How the OKC Thunder have changed the way they use the center position

If someone in the summer of 2019 told me that I would be writing a glowing article about Mike Muscala’s impact on a rebuilding Thunder team in 2021, I would have told that person they were insane and slowly backed away from them. Yet here we are in January of the 2020/21 season, and here I am about to sing the praises of the 6 10 big man.

 With Steven Adams gone, the Thunder have deployed a new look at the center position this season and have brought a modern style of offense to the floor. Between Mike Muscala, Al Horford, and Isaiah Roby, the Thunder now have 48 minutes of stretch five ability to present on the court.
Muscala is shooting 37.1% on the season on just over 5 attempts a game from three, above league average. Al Horford is only shooting 32% from three on a similar attempt rate, but he is respected enough that he will still be guarded, and the super young Roby is shooting 35%.

Having bigs with a respectable three-point shot is a blessing in this league, and highly sought after. For a rebuilding team like the Thunder, the extra spacing players like Muscala, Horford, and Roby can provide opens up the floor for the rest of the team to attack the basket at will. For young players like SGA, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Theo Maledon, and Hamidou Diallo – especially Diallo, this pace and space is the perfect system to learn and improve. From a playmaking perspective, the court is open in this way helps the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander find the best passes and connect with cutters. Every player now has the space to work on their finishing, as the opposing bigs are pulled out to the perimeter.

Diallo, Running the second unit alongside Mike Muscala for the majority of their minutes, is attacking the rim every night without fail. He has a field-goal percentage of 73% at the rim this year and has the second-highest usage for the Thunder at 23%. That field-goal percentage is up from last year by 10% and getting clear runways to the basket has been made possible with Muscala’s pairing who takes three-quarters of all his attempts from three. Whilst it is no secret the Thunder’s bench units have not necessarily been good for winning, it is good for the development of these key skills and is playing to Diallo’s strengths as a finisher.

This cannot be emphasized enough; we have all witnessed what poor spacing can do for developing talent. The New York Knicks last season ran into this problem and fielding a team of power forwards who could not shoot did not help the number 3 pick RJ Barrett’s growth at all. This Thunder team is nothing like the Knicks’ last year thankfully, and the spacing is improving everyone’s game. Lu Dort, previously thought to be a defensive specialist is proving to have a strong offensive arsenal too. His inside-out ability has grown, and he has shown a crafty finishing game. If you put Dort onto the 2019/20 Knicks, this growth would have been undoubtedly stifled.

This style of five-out, pure stretch bigs has lead to the Thunder having the second-worst offensive rebounding rate in the league but they are also tight defensively in transition. Currently top 10 for points allowed in transition, stylistically it seems to be paying off.

Being one of the longest-tenured Thunder players at the moment, Mike Muscala is helping provide a veteran, stabilizing presence. With a new system in place under new head coach Mark Daigneault, Muscala’s contributions are helping to revolutionize the young Thunder. This year as a team, the Thunder are averaging more three-point attempts than ever before and Muscala has been a key factor in this. With players like him on the roster to create the room they need to grow and set the tone, we can be confident to say the development of the new Thunder has well and truly begun.

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