The Oklahoma City Thunder avoided the unsavory honor of breaking the franchise’s record losing streak with a victory over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.
Despite dropping 14 straight, OKC coach Mark Daigneault was insistent that the attitude in the locker room stayed positive, which makes sense.
Since the trade deadline, the Thunder have been tumbling down the standings, but it hasn’t been solely down to the players on the court. Rather, circumstances out of the control of the players have sent the team on a downward spiral.
Veteran center Al Horford was shut down for the season as Oklahoma City hopes to find a landing spot for him next offseason.
Budding star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been sidelined with plantar fasciitis, meaning three of Oklahoma City’s opening night starting five have been absent.
Few teams could withstand that kind of hit, especially teams who are in the process of turning over their roster for a rebuild.
But notwithstanding the personnel losses and the defeats on the court, this young Thunder squad has continued to battle night-in and night-out.
Darius Bazley has been hyper-aggressive since returning from a fractured scapula, flashing the kind of playmaking which so many OKC fans were excited about in last year’s playoff bubble.
Aleksej Pokusevski has returned from the G-League and continued to play confidently, unafraid to make mistakes in his maiden campaign through the NBA. Alongside him, second year guard Ty Jerome has also been decisive in pulling the trigger from deep, fitting right in to Daigneault’s modern offense.
Most impressively, however, has been the strides Luguentz Dort has seemingly taken in April.
The former undrafted free agent has averaged 22.3 points per game over his past nine outings. For a season, that mark would almost double the best output by Patrick Beverly or Marcus Smart, the two defense-first guards he is often compared with.
Is it unlikely Dort would carry these numbers once Gilgeous-Alexander is back on the floor and future lottery picks are brought into the fold? Sure. But Dort’s offensive development has been incredibly impressive under Daigneualt, and it bodes well as another piece to what ultimately will become the Thunder puzzle in two to four years.
With key players missing, the aggressiveness shown by the young core can be a positive to be taken from this past 15-game stretch for years to come.
Even the recent uptick in turnovers can be spun into a positive, so long as the team is able to internalize the mistakes and prevent them in the future.
“We want to make aggressive mistakes… we don’t want a timid team,” Daigneault said after the win against the Celtics. “We’re starting to reap some of the benefits of some of the early investments we made in letting these guys do that.”
Bazley in particular has had his fare share of turnovers, but most have come as he’s been ferociously attacking the basket, often drawing plenty of fouls.
“That’s a stable source of offense moving forward is if you’ve got guys that when they get an advantage they can go up and draw fouls,” Daigneault said.
Dort has also seen a rise in his free throw attempts as he’s improved at finishing through contact under the rim.
The losing streak wasn’t always pretty to watch, but that hasn’t been the point of this season of Thunder basketball. This season has been about setting the table for the years to come, and under Daigneault, the Thunder look to be headed in the right direction.