OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s normal now to see the Thunder with a small-ball lineup, with guards who screen, a slender starting center and undersized bigs off the bench.
So when coach Mark Daigneault went big last Saturday against Philadelphia, sending backup center Jaylin Williams into the game to share the court with starter Chet Holmgren for the first time this season, it was borderline jarring.
It felt so … conventional.
But success going small doesn’t mean the end of taking big swings. For a Thunder team among the youngest in the league, this still is a time to tinker.
“There’s an element (of), if you only do the stuff that you know works, then we would have never been small in the first place,” Daigneault said. “It was a leap of faith to do that in the first place. So we need to be aggressive in terms of understanding exactly what we have and understanding all the options we have.”
With reigning MVP Joel Embiid in town over the weekend, it made sense to test some two-big lineups.
And it might make sense this week to expand the experiment.
The Thunder (11-5) takes on the towering Timberwolves on Tuesday in Minneapolis, then comes home for a Thursday tilt with the lengthy Lakers.
“So we’ve got three games right now (including Philadelphia) that are a nice stress test of our ability to handle a bigger team, and it’s good opportunity for us,” Daigneault said. “At the end of the week, we’ll learn a lot about the team because of the quality of opponents that we’re playing as well as the physical size.”
If Daigneault continues to play Holmgren and Williams together, he’s unlikely to get complaints from the duo in question.
“That’s my dog,” Holmgren said. “Great player, obviously. Super-high understanding of the game, high IQ and he plays a really selfless style of basketball. So any chance to play with him on the floor, I’m happy to play with him, he’s happy to play with me and there’s a little extra motivation to play good together so we get to have a little more tandem minutes down the stretch.”
The 7-foot-1 Holmgren has excelled at center in his rookie season, despite a wiry 195-pound frame, largely because he creates matchup nightmares for burlier opponents.
His 3-point shooting threat pulls big men away from the basket and creates driving lanes for the Thunder’s perimeter players. On defense, he can play high pick-and-roll coverage at the level of the screen allowing him to impact the game around the perimeter or drop back and protect the rim.
Having Williams on the floor doesn’t change much for Holmgren, especially at the offensive end.
Both players can set screens and roll to the rim or pop out to the perimeter. Holmgren is shooting 43.8% from 3-point range, and though Williams is making 26.1% of his 3s, he was enough of a threat last season (40.7%) that some defenses will close out to contest his long jumpers.
On defense, Williams gives the Thunder more of a physical presence to contend with players like Embiid or Wolves centers Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert while allowing Holmgren to freelance all over the floor.
It’s not unlike the way the Lakers deploy Anthony Davis, often pairing him with a center and freeing him to roam the court at power forward.
“Playing with a guy like Chet makes the game a lot easier,” Williams said.
On paper, pairing two towers worked for the Thunder against the 76ers.
Holmgren and Williams were on the court together for 14 minutes, and the Thunder had a net rating of 13.3 in that time, which projects to outscoring the Sixers by 13.3 points per 100 possessions.
That’s too small a two-big sample size from which to draw any real conclusions.
But Daigneault liked what he saw, and given the Thunder’s upcoming matchups, he could try going big a little more.
Small-ball creates a number of advantages for OKC, including taxing defenders who aren’t accustomed to playing against guards who set screens. The Thunder’s pace with Holmgren and four wing players often forces a smaller defender to cross-match and guard Holmgren before a bigger teammate gets down the court and into guarding position.
The Thunder loses some of that with big lineups. But size has advantages too, especially given that one small-ball tradeoff is OKC’s much-discussed defensive rebounding trouble. It rebounds 65.8% of opponents’ misses, tied for last in the NBA.
Given OKC’s success with small-ball lineups, Daigneault is unlikely to abandon them. But having the option of two bigs makes the Thunder more versatile, Daigneault said, and “needs to be an option for us.”
“As we move forward, it’s kind of a calculus of cost benefit,” he said. “If the benefits of being smaller don’t outweigh the costs, then we’ll look to do something else.”
It seems clear that Holmgren wouldn’t push back against a bigger lineup. Though he’s comfortable at center, his eyes lit up Saturday when he talked about playing with Williams.
“We played together in Summer League and stuff and really liked that too,” Holmgren said. “So it’s not our first time, but hopefully it’s not our last either.”
Jalen Williams available
Starting wing Jalen Williams, who has missed the Thunder’s past three games with a hip injury, will play Tuesday against the Timberwolves, Daigneault said.
Jalen Williams is the Thunder’s third-leading scorer at 17.5 points per game, and averages 4.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists.