Even when it’s winning, the Thunder won’t stop tinkering

Even when it’s winning, the Thunder won’t stop tinkering

Even as it jockeys for playoff position, OKC is exploring ways to change; it’s how the team is built

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 26, 2024, 7:00pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 26, 2024, 7:00pm CST

(This story originally appeared in the This Week in Thunder with Brett Dawson newsletter).

OKLAHOMA CITY — It was the start of the second half and Isaiah Joe was on the floor, and that mattered. 

When Thunder coach Mark Daigneault opted to go with Joe — in place of starting guard Josh Giddey — to open the third quarter of last week’s game against the Clippers, it sent a message. 

Just maybe not exactly the one you’re thinking. 

The move was meaningful in that it helped spark a 129-107 Thunder rout of the Clippers. Joe scored nine points in eight third-quarter minutes, and OKC outscored L.A. 33-25 in the third. 

And it was significant because — as no fewer than two national NBA podcasts discussed the next day — it showed a willingness to sub for a struggling Giddey against a fellow Western Conference contender. 

But there was another message, too: That even though the stakes are higher this season, the wins and losses magnified, the Thunder still is experimenting, just like it did in the rebuild that got it here. 

The Giddey move got more attention than some. 

But it was in character.  

“I think because of the status of starters, that gets highlighted more,”  Daigneault said. “But if you look at the roles of many of our players, that’s been the case. There’s nights where we go to them more, there’s nights where we go to them less. It’s situational, it’s based on how they’re performing/how other guys are performing/what we need.”

It’s experimentation, and that’s a Thunder tenet. 

Starting slender rookie Chet Holmgren at center is an experiment. So was pairing Giddy with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the first place, given that both are primarily ballhandlers. 

It’s not exclusively a Daigneault trait. 

Think back to Billy Donovan’s last Thunder team starting three players — Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander — who all were considered point guards. It wasn’t a traditional starting lineup, but it helped the Thunder to a surprising 44-28 record. 

That kind of basketball fact-finding is basic OKC philosophy. 

It’s often most apparent in Daigneault’s substitutions and rotations, which routinely change. 

And though the Giddey move stood out, it doesn’t stand alone. 

In a game early this season at Sacramento, Daigneault opened a third quarter with rookie Cason Wallace on the court in place of starter Lu Dort. 

Those changes happen in the moment because Daigneault thinks they’ll pay immediate dividends. But there’s also a “philosophical reason” to them, Daigneault said. 

“The beauty of getting guys young in their careers, you can establish norms that become what they know,” Daigneault said. “And one of the norms that we’ve wanted to establish is having guys that can adapt to different circumstances and that can thrive in discomfort. The NBA is not comfortable. It’s not comfortable when you’re playing against good teams. And so we want guys to be able to, in rough waters, thrive, and we’ve got some mentally tough guys on our team.” 

The ever-changing, experimental nature “makes it easier to do everything,” Daigneault said, and in theory that includes something like integrating new addition Gordon Hayward onto the team. 

The Thunder has eased Hayward into playing time since acquiring him Feb. 8 in a trade with Charlotte. A calf strain had held him out of games for the Hornets since Dec. 26. Hayward sat out his first two games with OKC before the All-Star break and made his Thunder debut two weeks after the trade. 

Assuming he’s a fit — that he’s physically ready and capable of contributing — Hayward’s playing time likely will increase down the stretch. And theoretically, a team built to experiment can adapt to any uptick in minutes. 

“We’ve tried to become good at that discomfort because it’s a competitive advantage if you’re willing to adapt and if you’re light on your feet and pliable,” Daigneault said. “If you’re static, you’re a static target, and you don’t want to be that. So we’ve explained that to the guys, but this has been in the water now for four years. This isn’t like a new concept for the team.”

The result is a team open to tinkering, and that means the Thunder is “totally unlocked,” Daigneault said. 

Experimentation — including in playing Hayward or shifting Giddey’s minutes — is part of the fabric of the franchise. 

It hasn’t changed as the Thunder has climbed in the standings. 

“You can’t try to solve every problem or learn every lesson with one game,” Daigneault said. “You just got to  build the body of work slowly over time, constantly reevaluate, and constantly try to figure out what’s best, whether that’s something that’s already worked or something that you might have to try to uncover as you move forward.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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