Darius Bazley finished the 2021-22 season strong and seemed to answer all doubts about his spot on the team. Bazley’s work on the defense and improved interior scoring was exactly what Thunder fans wanted to see after two years of inconsistent basketball.
On his day, Bazley is a valuable contributor. He covers ground tirelessly on the less glamorous end of the floor and contests every shot. Darius was arguably the Thunder’s second best defender last season and I thought he would stand to benefit from Chet Holmgren’s arrival.
Holmgren is a solid outside shooter and he is comfortable popping out behind the 3-point arc for easy, uncontested jumpers. Chet changes the Thunder’s floor spacing from what Coach Daigneault persevered with last season.
Oklahoma City used two starting centers last year and neither fitted Darius Bazley particularly well. Derrick Favors did not have a jumper which cramped space inside and forced Bazley out to the perimeter where he is less effective.
Bazley does not have the handle to break down a defense which means his possessions from the arc can be labored and untidy. Bazley operates best as a play finisher but he could not play that role with Favors on the court.
Coach Daigneault then slotted JRE into the starting lineup and the results were slightly better but not perfect. Robinson-Earl can knock down jumpers but he is not a high-volume option and the Thunder ran into the same sort of spacing issues.
Holmgren playing on the perimeter would mean that Bazley can play at the dunker’s spot much more often. Darius is a very good athlete and knows how to finish above the rim. On paper, it seems like a good fit.
When the moratorium was lifted in early July, an extension for Bazley seemed certain. Darius had played really well since the turn of the year and his play warranted a second contract from the Thunder. Coach Daigneault liking Bazley’s abilities was another feather in Darius’ cap.
As time progresses and deals are resolved, Bazley is the last remaining loose end. Kenrich Williams and Luguentz Dort have both agreed deals to stay with the Thunder long term. As it currently stands, Bazley will hit free agency in 2023 as a restricted free agent.
Without context, it seems like an unexplainable decision. Why would Sam Presti even risk letting a recent draft pick who the team have invested so much time in walk for free? It is not typically how the Thunder have done business and so it seems like an odd decision.
In context, the Thunder’s lack of urgency when it comes to extending Bazley makes more sense. Bazley’s value on the court is derived from his interior defense and rim protection. Darius was excellent last season when it came to tracking the driver and keeping himself in position to contest near the rim.
The Thunder’s coverage around the basket last season effectively worked in three separate components. Bazley was the man to man defender, bothering his assignment and forcing them away from open space. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl anchored the defense and walled off the rim. Finally, you had Shai or Giddey helping from the strong-side of the floor.
These components all worked together with the aim of crowding the player slashing to the basket into mistakes. As strategies go, it worked really well and Shai picked up a fair few blocks as a help defender.
The Thunder do not need three players to protect the interior with Chet on the roster. Holmgren is an elite interior defender who uses his length and instincts to smother the opposing team’s play inside. Chet can fill two roles by walling off the rim and taking away space.
Interior defense will be less of a responsibility for the Thunder’s starting power forward which does diminish Bazley’s value to the team. Interior defense is a value-driver for Darius and his value plummets without it.
Darius’ fit in the starting lineup has never been entirely clean either. The Thunder have prioritized building a roster where everyone can pass the ball and is unselfish. Coach Daigneault likes the team to play in rhythm and run the offense.
Bazley can be a ball-stopper at times and a little too focused on getting his own baskets. He is also a poor outside shooter who does not adequately space the floor. Bazley shot 29% from deep last season and it is difficult to see a huge increase in efficiency occurring in his fourth year in the NBA.
His fit is tricky this season and there are other capable options on the Thunder’s roster. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Kenrich Williams and Jaylin Williams can all make legitimate arguments for being a starter.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s instincts on defense and ability to knock down the long ball make him a useful complement to Chet Holmgren. Kenrich Williams is a highly respected veteran on the roster who is an advanced stats monster that improves every lineup he plays with. Even Jaylin Williams has impressed with his savvy playmaking and selfless play.
The Thunder have options at the 4 and moving on from Bazley would not be a costly decision. It would be a waste of a first round pick but knowing when to cut your losses is invaluable. There is no sense in chucking good money after bad.
Darius Bazley may still end up signing a contract extension but the likelihood of that happening has reduced. The evolution of the Thunder’s roster means that the skills he brings to the table are less valuable than what they were last season. Sam Presti may choose to prioritize other players on the basis that they bring different skills to the table.