Thunder’s Mark Daigneault has proven himself elite, and Coach of the Year honor is coronation

NEW ORLEANS — It was the third quarter of Game 3 on Saturday. The Oklahoma City Thunder had seen a sizable lead cut to 10 points by the New Orleans Pelicans, and center Chet Holmgren had to rest in the second half. With a 2-0 series lead and a short-handed opponent, it would have been easy to play safe and predictable.

But Thunder coach Mark Daigneault does not demonstrate security and predictability. Instead, he saw an opportunity to do something very different: insert Gordon Hayward at center. Gordon Hayward!

Not only has Hayward not scored a point in the entire playoffs, but he’s also deep not a center ; he stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 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 alignment; the other four players were guards Cason Wallace, Isaiah Joe, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams.

The Thunder extended their lead 10-19 over the next four minutes, holding the Pelicans to just two points during that stretch, before Holmgren came back, putting the game away despite their lack of size. The Pelicans responded after one possession by taking their own center off the floor, replacing Larry Nance Jr. with Dyson Daniels and thereby removing the initial disadvantage created by Daigneault’s move.

It stays true to many of the themes that made Daigneault a huge success during his four seasons on the bench in Oklahoma City: relying on small ball, keeping opponents off balance, and making up for some of the shortcomings of his own teams on the glass while continuing to oppose the big men off the field.

“It’s partly due to the opponent, 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 unpredictable. We want teams to watch us, New Orleans is watching us right now, not really knowing what we’re going to do or when we’re going to do it, (showing) a willingness to do it in a lot of different situations. It just expands the menu they have to prepare for.

The 39-year-old’s tactics 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 top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. It was a jump of 33 games in two seasons from the 24 they won in 2021-22, as well as the Thunder’s first 50-win regular season since the departure of Kevin Durant in 2016.

Daigneault’s team leads New Orleans 3-0 and appears likely to win its first playoff series since 2015-16, but despite the announcement being made on a holiday in the series, Daigneault said he and his team don’t had “no plans” for the 5: It was 30 p.m. local time when the news arrived. Indeed, the TNT broadcast showed Daigneault in what looked like an ordinary hotel room rather than showing celebratory images on Bourbon Street.

Of course, talent acquisition has a lot to do with this award. The Thunder front office under Sam Presti rebuilt the expensive and fading post-Durant core by trading Paul George for Gilgeous-Alexander, drafting Williams with one of five first-round picks acquired in the trade, and nabbing Holmgren with the second pick in the 2022 draft, among other notable moves.

“I can’t win games,” Daigneault said. “A coach can lose games, but I can’t win them.”

But even when the Thunder were bad, Daigneault stood out by rarely missing a turn to generate a small advantage, wrong-footing his opponents with lineup changes or defensive shifts that rarely left his opponents feeling behind. ‘easy. This was in stark contrast to the autopilot era under Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan, when the Thunder were a tactical open book that relied only on better, more talented teams.

Daigneault masters the details which earn additional tenths of points. Some of his moves could have been seen as long-shot underdog strategies for a 20-win team that might not be a good fit for a top seed, but Daigneault kept things weird even as the Thunder became dominant. In the first game against New Orleans, for example, his traps on CJ McCollum late in the first and third quarters caused the Pelicans to make mistakes that took away last-shot opportunities. These possessions proved crucial in a two-point victory.

As a new generation coach, Daigneault offers some of the friendliest media sessions you’ll see in the league. He demonstrates a clear mastery of data and analysis, often incorporating material into his press conferences that suggests how much he must be consuming in his free time.

Daigneault’s pregame media session before Game 3, for example, included a bit of studying the trends of referees’ whistles before games and planning accordingly, and a reference to this chart on the difficulty of match against the opponent of defensive stopper Luguentz Dort being the most difficult in the NBA.

This decision by Hayward was another example of Daigneault’s analytical approach. He constantly talks about the tradeoffs involved in the Thunder’s poor rebounding — they could play Bismack Biyombo or Mike Muscala if they really wanted to improve the glass, for example — and how he’s willing to lose there because he thinks he’s coming. ahead of the market. Winning 57 games with the 29th ranked team in rebounding tends to support that statement.

Of course, any discussion of Daigneault is incomplete without also highlighting his mastery of the challenge rule, which is why I continue to call it the Geaud Challenge on social media. He not only used it so frequently – and correctly! — like any coach in the league, but he’s also had anecdotal success in coaching his usage in the most high-leverage situations. While he had a high-leverage failure in this area in Game 1, he got back on his horse by winning one in Game 2; During the season, Joe Mazzulla of Boston is his only rival in the challenge game.

None of that matters if Daigneault can’t reach players or command a locker room, but by all accounts he’s been successful in that area, too. Player development has accelerated under his leadership – almost every core player has improved steadily over the past three seasons – and the young Thunder looks as cohesive as any team in the league.

In the thankless world of NBA coaching, Daigneault’s challenge gets even tougher from here on out, as the Thunder will have high championship expectations moving forward. How Daigneault performs in the playoffs – where he only has five career games under his belt so far – will matter far more than his regular season win total.

But consider this award a sort of crowning achievement for a young star in the profession. Coach of the Year awards are often over-indexed on short-term outliers, but this one is the exact opposite.

Daigneault has stood out since taking office in 2020; this honor only solidifies his place in the upper crust of the league.

(Photo by Mark Daigneault: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

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