OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s a tricky business, evaluating NBA preseason games.
The stakes are lower, the rotations longer. Lineups play together that might not with a meaningful game on the line. Individual players are on different timelines for finding a rhythm.
Mark Daigneault recognizes all that, and the Thunder coach gladly will tell you that regardless of all of it, his team has to defend better.
“I mean, all the contextual stuff could be true, but it’s like pretty black and white,” Daigneault said Monday after the Thunder’s practice. “Are you back in transition getting matched? If you’re not matched, it can be for 100 different reasons. But you’re still not matched, and that’s all we can evaluate.”
The point is that preseason comes with caveats, and though it’s fair to say the results don’t matter much, you also can’t throw it out as an evaluation period.
Teams are supposed to get better, no matter how many minutes their starters play.
With that in mind, what do we know about the Thunder three games into its tuneup time? And what more might we learn this week, as OKC wraps the preseason with games Tuesday at home against Milwaukee and Thursday in Tulsa against Detroit?
Here’s a glance at what you need to know as the preseason runway shortens. Just assume everything you read is preface with “It’s only the preseason but…”:
We’ve learned the defense hasn’t been good enough. The Thunder is allowing 116.9 points per 100 possessions in the preseason. The only teams with a worse defensive rating — Maccabi Ra’anana, Taipans and Real Madrid — are from foreign leagues.
Daigneault concedes that Sunday’s game in Charlotte, when starters Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren all sat for rest, probably had an impact.
Still, when asked Monday what strides he’d like to see on defense and what has encouraged him there, Daigneault replied “more strides needed, rather than encouragement.”
Offense at this time of year is “more nuanced,” Daigneault said. Defense is easier to evaluate, and the Thunder’s hasn’t been good.
Even in first quarters, when in the first two games OKC played many of its best players, the Thunder is giving up 125 points per 100 possessions, fifth-worst in the league.
He cited point-of-attack defense, ball pressure and help as issues so far.
That’s… most of defense.
“We have some nice plays, but we have to be a lot more consistent in all facets to that end of the floor to be the best team that we can be,” Daignuealt said. “So we need to see progress here in these last couple of games and practice. And it’s everywhere. It’s not one thing. It’s just overall tightness on that end of the floor.”
We might still see more of Cason Wallace. Wallace, a rookie with a strong defensive reputation, has had his moments there through three preseason games, including two starts.
But a sprain in his left big to limited him to eight minutes against Charlotte on Sunday. Daigneault said the Thunder was “conservative” with its approach to Wallace against the Hornets and will continue to be in preseason. He’ll be evaluated Tuesday for his availability against Milwaukee.
We’ve learned Vasilije Micic has some catching up to do. At 29 years old, Micic is a rare rookie, one with more than 200 professional games to his name but no NBA experience.
The Serbian guard estimated Monday that he’d run a pick and roll “more than a million times” in his life, but this preseason has been his first opportunity in the world’s highest-level league.
And he admitted it’s been an adjustment.
The pace of the NBA is faster. The physicality is different. The defensive three-second rule prevents clogging the lane, which opens the floor and creates space that doesn’t exist in the EuroLeague, where Micic is a two-time MVP.
Through two games, Micic is averaging 6.5 points and 5.5 assists, but he’s committing 3.5 turnovers per game and shooting 29.4% from the floor.
Basketball is “a little bit more free flowing over here, whereas over there, it’s very organized and the execution is really good,” Daignuealt said.
Micic joked that he’s “sleeping all day,” in part because the Thunder practices late in the morning as opposed to the mid-afternoon workouts he was accustomed to in Europe.
But also in part because defenders are trying to challenge him with physical play.
“That’s something that I expected, but it kind of puts me in situations sometimes that I’m a little bit indecisive,” Micic said. “That’s something that I should just move on, take the first, best decision. That’s the biggest change, that feel on the court.”
We might still see the starters together more. It looks apparent so far that the Thunder’s early season starting five will be Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Williams, Dort and Holmgren. But so far they’ve played only one game together.
There’s a reason why.
All five Thunder starters could have played Sunday, Daigneault said, but OKC scheduled a fifth preseason game this season — more than the NBA’s minimum — so that it could get an extended look at what it knew would be a long roster.
“It’s hard to get a real evaluation of a player in short stints,” he said. “You can either rotate them in different games, or you can just spend a game and clear the path, and that’s really what we were doing. It was less rest yesterday (than) it was trying to loosen the rotation enough that we could get other guys out there in different roles and for long stretches of time so we could take a look at what that looked like.”
OKC still needs to shorten its roster by three players before next week’s opening night. Injured guard Victor Oladipo is unlikely to be on the team, but the Thunder still have roster decisions to make.
Ultimately, Daigneault said, Sam Presti will make the roster decisions, with input from the coaches playing a part.
But part of the point of preseason is to gear up to the start of the real deal, and at least one of the final two preseason games will be something akin to a dress rehearsal, with the Thunder’s expected starters and rotation players seeing added time.
“One of these last two games we’ll ramp up pretty good with the guys that are the highest-minute players,” Daigneault said. “But some of that’s an in-game call based on how we’re playing and how they’re looking. If they’re sluggish, I don’t think throwing them back out there is a great idea. But we’ll see where it’s at. It’s a little touch-and-go, but we’ll hopefully get a ramp-up here in the last two games at some point.”