OKLAHOMA CITY — The first step is a text.
It comes late the night before a game or sometimes the morning of, from Thunder assistant coach David Akinyooye to a group called “the Mo’ Wings, or AKA it’s the Movement Wings,” forward Lu Dort said.
It’s a video edit or maybe a series of them — about 10 minutes each in length — focused on the upcoming opponent’s most talented perimeter players.
Do you want to know how Steph Curry and Klay Thompson like to come off screens? It’s there. Curious about what Kevin Durant’s favorite moves are in isolation? They’re in the group text.
The clips in the Thunder’s defensive group chat are a homework assignment of sorts, but a different classroom analogy is more apt.
Mostly they’re the start of a group discussion for “the guys with the toughest matchups on the court,” Dort said.
Occasionally within the chat, but mostly in person, Dort, Aaron Wiggins, rookie Cason Wallace and sometimes two-way rookie Keyontae Johnson will talk about what they’ve seen and pick each other’s brains for the best way to stop it.
“As good defenders, sometimes when you watch it you kind of know what you got to do to stop it,” Dort said. “But whenever there’s a question to ask or something to get better at, we’ll talk about it.”
The Thunder scouts as a team. It talks about assignments as a group.
But the interaction between the Mo Wings is extracurricular.
Though they’ll sometimes call over another player at practice to discuss a coverage, most of their defensive discussions are among each other, focused on slowing the guards and wings who typically make modern NBA offenses go.
It’s a dynamic that predates this season and the group chat, extending to Wiggins’ rookie year in 2021-22, when he’d ask Dort — by then a third-year player and already established as a high-level wing defender — for pointers.
But the back-and-forth has deepened with the addition of Wallace, the 10th pick in June’s NBA draft.
“Caso and Lu, they’re elite defenders,” Wiggins said. “So it’s been something that’s grown into more of a conversation this year.”
If Wallace wants to what’s worked for Dort in a specific matchup, he’ll ask, but the Mo Wings’ discussion isn’t a one-way Q&A. Dort asks “all the time,” Wiggins said, about a specific play that a younger teammate makes work, trying to find any edge he can add to his own game.
The players these guys are charged with guarding are the NBA’s best scorers. Already this season, the Thunder has faced Golden State’s Curry and Thompson, Phoenix’s Durant, Denver’s Jamal Murray, Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell and Chicago’s Zach LaVine, whose Bulls visit Paycom Center on Wednesday, among others.
Those players will have big games – and have this season – but limiting them is key in today’s NBA. And putting pressure on on-ball scorers is part of the reason the Thunder has held opponents to 108.4 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the league.
The Mo’ Wings take pride in the tough assignments, and they’ll look for any detail that can give them a boost.
Their discussions — digital and actual — are akin to a group effort to solve a complicated puzzle.
“Watching (Dort and Wallace) and seeing how different they are but also how good they are defensively and how it translates to the things that we talk about, I think it makes the game super fun,” Wiggins said. “When you’re preparing for something and then you see it in the game, you execute it and you know how to guard it, it makes it super fun.”
Though the defensive discussions are a dialogue, Dort — who got his education as a rookie running ideas by injured Thunder stopper Andre Roberson — is the most professorial of the players.
He’s taken to the role of defensive mentor.
“Lu’s humility, team orientation, commitment to the group I think shows in a lot of different ways,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I think it shows in his play, with the things he commits his effort to out there in the game, and then it shows in some of the invisible areas. Lu’s not a chest-pounding kind of guy — he’s not overly verbal — but he’s always got his teammates’ back and invests in the group and invests in his teammates, and he’s done a great job with Wiggs and now Cason.”
Daigneault is a believer that NBA coaches can lose games but can’t win them, that ultimately it’s up to players to get a team over the finish line. “When the game is going on,” he said, “there’s only so much you can control from the sidelines or in the organization.”
That makes “empowering” teams crucial, Daigneault said, and the defensive group discussion is an example of players investing in one another, building a dynamic and trust that extends to game time.
It also gives Wallace a stake in his education.
The rookie came out of Kentucky with a reputation as a defensive stalwart, but Wallace admits that the scouting in the NBA bears little resemblance to college basketball.
In college, Wallace said, game prep centered on the system a team ran. At the pro level, there’s much more time spent on individual matchups and player tendencies.
The group discussion has helped Wallace adjust.
“Coming into the league, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about as much as I can,” Wallace said. “These guys, they’ve guarded some of the best players in the league, the people we grew up watching. It just gives me the opportunity to ask Wiggs or Lu about main guys that they’ve been guarding for years now.”
So Wallace is “good with asking questions,” he said, and when he has one for Dort or Wiggins, “they always give me a great answer.”
Mostly, he asks them in meetings or off to the side at practice.
And though the group text mostly is a delivery system for the video edits, questions in the thread are fair game.
As long as they stay on topic.
A question about pick-and-roll coverage is cool. Conversations about movies, TV, sneakers and music are out of bounds.
“We have the group chat for the whole team where we’ll talk about anything,” Dort said. “This one is just for defense.”