Double jump: Thunder’s improvement headed for NBA history

Double jump: Thunder’s improvement headed for NBA history

In NBA history, only twice has a franchise improved by at least 15 victories in back-to-back seasons. The Thunder is on a pace to pull it off.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 13, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 13, 2024, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mark Daigneault likes to talk about stacking. Not pancakes. Not books. Not cards. Experiences. That’s what Daigneault likes to stack.

When the Thunder beat Boston on Jan. 2, fanning the flames of league-wide excitement over OKC’s newfound status as a title contender, Daigneault went all-in on stacking.

Let’s review. Stacking days. Stacking weeks. Stacking games. Stacking possessions. Stacking habits. Those were Daigneault’s examples of the Thunder long-term game plan.

“All that big picture stuff is just a result of stacking, I think,” Daigneault said. “And that’s really what we’ve been after for the last four years is just stack them up, do the best you can every day, attack what’s in front of you and see where that lands you.”

Nine days later, the Thunder beat Portland in a game that fanned no flames, other than outrage that an NBA game could go all OSU-Savannah State. The Thunder beat the Blazers 139-77, tying for the fifth-most lopsided game in NBA history.

And Daigneault kept talking about stacking. This time, his list was a little amended. Days. Repetitions. Possessions. Games. Weeks. Same message, some different words.

But here’s something new that the Thunder is stacking. Remarkable jumps from year to year. Historic jumps from year to year.

The meteoric Thunder, which two seasons ago finished 24-58, is on pace for 57.6 wins, going into its Saturday night showdown against Orlando. And in between, the Thunder won 40 games.

A 16-game jump last season. Perhaps a jump that big this season.

How uncommon is such a double jump? Quite. In NBA history, only twice has a franchise improved by at least 15 victories in back-to-back seasons:

  • The 1982-83 Houston Rockets went 14-68. They improved to 29-53 the next year, drafted Hakeem Olajuwon and improved to 48-34 in 1984-85.
  • The 2002-03 Miami Heat finished 25-57. Then the Heat drafted Dwyane Wade and improved to 42-40 before jumping to 59-23.

The difference for the Thunder? OKC already had its young star, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, when it bottomed out. In summer 2022, the Thunder added rookie Santa Clara Williams, then Chet Holmgren debuted this season, and OKC was, wait for it, stacking elite young talent.

Most NBA observers with a pulse saw the Thunder coming. Few saw the Thunder coming this quickly. Las Vegas oddsmakers placed OKC’s win total this season at 44, for bettors trying to pick over or under. At this rate, the Thunder will reach 44 wins on March 8, with 18 games left to play.

Daigneault says he didn’t see it coming. He also says he didn’t see it not coming.

“No expectations,” Daigneault said of this or any other Thunder season.

Just in case you can’t tell from watching the Thunder, Daigneault’s ballplayers listen to their coach. Gilgeous-Alexander sounds just like Daigneault when talking about the double jump.

“What I figured out in my career was throw out expectations,” SGA said. “Not throw out goals, but like just focus on day in and day out, and try to get better every day. At the end of it, you’ll have 365 days of getting better and you’ll be a better player, a better team. And that’s how we attack. It’s paying off.”

The only problem with such focused, dogmatic views of improvement is that while the Thunder’s process is gradual, the Thunder’s steps are massive. From a tanking 24-58 to NBA contender in less than two years just doesn’t happen without drafting a transcendent player, and maybe that describes Holmgren. Throw in Williams, and you’ve got another stack. The Thunder is stacking all-stars.

Still, the improvement is amazing. From SGA. From Santa Clara. From the Thunder shooters. From the Thunder defenders. From the Thunder drummers. From the Thunder Girls. From the quality of the mustard at the concession stand. From the new configuration of Paycom Center.

That rout of Portland on Thursday night? Exactly 770 days earlier, the Thunder was on the other end of such a game, a 152-79 loss at Memphis that remains the most lopsided game in NBA history. 

The Thunder is in zoom mode. Blazers coach Chauncey Billups calls Daigneault’s team “elite.” Celtics guard Derrick White, one of the NBA’s best defenders, marveled at how difficult an assignment the Thunder has become.

“They’re a tough team to guard,” White said, “and I think the whole league is trying to figure it out.”

Oklahoma City has cheered teams this good before. Those Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook squads of a decade ago will live forever in Oklahomans’ memories, if not their hearts. 

Those Thunder squads never had the double-jump phenomenon, in part because their single jump was so extraordinary — from 23 wins in 2008-09 to 50 wins in 2009-10. But those Thunder teams also didn’t seem quite as coachable as this group. 

Daigneault seems like a heck of an NBA mind and communicator. Keep listening to him, and good things will happen to these baby Boomers.

“Us worrying about playing in the NBA Finals when it’s January…,” Holmgren said. “We’re gonna miss out on so many opportunities that are right here in front of us to get better. So we’re focused on where we are right now.”

Santa Clara Williams said something similar.

“Just trying to win games at the end of the day,” Santa Clara said. “Most importantly, kind of grow through the season. It’s kind of leading us into the point we are now. I don’t think we’re too worried with the standings.”

If the Thunder needed some motivation, they dropped from tied for first in the Western Conference to No. 2, courtesy of Minnesota’s rout of Portland on Friday night. And my guess is, while the Thunder young stars might not worry about the standings, the Thunder young stars know the standings.

“I think they’re ambitious,” Daigneault said. “But I also think there’s work behind that. There’s so many examples of us improving, not only this season, but in previous seasons, over time. And they have an uncommon ability to block out the noise and just focus on what we need to get better at…

“And if you commit to that process, which our team has done a very good job of, not just this year but for a long time, you’re going to end up where you’re supposed to be. Wherever that lands us, we’ll be able to put our head on the table at night. I don’t know what description that lands us.”

I do. Historic. Fun. And headed for the top of the stack.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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