting did cramp the Thunder’s floor-spacing.

Playing Bazley in the starting lineup is tough to justify on the offensive end at present but there is a solution that Coach Daigneault could look into. Bazley shot 61.3% within 3 ft of the rim and accumulated 77 dunks last season.

He had a career high in dunks and finally displayed aggression when attacking the basket. It is like Bazley realised that his length and vertical pop makes him very difficult to stop above the rim. Dunks are a good shot for Darius and the Thunder can create more of those opportunities by playing Bazley in the dunker’s spot.

Moving Darius down low allows him to finish plays and keeps Bazley away from handling the ball too much. Bazley is a good decisive player with two dribbles, any more than that and his decision-making goes astray.

Defensive identity:

Last season, the Thunder’s identity on defense consisted of patient play in which OKC squeezed the floor at all times and contested everything in sight. It worked well as a strategy; the Thunder were one of the best teams in the half-court when Coach Daigneault had a full roster available to him.

I enjoyed what I saw and thought it was a smart approach. The Thunder did not necessarily have the experience to play a more aggressive brand of defense and so restricting space was a wise decision. That being said, the Thunder’s identity last season did have some flaws.

The first flaw being that squeezing the court forces players into certain areas and crowds that zone. Gang rebounding is highly effective when the defensive team has a numbers advantage; it is less so when the numbers are more balanced.

The second flaw is that playing slowly reduces the overall number of possessions in one game which places a greater importance on creating good, efficient shots all the time in the half-court setting. Finding these sort of looks against a set defense can be hard and playing slowly on defense does not help the Thunder’s cause.

Coach Daigneault has to work out how to make the Thunder more disruptive on defense without sacrificing the team’s strengths. Oklahoma City were legitimately good on defense last season and the Thunder’s teamwork was second to none. It does not make sense to lose that in the hope of chasing transition scores.

Coach Daigneault has a lot to think going into his third year in the league and I do not expect it to be smooth sailing. His skill as a tactician and locker-room manager will be tested; this is the first time there are really any expectations of the Thunder. I am pretty comfortable in saying that I trust Coach Daigneault to come through, he has done so before.