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Oklahoma City Thunder midseason awards: who snags MVP, MIP, and more

With a bumpy All-Star weekend coming to a close Sunday, the league now eagerly looks on to the second-half of the season commencing this Wednesday. But before we jolt back to jam-packed schedules and trading rumors, let’s reflect back on the Thunder’s team award winners from the first half of play.

Coach of the Year: Mark Daigneault

Contenders: Nobody

With Billy Donovan’s departure to Chicago, Thunder GM Sam Presti made a bold move in hiring Mark Daigneault from the G-League affiliate Oklahoma City Blue last November. Even more headlines piled up as Presti moved away integral pieces in the likes of Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schroder in the following month. Barring a rookie head coach and a stash of young pieces and interchangeable role players, the Oklahoma City Thunder were coined as a “tanking” team from the get-go this season. As time has passed, it has been anything but that.

Mark Daigneault has transformed the Thunder into a “tank for Cade Cunningham” team into a “can they make the playoffs?” team. Currently, the unit ranks 12th in the Western Conference with a 15-21 record, pacing a mere 3.0 games back from 10th, and 4.0 behind 8th. If you take into account their upcoming games rank in the top third of easiest schedules, there’s a real shot they lay some strikes come May.

This possibility garners no surprise from fans, just watch how they play. Daigneault’s ineptness to knit players up to suit their strengths and test limits has produced a trove of success. Daigneault’s philosophy of emphasizing high-ball screens, dribble-drives, off-ball movement and playing hot-potato from the perimeter force havoc onto opposing defenses. That’s a complete 180 from Billy Donovan’s low-intensity, isolation offense forcing about two to three players to remain stagnant the entire game.

Even though Charles Barkley couldn’t eke out Daigneault’s name properly on opening night the rookie head coach’s accolades deserve some national attention.

Most Valuable Player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Contenders: G-League Pokusevski

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may have gotten snubbed in this season’s All-Star selection, but on this list he reigns supreme. The 22-year old capped his 19-20 campaign showing inklings of leading, sharing spurts alongside co-stars Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. With him being the last man standing, he’s flourished.

SGA’s averages of 23.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 6.2 assists stashes himself in an exclusive pot. Only 10 other players currently post splits of 23/5/5, all of which were All-Stars.

Shai’s ability to rapidly change speeds kills defenses, and when a majority of his looks come off high-ball screens it’s game over. He leads the league in unassisted field goals at an unprecedented 87% percent, and it’s due to just that. Opposing players simply cannot wrap their heads around the guard’s pace in open space, resulting in east trips to the foul line or simple scoop-and-scores.

The biggest addition to his arsenal has actually come from distance. Shai ranks higher percentage wise from deep (41.2%) than Steph Curry (41.1%). Clearly, SGA’s 4.9 attempts per game cannot even test Curry’s 11.7 tries, but that just tells you how he’s stacking up with the greats… albeit Tony Snell is shooting 56.5% right now.

The usual defensive gameplan drowns Shai’s name in highlighter, Sharpie, you name it they got it. His three-level scoring has rocketed play through his first 30 appearances, and at his current trajectory, the sky is the limit.

Defensive Player of the Year: Lu Dort

Contenders: Kenrich Williams

After smothering James Harden for seven straight games in Orlando, people rightfully wondered if Dort could remain at All-NBA level for an entire regular-season. Simply put, yes, yes he can.

Dort’s newfound role to the three has gone smoother than butter. Playing top tier competition down as much as 6 inches has not rattled the sophomore thus far. The Arizona State product is posting 12.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.3 blocks on 29.7 minutes. For a defensive award 0.9 steals and 0.3 really don’t raise any eyebrows. Those numbers match season outputs from a rookie MarShon Brooks, a 22-year-old Vladamir Radmanovic, and defensive legend JR Smith in his 13-14 campaign. The thing is Dort contributions go far past the statsheet.

Lu ranks 3rd for wings in contested threes (140), and leads the team in offensive fouls drawn. Dort’s calling card rooted in cat-like reflexes last year mixed with steady feet to garner charges. His Mantra remains much of the same, panicking defenders with ready hands and in the rare chance, forces charges (4.) The main thing Lu has dominated the league with has been selling illegal screens. His tenacity means 99% of the time, he’s coming right over a screen. I don’t think there’s a single player in the league who genuinely wants to body that man as result they move, and they pay.

Most Improved Player: Hamidou Diallo

Contenders: Isaiah Roby, Kenrich Williams

In the most literal sense, Isaiah Roby hoists this award, but on this list Hamidou Diallo takes home the hardware.

Roby flashes Christian Wood of last season. Before starting the year, spots weren’t guaranteed for either of those guys. Wood had to beat out a 38-year-old Joe Johnson for a place in Detroit’s roster, Roby had to oust T.J. Leaf to make it in the league. Going from #450 in the league to engraining yourself into a franchise, that gets you MIP votes.

However in the scope of the NBA, out-of-nowhere players don’t take this award, dramatic improvement does. Hamidou Diallo fits the bill for this award.

Diallo spiked his splits of 6.9/3.6/0.8 with glaring numbers in 11.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.4 assists across 23.8 minutes. The skillset with Hami has been evident since Summer League of 2018, this guy dominates inside. Billy Donovan opted to hush Diallo for his first two season selecting Terrance Ferguson for a potential 3-and-D role that ran dry. With Mark Daigneault in the system, Diallo’s taken groundbreaking steps with the second unit, essentially filling for SGA’s driving role while he fetches Gatorade.

Diallo not only ranks top 11 in guards attempting 5+ attempts 5 feet from the rim 61.0%, but his job at getting to the line has been phenomenal. The 22-year-old’s free throw attempts have increased 193% from last year, letting loose 4.1 tries on average to last season’s 1.4 shots. Offensively rebounding still ranks as the guard’s best attributes too winding in 1.2 a night.

Ultimately Diallo has rerouted his career from a guy with no real direction to a first or second option in the second unit. There’s no question as to why he notches this list.

The usual defensive gameplan drowns Shai’s name in highlighter, Sharpie, you name it they got it. His three-level scoring has rocketed play through his first 30 appearances, and at his current trajectory, the sky is the limit.

Rookie of the Year: Theo Maledon

Contenders: Aleksej Pokusevski, Josh Hall

Theo Maledon’s race to this award didn’t come with much resistance given that both Pokusevski and Hall took a month-long sabbatical in Orlando, but that doesn’t take away from his achievement. The 19-year-old went from a draft-day slide, into a preseason phenom, to now a perfect starter next to SGA. Maledon’s 38.6 percent shooting off the catch-and-shoot enables himself to fill in right next to Shai as he orchestrates isolations to the basket. His ball-handling and playmaking skills net him chances to man the offense in SGA’s absence. Maledon’s pinpoint accuracy and vision on cross-court passes turn keep defenders in check, and though his pick-and-roll game has been limited, he’s elite in manipulating defenders throughout the lane. His outburst of 7.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.0 steals shed light as to why he was a Rising Star selection, and that there is much more to come from Theo.

The usual defensive gameplan drowns Shai’s name in highlighter, Sharpie, you name it they got it. His three-level scoring has rocketed play through his first 30 appearances, and at his current trajectory, the sky is the limit.

Comeback Player of the Year: Al Horford

Contenders: Mike Muscala

Al Horford entered the offseason with the unanimous title of worst contract in the league. The center’s 109M contract over the next 4 years coupled with his disastrous going with the Philadelphia 76ers made GM Elton Brand have to attach sweeteners (2025 1st, rights to Theo Maledon, rights to Vasilije Micic) to even dump him off to Oklahoma City.

Now in year two of his deal, Horford still may not attract a sizable return, but a market may just be there. Big Al has fit right in with Shai in the starting unit being the main contributor to pick-and-pop’s and just keeping the floor spaced out. Horford’s level of play doesn’t reach All-Star levels anymore but his stamp of 14.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists a game chirps real discussions if a contender should take a swing at the veteran. He gives you the shot, a respectable post game, quality rebounding, and sneaky good defense (0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks) that can mesh with any contender in need of a big man. That jump from last year’s near unplayable status next to Embiid irons out Horford the nod.

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