With the arrival of the All-Star break, the unofficial “halfway” mark of the 20-21’ NBA regular season has also fallen upon us. As expected for the Oklahoma City Thunder, there have been some good times and fun wins mixed in with plenty of growing pains and tough losses.
Although those L’s have started to become more frequent as of late, they are not due to lack of effort or competitive spirit but more so on account of vast inexperience and the absence of more than one game changing talent.
There are really no surprises when it comes to the win / loss column as the forecast for OKC’s season has mostly played out the way many had predicted. What has been somewhat of a surprise of the pleasant kind is the grittiness and determination this group has exhibited on a nightly basis.
Countless times throughout the years there have been instances of teams checking out or downright quitting during the “rebuilding” process. That has not been the case for this Thunder team who not only have remained engaged and competitive but downright pesky and often wildly entertaining.
For a team that is certainly headed towards the draft lottery in June, the emotion and character that has been displayed these last two plus months have been both commendable and encouraging. Part of that can be contributed to the veteran presence and leadership of Al Horford and the injured George Hill, but not enough can be said about the rest of the team whose age averages out at 22 years old.
Every win, every loss, all the ups and all the downs, are all being treated as learning experiences and opportunities to improve. This season will probably not be looked back upon fondly or remembered for success and personal accolades, but perhaps as the beginning of something that potentially could turn out to be special.
These are all positive signs that the organization is heading in the right direction with the correct people in place to hopefully maintain that course. As we set sail towards the second half of the season, here are a couple more observations to close out the first.
THE SNUB THAT WASN’T
After the smoke cleared following the announcement of the reserves for the Western Conference All-Star team, many Thunder fans screamed from the mountain tops (Twitter) that our guy and favorite hyphen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had been SNUBBED from what would have been his first appearance in the mid-season tradition.
Averaging career highs in all statistical categories, the argument for SGA is solid in that he deserves to stand side by side with his peers while donning the All-Star uniform as one of the seven reserves for the Western Conference team.
But therein lies the problem and the reason there will not be a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder represented in the exhibition game for the first time since the franchises inaugural season in 2008. There are only 12 total available spots per conference for each All-Star team and the West is stacked with big names with a multitude of talent especially at the top.
As we know, 50 percent of the fan vote accounts for determining who the starters are going to be with the media and players filling out the rest. There was little to no chance SGA was going to start, thus leaving it up to the leagues coaches to decide the third year guards fate as a reserve.
Historically when it comes to filling out the rest of the All-Star roster, coaches usually side with veterans on teams with winning records or star recognition which all but eliminated Shai from contention.
Outside of League Pass junkies and residential Oklahoma City Thunder fans, the chances are slim that many casual spectators of the NBA have even seen SGA play at all this year. Such is life as a small market team enduring the rebuilding process.
The 2020-21 season will mark the first time in over a decade the Thunder will not be featured in any primetime slots in front of a national audience. The eyeballs simply haven’t been there to witness what has been SGA’s coming out party.
There is no doubt Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s day of recognition and opportunity to shine in front of the masses will come, we just haven’t gotten there yet.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
What a positive revelation Theo Maledon has been for the Thunder since arriving via trade on draft night as part of the Al Horford package from the 76ers. Maledon was selected 34th overall out of France and is only 19 years old, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he goes about his business on the court.
Having played professional basketball in France since 2017, Malodon came to the league equipped with an already steady hand and mature demeanor in which he plays the point guard position. The awareness and vision Maledon has displayed so far has been encouraging enough to think that he could play a prominent role in the re-imagining of that position for the Thunder moving forward.
Another undervalued aspect of Maledon’s potential is his size. Standing at 6’4″ with a 6’9″ wingspan, Maledon has the quintessential frame for a point guard teams drool over when evaluating young players.
There are already a lot of striking similarities being drawn to fellow countryman and former PG great Tony Parker in the infancy of Maledons NBA career. Parker played decisive, in control, and had a calmness about him which are all qualities Maledon has emulated early on since coming over to the states. If Maledon becomes even half the player Tony Parker was in the league then it would be an absolute W for the OKC organization.
Theo was recently recognized by the Association for his solid first half of the season by being named to the Rising Stars roster. Although the game itself won’t be played this year, it is still a great honor for the young Thunder guard and further proof that Theo Maledon has turned some heads while making an immediate impact in his rookie season.
COACH EM’ UP DAGS
Chances are the casual NBA fan residing outside the state of Oklahoma (maybe some in it) wouldn’t be able to name or recognize the 35 year old head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. At first glace, the rookie HC looks more likely to file your taxes than roam the sidelines overseeing a professional basketball team.
Mark Daigneault (pronounced DAG-nolt) officially became the youngest head coach in the Association when he was hired by Sam Presti back in November to lead the youth movement in OKC. Presti certainly seems to have a type, as Daigneault was an assistant under former OKC head coach Billy Donovan at the University of Florida for two years before coming over to coach the Oklahoma City Blue G League team in 2014.
After spending 5 seasons calling the shots for the Blue, Coach Dags was brought up to the big leagues to serve under Donovan once again during the 2019-20 season.
Initially met with little to no fanfare, the hiring of Mark Daigneault is proving to be yet another smart, undervalued move by Presti that is already quietly paying dividends. Described by many in the organization as a “players coach”, Daigneault has done a fantastic job keeping this predominantly young, inexperienced group together and focused during what has been at times a trying first half of the season.
There’s not a lot of winning going on right now in Loud City, but the fact that the players have seemingly bought in to what Coach Daigneault is selling might be more important than what the final box score reads at the moment.
The words experience and growth get thrown around a lot when referring to this season for the Thunder. In the long run, those two things might ultimately give this team, led by this coach, the chance to reach any big picture goals this organization has set.
We are only half a season into Mark Daigneault’s tenor as the head man in OKC, but so far the job Coach Dags has done only adds to the franchises promising future.