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The Oklahoma City’s Thunder hole at center is growing

Jaylin Williams’ injury leaves Mike Muscala and Darius Bazley as the Thunder’s options at center

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

It is fair to say that the last few weeks have been difficult for the Thunder in terms of injury. JRE and Poku both suffered injuries before the New Year and will miss a significant number of games. Losing both players weakened the Thunder’s depth at center, a position where the Thunder were already feeling the absence of Chet Holmgren keenly.

Jaylin Williams, Oklahoma City’s second round draft pick in 2022, played minutes the last week as Coach Daigneault attempted to plug the holes in the Thunder’s front-court. Last night against the Magic, Williams suffered an ankle injury and we do not when he will be back from injury. OKC’s medical staff are yet to report on the severity of his injury.

Losing Jaylin is a big deal for the Thunder as they push for a play-in spot. At present, Mike Muscala and Darius Bazley are the only players on the roster who are capable of playing minutes at center.

Muscala has been typically used to steady the bench unit and provide spacing in his four years in Oklahoma but his role will change to meet the team’s needs in the short-term. Given that he is the only true center on the roster, I would not be surprised to see Daigneault put Moose in the starting lineup alongside Shai and Giddey.

Darius Bazley has played 78% of his total minutes this season at center as per Cleaning the Glass. He is capable of playing at the five but the statistics are not brilliant for these lineups; the Thunder’s offense tanks to 103.0 points scored per 100 possessions which is in the bottom 8th percentile for all offenses in the league.

Defensively the Thunder are pretty solid with Bazley and him playing center would solve some of the Thunder’s issues but he is not a player who fits the team’s philosophy on the offensive end of the floor.

Coach Daigneault uses centers to connect play and fill in the gaps. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was an excellent connector because of his ability to read the floor and knock down the long ball. Pokusevski was successful in this role because his passing out of the short roll brought others into the game. We even started to see J-Will find his feet as a connector with his silky passing out of the high-post.

Connectors are versatile players who have enough feel for the game to move seamlessly between roles. For all of Bazley’s strengths, he plays best when his role is defined and limited. You only need to look at last season and you will see that Bazley struggled hard when Coach Daigneault asked him to be a decision-maker on offense.

A center rotation of Bazley and Muscala is not a workable solution for Coach Daigneault. With Muscala at center, the Thunder have excellent floor spacing but very little in the way of downward pressure as Muscala rarely rolls to the basket.

Moreover, playing Muscala commits the Thunder to drop coverage in the pick and roll which makes it harder to squeeze the floor. Mike has flaws as a starter but he contributes enough to the team in other areas to justify a starting spot.

Bazley provides rim protection and tireless energy but he just does not fit with the other starters. It is also worth noting that Coach Daigneault has started to use a 1-4 pick and roll with J-Dub as a screener more regularly with the 5 spaced out to the perimeter.

This action works with J-Will, Poku and JRE but it will not work with Bazley as defenses do not respect him. Darius is a historically poor shooter and his drives to the basket are generally sub-optimal.

For the Thunder to mask the hole at center, they need to find ways of replicating the qualities that a center typically brings to the team. In the Thunder’s case, they need to find rebounding, interior defense, passing and rim pressure.

Rebounding is not a huge concern for the Thunder as Oklahoma City have strong rebounders in the guard positions. The same can be said for passing, OKC have quite a few capable passers who they could put at the five and rely on to keep the ball moving.

The two big concerns for me would be interior defense. Being small in the front-court makes it very difficult to contest taller players and defend the painted area effectively. We saw this last night against the Magic; Banchero got on a roll as there was no one who could match his size and skill.

Oklahoma City gave up 48 points in the paint against Orlando and this is not a recipe for winning games. Shots near the basket are some of the most efficient looks in basketball, giving up these looks and hoping the other team misses is playing with fire.

There is no easy solution to the Thunder’s issues but I think that inserting Kenrich Williams in at center would help manage the current issues. Williams is a good defender who racks up steals and deflections while also being a very good shooter and passer of the ball. He has the feel for the game that Daigneault needs out of his connectors.

Moreover, Kenrich is an exceptional offensive rebounder, 1.9 boards per game, who will snag second chances for the Thunder to score. Those possessions are effectively four-point plays for the Thunder if they convert on those opportunities.

Williams is not a rim protector, teams have shot 78.8% at the rim when Kenrich has played center this season as per Cleaning the Glass but crucially, they do not get to this shooting zone all that much when Kenrich is the five. Opposing teams only take 36% of their shots at the rim, 23rd percentile, with Kenny Hustle at center.

Playing Kenrich Williams allows the Thunder to control the tempo of the game better and restrict the number of meaningful possessions that the opposing team have. Controlling this aspect of the game is paramount for the Thunder while they lack depth at center, OKC will struggle to contest shots in close so taking away possessions from the opposing team is crucial.

A center rotation of Mike Muscala and Kenrich Williams is not perfect by any means but I think it is the best solution that Daigneault has available to him.