May 19, 2024

Brighton Journal

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The Thunder's Mark Daigneault has proven he's elite, and will be crowned Coach of the Year

The Thunder's Mark Daigneault has proven he's elite, and will be crowned Coach of the Year

NEW ORLEANS — It was the third quarter of Game 3 on Saturday. The Oklahoma City Thunder saw a strong lead cut to 10 points against the New Orleans Pelicans, and center Chet Holmgren was scheduled to be rested in the second half. With a 2-0 lead in the series and a short-handed opponent, it was easy to play it safe and predictable.

But Thunder coach Marc Daigneault doesn't play it safe or predictable. Instead, he saw an opportunity to do something completely different: insert Gordon Hayward at center. Gordon Hayward!

Not only did Hayward not score a point all postseason, he also scored it deep no center; He is 6-foot-7, 225 pounds and has blocked a total of one shot in his 26 games with the Thunder. Even by Daigneault's standards, this was an extreme lineup. The other four players are guards Kason Wallace, Isaiah Joe, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams.

The Thunder extended their lead from 10 to 19 over the next four minutes, holding the Pelicans to just two points in the period, before Holmgren came back, putting the game away despite their lack of size. The Pelicans' response after one possession was to pull their center off the floor, replacing Larry Nance Jr. With Dyson Daniels and effectively removing the original flaw created by Daigneault's move.

He maintained many of the themes that made Daigneault so successful in his four seasons on the sideline in Oklahoma City: relying on small ball, keeping opponents off balance and compensating for some of his team's deficiencies on the glass by chasing opposing big men off the court.

“Some of them are the opposition, if they give us a lineup if we think we can do it,” Daigneault said after Sunday’s practice. “The other thing is we want to be a little bit more unpredictable. We want teams to be watching us, and New Orleans to be watching us now, not knowing exactly what we're going to do and when we're going to do it, (showing) the desire to do that in a lot of different situations. It just expands the list that They have to prepare for it.”

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The 39-year-old's plans paid off as he was named NBA Coach of the Year on Sunday night after leading the Thunder to a 57-win regular season and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. It was a 33-game jump in two 24-game winning seasons in 2021-22, as well as the Thunder's first 50-win regular season since Kevin Durant's departure in 2016.

Daigneault's team leads New Orleans 3-0 and looks likely to win its first playoff series since 2015-16, but despite the announcement coming on an off day in the series, Daigneault said he and his staff have “no plans” for the five: 30 p.m. local time when the news came. In fact, the TNT broadcast showed Daigneault in what looked like a regular hotel room rather than throwing celebratory shots on Bourbon Street.

There is no doubt that talent acquisition has a lot to do with this award. The Thunder's front office under Sam Presti rebuilt a lackluster and expensive post-Durant core by trading Paul George for Gilgeous-Alexander, drafting Williams with one of the five first-round picks acquired in the trade and nabbing Holmgren with the second pick in 2022. Draft, from Among other notable moves.

“I can't win games,” Daigneault said. “The coach can lose games, but I can't win them.”

But even when the Thunder were bad, Daigneault stood out because he rarely missed a trick to generate even a small advantage, or fouled opponents with lineup changes or defensive changes that rarely allowed his opponents to rest. It was in marked contrast to the autopilot eras of Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan, when the Thunder were an open tactical book relying solely on execution teams and elite talent.

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Daigneault has mastered the subtleties that score extra tenths of points. Some of his moves might be viewed as long-shot strategies for a 20-win team and might not be a good fit for the No. 1 seed, but Daigneault kept things weird even when the Thunder became dominant. In the first game against New Orleans, for example, his traps to CJ McCollum at the end of the first and third quarters flummoxed the Pelicans into fouls that led to missed last-gasp shot opportunities. Those possessions proved crucial to the two-point win.

As a new generation of coaches, Daigneault delivers some of the most geek-friendly media sessions you'll see in the league. He shows a clear aptitude with data and analytics, often incorporating bits and pieces into his news conferences that indicate how much of his free time he has to consume.

For example, Daigneault's media session prior to Game 3 included a bit about studying referee whistle tendencies before matches and planning accordingly, and Reference to this chart On defensive guard Luguentz Dort's difficulty facing an opponent being the toughest in the NBA.

This move by Hayward was another example of Daigneault's analytical approach. He constantly talks about the trade-offs involved in rebounding a weak Thunder team — they could play Bismack Biyombo or Mike Muscala if they really wanted to improve on the glass, for example — and the fact that he's willing to lose there because he believes he's coming out ahead of the deal. Winning 57 games with the team ranked 29th in rebounding tends to support this rivalry.

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Of course, any discussion of Daigneault is not complete without also mentioning his mastery of the challenge rule, which is why I keep calling him Challenge Geaud on social media. Not only did he use it repeatedly, and correctly! – Like any coach in the league, but also managed to coach its use in high-impact situations. Although he had a major failure in this area in Game 1, he got back on his horse by winning one in Game 2; Over the course of the season, Boston's Joe Mazzola is his only challenger competitor.

None of that would matter if Daigneault couldn't get to players or dominate the locker room, but by all accounts, he's succeeded at that, too. Player development has accelerated under his watch, with nearly every starter steadily improving over the past three seasons, and the young Thunder appear to be as solid as any team in the league.

In the thankless world of NBA coaching, Daigneault's challenge only gets tougher from here, as the Thunder will have high expectations for championship contention in the future. Daigneault's performance in the postseason — with just five games under his belt so far — will be far more important than his regular-season win total.

But consider this award as the coronation of a young star in this profession. Coach of the Year awards often overvalue short-term outliers, but this award is quite the opposite.

Daigneault has stood out since taking office in 2020; This honor cements his place in the league's upper crust.

(Mark Daigneault Image: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)