How rotations, recovery play into the Thunder’s challenging January

How rotations, recovery play into the Thunder’s challenging January

OKC’s rotations might confuse you, but there’s a method to Mark Daigneault’s minutes management

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 8, 2024, 9:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 8, 2024, 9:00am CST

(This story originally appeared in the This Week in Thunder with Brett Dawson newsletter, delivered to your inbox on Mondays. Subscribe here).

OKLAHOMA CITY — Some nights you won’t see Kenrich Williams. Some nights you’ll see a little Tre Mann. Some nights Davis Bertans finds himself on the court in the first half. 

The Thunder’s rotations can be a little hard to pin down. And though it frustrates some fans, the revolving door for guys on the floor is by design.

And this month is one of the reasons for it. 

Daigneault is by nature a tinkerer. The Thunder will point out that if the coach didn’t try new things, didn’t find minutes for little-used players, the franchise might never have figured out how valuable Isaiah Joe could be, for example. 

But there are other methods to his minutes management. 

And with the Thunder’s January underway, you’re getting a glimpse. 

Part of the reason why players fall out of Daigneault’s rotation and then find their way back in is that OKC asks its players to stay ready when the call comes, and it probably will in a 17-game month like this.

“It’s gonna be either injuries or it’s just gonna be fatigue, and they need to be primed up for that,” Daigneault said in December. “You can’t put a bunch of guys on the shelf and then when you need them expect them (to thrive).”

So while Bertans might not be a part of the regular rotation and Vasilije Micic might not be a fit in every game, hardly anybody stays buried on the bench. 

(“Hardly” anybody because Aleksej Pokusevski hasn’t played since Dec. 11 and has logged 43 minutes all season. But give it time.)

And the playing-time tweaks extend to regular rotation players, too. 

Williams is playing 15.6 minutes per game this season and has logged 18 or more six times. But he didn’t play at all in last Wednesday’s loss at Atlanta on the second night of a back-to-back. 

That wasn’t about getting Williams a rest, Daigneault told reporters in Atlanta, so much as it was finding playing time for other players. That includes backup center Jaylin Williams, who’d played single-digit minutes in seven of the previous eight games. 

“There’s guys that I’ve wanted to get some run for —  J-Will in particular, get him a little bit more than the little short bursts,” Daigneault said. “(Aaron) Wiggins, get him more. Lindy Waters is a guy that we have a lot of faith in who we haven’t played a lot to this point. And it’s just hard. I don’t think it’s fair to anybody to play them all seven minutes. So it’s better to give somebody a night off.”

Some fans find this maddening, and that’s understandable. 

But with 14 games still to play this month — and four more sets of back-to-backs remaining — Daigneault is playing the long game. 

And that involves more than just shifting backup players’ minutes. 

Rookie Chet Holmgren said the Thunder spent time “planning out the month,” including discussions with the strength and conditioning staff. The goal is to be prepared for all the travel and all the recovery, the stuff Daigneault calls “the invisible battles between games.” 

There’s “a daunting element to an NBA schedule for every team,” Daigneault said, and this month is the one that jumps out if you break down the Thunder’s. 

“I think Christmas to All-Star break is kind of dog days for everybody,” Daigneault said. “No one’s feeling great. Everybody is going through the same kind of human nature feelings during that time. And if you want to be an uncommon team, you have to figure out a way to thrive during that, and that’s our challenge. That’s everybody’s challenge.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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