How Mark Daigneault bridged the Thunder divide between rebuild and rebuilt

How Mark Daigneault bridged the Thunder divide between rebuild and rebuilt

The reasons he was the right coach when the Thunder was starting over remain as OKC heads into the Western Conference semifinals against Dallas.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| May 7, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

May 7, 2024, 6:00am CDT

(Want Sellout Crowd content sent directly to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletters here.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A couple weeks ago at the Thunder practice facility, Aaron Wiggins turned on some music by Drake.

Mark Daigneault heard it.

“Hey, Wiggs,” the Thunder coach said, “‘Push Ups’?”

The Thunder reserve was impressed that his 39-year-old coach knew the diss track Drake released last month in his ongoing feud with fellow rapper Kendrick Lamar.

“Nice,” Wiggins thought.

So, Daigneault is a fan of Drake?

“I just know a couple of songs,” he said when asked later. “It was kind of like the blind squirrel with the acorn on that one.”

He paused.

“Don’t tell ‘em, though,” he said of his players. “If I gain any credibility, I’ll take it. I have to impress them with something. It’s certainly not my plays or my defenses.”

Beg to differ there.

As Daigneault and the Thunder prepare for their Western Conference semifinal series against the Mavericks, questions about each team’s advantages run rampant. Will the Thunder’s defense, which held the Pelicans to 92 points or less in every game of the first round, triumph over the Mavs’ two-headed offensive monster? Will the Mavs’ defense, which held the Clippers to 93 points or less in three first-round wins, conquer the Thunder’s young guns?

And yet, there’s one question that seems clear: the Thunder has the better coach.

Daigneault was a runaway winner of NBA coach of the year after leading the second-youngest team in the association to a 57-win season and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. He bested a bunch of coaches who are still in the playoffs, including Chris Finch in Minnesota, Joe Mazzulla in Boston and Tom Thibodeau in New York.

It’s been quite a climb for Daigneault, who took over the Thunder when it was starting reposition, replenish, rebuild. He oversaw a 22-win season when fans weren’t allowed at Paycom Center because of COVID, followed by a 24-win season when fans were still few and far between.

But then, there was a 16-win improvement and a near miss of the playoffs.

This season brought another big jump with 17 more wins, a playoff return and a playoff sweep in the first round.

And still, Daigneault is the one in the head coach’s office.

It doesn’t always happen this way. The head coach when a team starts rebuilding isn’t always retained to be the head coach when that team gets good. Oftentimes, the losing gets to be too much — even though everyone knows that’s what rebuilding teams do — and a franchise moves on.

But sometimes, a head coach bridges the extremes. 

Brett Brown is the most notable one, taking over in Philadelphia in 2013 and winning 19, 18, 10 and 28 games in his first four seasons with the Sixers. But then as “The Process” began to take hold, Brown wasn’t pushed aside for someone else, and he coached teams that made the playoffs each of the next three years.

In Thunder lore, Scott Brooks bridged the gap from the team’s 23-win season in its first year in OKC to the five consecutive playoff teams that followed. 

Still, Brooks is a little different than Daigneault. Brooks wasn’t the head coach when the rebuild began with a 20-win season in Seattle; PJ Carlesimo was at the helm that year.

Daigneault was the Thunder head coach from the start of this rebuild.

So, how was he able to be one of those coaches who kept his job from rebuild to rebuilt?

For starters, Daigneault believes part of it is because he and many of his staff members were working in the Thunder organization before the rebuild began.

“None of us started when (the rebuild) started,” he said. “We were here before that.”

Daigneault joined the Thunder in 2014 as the organization’s G League Coach. He held that job for five years — doing a stint as a Thunder assistant during the 2015-16 season — then becoming a full-time assistant the season before he was hired as head coach in 2020.

But some of the coaching staff have been in the organization even longer. Mike Wilks, for example, started as a scout in 2012 and became an assistant coach in 2019.

“So there’s been a throughline for a long time with the staff,” Daigneault said.

That longevity has built continuity for Daigneault and the Thunder. There’s alignment. There’s trust. 

So when the Thunder only won 22 and 24 games in Daigneault’s first two seasons, there wasn’t a sense of frustration within the organization. Outside it? Sure. But inside, everyone understood why Daigneault was experimenting with different rotations and changing substitution patterns and seeing what players could do playing different positions.

“The more we did it, the more the benefits outweighed the cost,” Daigneault said, adding quickly, “Not that there weren’t costs. Not that there weren’t times where this stuff didn’t work.”

But overall, Daigneault believes the experimentation ultimately benefited the players. All players. Whether a reserve like Kenrich Williams, who got to see that he could play the five position, or a superstar like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was forced to add even more versatility to his game as he played with different kinds of players and different kinds of lineups.

“They’re recognized how it’s helped them develop,” Daigneault said. 

“I think they’ve all seen the individual benefit of that and the collective ones, so it’s been something that we’ve just continued to double down on it.”

Always adapting and growing is something Daigneault has asked not only of his players but also of his assistants and support staff. 

“One thing I’ve challenged the staff on, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of, is just making sure that we’re continually pacing ahead of the team,” he said. “You never want to be behind the team. You never want the team to be ready for something that we can’t provide. 

“So, we’ve had to grow with the team, but we’ve had to grow a step ahead of the team so that we’re constantly bringing relevant things to the table, whether that’s motivational, whether that’s tactical. We’ve worked hard to try to do that. We’re not perfect at it, but we’ve worked hard to try to do that.”

A season ago, the players showed Daigneault and his staff that they were, in his words, “willing to be uncommon.” It’s a phrase he’s used often, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

Basically, it boils down to this: the Thunder’s young players proved they had a maturity beyond their ages.

“They showed they were willing to prioritize team success despite being really early in their careers,” Daigneault said.

That’s something a lot of players don’t do until they’ve reached a certain level of fame or salary or status but find themselves without a ring. They realize they might have to sacrifice shots or points, accolades or attention in order for their team to be its best.

But when Daigneault realized this young group of players was willing to do that, he challenged himself and his staff to rise up to meet that ambition.

“If they’re going to do that,” Daigneault said, “we have to be ready to gameplan and ready to be competitive and know what buttons to push in order for that to happen.

“You can’t hold these guys down in terms of how ambitious they are and how badly they want to be successful.”

Doing things with the best interest of the players in mind is what Daigneault has always kept front and center. It’s part of his in-game coaching decisions. Same for his practices and video sessions and walkthroughs and workouts. 

But as much as anything, it’s ever-present in his one-on-one dealings with players.

He recently recalled his years coaching in the G League. The roster turnover is significant in that developmental league, so the number of players coming and going was high.

Daigneault often asked them a question early in their time with him.

“What’s the secret to coaching you?” he would say.

The words they used varied, but the sentiment was often the same.

“I would say 80% of the answers had something to do with honesty,” Daigneault said. “When you hear the same answer over and over again from a lot of different players, a lot of different backgrounds, a lot of different people, there’s something to that.”

As a result, he’s always opted for transparency with the players.

“Especially when we’re stuck on something,” he said. “If we’re stuck on something, I’ll come in and tell them, ‘Hey, we’re stuck on this, we gotta figure this out,’ rather than coming here and trying to dress it up.

“Also, I think when you make it personal, that’s where it can get confrontational with people. It’s not personal. It’s just, ‘You didn’t block out on this play; we need you to block out in order to get the rebound’ versus ‘You’re soft.’ 

“You do that… then it becomes personal.”

There’s little evidence that is happening because the players seem to love Daigneault. 

You can look back in the past for examples of that. Before the start of Daigneault’s second season as Thunder head coach, Darius Bazley was asked during the team’s media day about Daigneault. Bazley didn’t seem to love interviews. Never gave long answers. 

But on Daigneault, Bazley was darned near poetic.

“Mark is an amazing, amazing person,” Bazley opined that September day in 2021. “I’m so grateful to be coached by him. On and off the court, I feel like he’s helped me already so much. He’s helped me grow so much.

“I think he’s able to have the impact on us and the relationship just because he cares. It’s not just X’s and O’s. It’s way beyond that when it comes to him. He doesn’t really view it as like a coach-and-player relationship; we’re both working together to help each other. I have a lot of respect and just a lot of love for him.”

That relatability players feel with Daigneault — knowing the names of Drake songs, anyone? — has continued to foster respect and love.

Jalen Williams sported a T-shirt with a bunch of pictures of his coach during individual pregame warmups recently. Show me another budding young star going to the trouble of getting a shirt with his coach on it, then wearing it for all the world to see, and I’ll show you a unicorn. 

Then after the Thunder swept the Pelicans, the players gave Daigneault an impromptu celebratory shower in the locker room.

These guys love their head coach.

That was the case when they were losing way more games than they are now, but it hasn’t changed now that they’re in the playoffs, one series win away from playing for a Western Conference crown.

Just one more thing that helped Daigneault be the right coach for the Thunder then and now. 

“I’ve never really had a relationship with a coach on the professional level like I have with him,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. 

“It just makes it easy to play.”

Share with your crowd
Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

The latest from Jenni Carlson

  • Thunder-Mavericks Game 3 exit survey: Does OKC need more Aaron Wiggins?

  • Thunder-Mavericks: Why these playoffs might spawn a new OKC rival

  • OKC fans chanted ‘Luka sucks,’ but Doncic’s play said otherwise

  • OU’s move to the SEC: Listing the things to look foward to

  • Aaron Wiggins’ path from two-way player to indispensable part of the Thunder