The next step in the evolution of the Oklahoma City Thunder's defense
Coach Daigneault has a full, versatile roster to experiment with and find strong lineups
Last season, Oklahoma City posted a Defensive Rating of 113.2, good enough for 13th in the NBA while not having the usual components that stout teams usually have. The Thunder did not have a center who can anchor a defense with their length and control of the painted area. Nor did the Thunder have the prototypical big wing who had the size to guard some of the association’s premier scoring forwards.
Coach Mark Daigneault made do with this roster and created a system that fit his team hand in glove. As we detailed earlier in the year, Daigneault’s use of ball pressure and ready sink defense allowed the Thunder to cover the interior effectively and reduce the number of easy looks inside.
The responsibility of protecting paint was shared among three backline defenders rather than just the center. When a slasher came into the lane, it was the responsibility of the strong-side corner defender to rotate middle and double the driver.
The idea of constant ball pressure was only possible with the tireless, short rotations that the guards and forwards did over 48 minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Dort and J-Dub tried to make sure that their rotation did not have a moment to breathe. The strategy generally worked well but the operating window was quite small.
If one of the four perimeter players was slightly out of sync with his teammates, the scheme would start to break down and gaps in the defense would start to appear. In a game like soccer where ball pressure is one of the key defensive concepts, unsynchronised rotations is less of an issue due to the larger playing space.
In basketball, any slither of space will be exploited by the attacking team and this is one of the key reasons why franchises like the Warriors and Bucks loaded up on versatile, lengthy wings during their title runs. These sort of players are able to occupy a greater amount of space with their wingspan and agility.
During the final play-in game, we also saw the Thunder’s lack of size at center come into play. Jaylin Williams played valiantly during the last quarter of the season and protected the rim by constantly drawing charges.
However, the Timberwolves were able to take J-Will out of the game by throwing the ball over the defense and having the big catch the pass high close to the basket. Minnesota did not employ any elaborate tactics to create the passing lane, they simply had Towns or Gobert establish good inside position and wait for the feed.
Oklahoma City did not have the size to prevent either player from finishing off easy looks at the rim and resorted to fouling the Timberwolves’ bigs to stem the bleeding. Towns and Gobert took 19 of the 26 Timberwolves’ free throw attempts.
The fouling game can be useful and a run of free throw misses is invaluable in psyching the shooter out but it does come at a cost. Accumulating fouls leads to more tentative, half-hearted defensive effort. It is impossible to commit fully to hard but fair defense if the referee’s whistle is a consideration.
The next evolution of the Thunder’s defensive system has to build on the principles of ball pressure while also mitigating against the threat of inside scoring and volatility within the structure.
Fortunately, Coach Daigneault has another year’s experience under his belt with this roster and a few new interesting toys to play with. Chet Holmgren should finally hit the court in Year 2 with the Thunder and Holmgren will provide Daigneault with a lot of options.
In the Vegas Summer League, Chet averaged 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 1.0 steal per game and showed a readiness that I did not expect. The coaching staff switched up the coverages quite a bit when Chet was on the court, they did not always defer to a drop and went aggressive with Holmgren stepping out onto smaller players.
In these situations, Holmgren used his size to trap his assignment and force them to recycle the ball around the perimeter. His positioning when guarding in space was textbook as well. We all knew that Holmgren is agile and light on his feet for a player his size but Holmgren’s control of space was impressive.
Holmgren is already a very good shot-blocker who is comfortable at using his skill in three separate roles. As the defensive anchor, Chet uses his length to make shooting angles difficult and deflect the ball away from the basket. His shot-blocking is not particularly loud or eye-catching but it is quietly effective.
As a help defender, Holmgren has a penchant for swatting the ball out of bounds. Chet is a patient player in these situations and waits for the slasher to commit himself before making his move. The patience often pays off and Holmgren is rewarded with a block without giving up a foul.
In the last, perimeter-based role, Holmgren’s ability to reject jump-shot attempts is less valuable but it can be psychologically damaging for the other team. In this space era of the NBA, we have seen teams drag centers out into deep water and take them apart. Any sort of block or stop from a center on the perimeter shifts the balance of the game and plants doubt in the ball-handler’s mind.
His size and mobility will allow the Thunder to pressure the ball and space much more effectively. In a screen and roll coverage, Daigneault can have Holmgren hedge the play and cut the court size in half, reducing the other team’s offensive options. Making the court feel as small as possible makes each possession feel like a phone booth fight for the opposing team. It is an absolute slog to continue executing on offense every single possession with little spacing.
Holmgren’s size and steady hands also provide the Thunder with a solid rim anchor who can match up with centers who thrive as rollers. He has size and nous to meet the challenge head-on without being completely embarrassed.
I have no doubt that Chet will struggle against physical centers who like to impose their will on the game. The likes of Jonas Valanciunas, Steven Adams and Nikola Jokic should have the advantage in these match-ups but whether Holmgren’s lack of muscle is exploited is a different thing entirely.
Teams rarely rely on post-ups to generate good offense in today’s league. The Philadelphia 76ers have an elite post-up player in Joel Embiid but last season, Embiid spent most of his on-court minutes hovering around the nail.
It was an efficient offensive zone for Embiid where he could score and keep his teammates involved without taking a bruising on a nightly basis. Doc Rivers chose to run the 76ers’ offense in that fashion as it was a good way of keeping Embiid healthy for the postseason. With all of this in mind, I would say that the chances of Chet Holmgren getting overwhelmed in the post are relatively slim.
As options go, Chet Holmgren is the perfect candidate to be the Thunder’s starting center and should provide Coach Daigneault with a lot more versatility.
The other exciting addition is Cason Wallace, the rookie from Kentucky. The Thunder traded for Wallace on draft night as a way of adding another shot-creator who fits the Thunder’s defensive principles to a tee.
While Wallace is more than capable of running the offense, I do not think this will be his role on the Thunder. Oklahoma City already have two players in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey who are best with the ball in their hands.
Coach Daigneault has tended to be quite egalitarian with his bench unit over the last few seasons. The ball’s energy and the floor spacing dictates the flow of the offense. It is one of the reasons why the Thunder have prioritised adding players who can join the dots and organise the game.
Wallace does not currently possess the explosive burst not the craftiness to consistently beat guys off the bounce but he is a thoughtful ball mover who finds the open man near faultlessly. To use a soccer comparison, Cason Wallace is less Bruno Fernandes and more Mateo Kovacic. Wallace will rarely play the defense splitting pass but he is very good at wearing teams down and gradually breaking their rotations through constant precise passing.
The less glamorous end of the floor is where Cason Wallace become exciting. Cason is an excellent screen navigator who gets skinny at a moment’s notice and does not allow his assignment a moment to think. Wallace supplements his suffocating man to man defense with active, accurate hands. Cason averaged 2.0 steals per game in college and displayed a proficiency for knocking the ball out of the ball-handler’s hands.
Last season, the Thunder’s defense flicked between two extremes. In transition and semi-transition, Oklahoma City were active in hunting for steals and trying to turn the other team over for easy scores.
If the opposing team was able to play through the press, the Thunder’s focus on defense was to make the shot clock long and grind the offensive possession out. Having a player like Wallace on this roster allows the Thunder to move more seamlessly between the two concepts and manufacture half-court turnovers.
These two additions allow Daigneault to put lineups out on the floor who can press the ball for all 48 minutes of the game. Wallace will be invaluable as a point of attack option and I would not be surprised to see him pick up some of Dort’s defensive duties as the season rolls on. Holmgren’s size and defensive instincts will allow the Thunder to control space more effectively and make each possession a mud fight.