Tramel: How Thunder roster swings make Mark Daigneault adjust on the fly
With all the pandemic news in the NBA, sometimes we forget that all the routine bumps and bruises of a season still occur, COVID or no COVID.
Take the Thunder’s two-game series with the Timberwolves over the weekend. Minnesota played without superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, who remains sidelined by coronavirus protocols. D’Angelo Russell joined Towns by sitting out the Saturday night game with a quad injury.
But at least the Timberwolves fielded largely the same team. The Thunder did not.
On Friday night, the Thunder was woefully short of perimeter players. So short that Isaiah Roby, who has made several starts at center, started on the wing against Minnesota.
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On Saturday night, the Thunder was woefully short of inside players. So short that the Thunder played most of the final quarter without a center and some of the fourth quarter without a center or a power forward.
Strange. Very strange.
The Thunder lost 106-103 on Friday night but won 120-118 on Saturday night, against one of the NBA’s worst teams.
But the series made the Thunder work with a variety of lineups that never had taken the court together.
“It fits into what we’ve talked about, with sending guys to the G League or playing guys off the ball or putting guys in different situations,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “Development, as we have learned about, is not being in a neat little box and always being perfect. In a lot of ways, it’s about thrusting yourself into the fray and having to problem-solve on the fly and having to adapt and having to see a lot of different situations and be very agile mentally.”
The Thunder point guard Friday night was Hamidou Diallo. The Thunder power forward Saturday night was Kenrich Williams, and Williams took a turn at center, which helps explain the career high 29 points from Minnesota backup center Naz Reid.
Friday night, the Thunder was without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (knee sprain), George Hill (thumb surgery) and Theo Maledon (COVID protocols). Those are the three guards on the roster who can and have run the point. OKC also played without Luguentz Dort (sore knee), a starting wing who never runs the point.
That means the only perimeter players available were Diallo, the rarely-used Darius Miller and big wings Williams and Justin Jackson.
So Daigneault had to piecemeal lineups. Roby has spent much of this season dealing with the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic. Suddenly, he was chasing guys around the perimeter.
Then Saturday night, all the guards were back, sans Hill. Alas, center Al Horford rested and Roby was out with a sore foot. Then early in the fourth quarter, reliable center Mike Muscala took a pop to the chin, excited and didn’t return.
So Darius Bazley was the Thunder’s only inside player available.
But such extreme roster shortages will only help the Thunder future. This season is not about winning. It’s about development. That includes a first-year coach who is seeing things that will accelerate his progression.
“These last two nights have tested everybody,” Daigneault said. “Myself included on that. That’s a good thing. Last night (Friday), we problem-solved well and played a style of play that had us in the game down the stretch. I thought we did the same thing tonight, with the four- or five-guard lineups.
“We lean into those circumstances. We never want to be missing players. But we’re always going to lean into whatever the circumstances are, try to learn from it and try to broaden our capabilities as a team.”
Chances are, the Thunder will never need Diallo to play point guard in a game that really matters. Or Williams to defend centers. But they’ve at least been thrust into such situations, and Daigneault has had to coach on the fly. Small steps in the Thunder’s road back to contention.