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Chet Holmgren And The Thunder’s Evolving Defensive Identity

There’s a scene in Jerry Maguire where the main protagonist, Jerry, played by Tom Cruise barges into some sort of book club looking for his wife, played by Renee Zellweger. In this tense and awkward scene, Jerry apologizes for his recent behavior, confesses his unwavering love for his wife, and delivers one of the most iconic lines in movie history… 

“You complete me.” His wife looks back at him, tears in her eyes, and delivers another iconic line: “You had me at hello.” 

That must be how the Oklahoma City Thunder felt when they drafted Chet Holmgren second overall in 2022. 

There’s an endless amount of reasons to be excited about this upcoming season if you’re a Thunder fan or even a Thunder enjoyer: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to blossom into one of the league’s best, second-year forward Jalen Williams has all the makings of a prototypical All-Star wing, Lu Dort continues to be as stout as ever as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and Josh Giddey is steadily expanding his arsenal as a jack-of-all-trades guard for OKC. But ultimately, the biggest domino for this team is what Holmgren can contribute as their starting center in year 1 on the job. 

“I think one of the biggest mistakes that we can make is guessing the impact of any player that’s new. I think it’s important to let that unfold on its own and then evolve once you have real information,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault when I asked him about Holmgren’s potential impact as a nominal rookie. He was as even-keeled as ever when discussing his excitement around adding the big man to their rotation this season. “As we watch the team, execute those things, hopefully, then, we’ll learn more about this particular team and its personnel and how we can best leverage this group. But we try not to get out ahead of ourselves on that.” 

And while Daigneault’s approach, much like the Thunder organization as a whole, has been one of patience on all fronts, including Holmgren’s return from injury – it’s hard to watch the early returns and not be, at the very least, cautiously optimistic about how Holmgren completes this team, particularly their starting group. 

Chet’s versatility on offense has popped in their 4 pre-season games already. He’s shown an ability to serve as a pick-n-roll threat for one of Giddey or SGA, using his length and rolling gravity to create space for the two Thunder guards to attack. His dynamism as a shooter allows for the Thunder to be flexible with their lineups and ultimately, his 3-point shooting is going to be much-needed for an OKC team that was middle-of-the-pack in that regard last season. 

That being said, it’s the defensive side of the ball where Chet is primed to impact the Thunder the most. His 7-foot-6 wingspan, coupled with his impeccable anticipation and reaction skills give him all the potential to one day become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. 

He still has a long way to go before he gets there and the center position is probably the hardest to learn defensively, especially transitioning to the professional level – but even in the pre-season, we saw that he may be the final puzzle piece on a Thunder team that has already proved to be formidable on the defensive end. 

To understand how that might happen, we must look back. 

Last season without Holmgren’s backline defense, the Thunder had to be unique in their approach to getting stops. With all due respect to Jaylin Williams and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, there was no true rim protector that they could rely on, which meant that Coach Daigneault and crew had to get creative. 

Luckily, the foundation was already there. 

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

In SGA, Giddey, J-Dub, and Dort the Thunder had 4 players who could guard multiple positions because of their size, could hound ballhandlers at the point-of-attack with their ball pressure, and could play an ultra-aggressive style that emphasized draining the shot-clock, turning the ball over and getting out in transition. 

It was successful.

The Thunder were tied for 12th in defensive efficiency in the ‘22-’23 season, allowing just over 113 points per 100 possessions. They were 1st in opponent turnovers and 2nd in opponent turnover percentage, which helped propel them to one of the best transition offenses in the NBA, averaging over 20 points per game off of opponents’ turnovers, second only to the Toronto Raptors (who had to adopt a similar ultra-aggressive style because they lacked a true Center until they traded for Jakob Poeltl). 

The Thunder did what they could to limit paint touches, switching as often as possible on ball screens, and oftentimes trapping ballhandlers to try and force quicker, harder decisions. They ranked 16th in opponents’ points in the paint and opposing teams shot just over 20% of their total shot attempts at the rim against the Thunder, good for the 18th-best mark in the league. They were 12th in opponents’ field-goal attempts within 5 feet from the basket as well, which is to say, their trap-heavy, switch-heavy defensive scheme could bend but oftentimes didn’t break when teams eventually did get into the teeth of their defense. 

Even when opponents were able to get a paint touch, the Thunder were aggressive to send help in the post and on drives, particularly by helping off of both the weak-side and strong-side corners — ranking 28th in opponent corner three frequency, allowing over 10% of opposing teams shots to come from the corner. They would often dig down on drives, and swipe at the ball in the post, and ultimately, that worked because they were top 10 in the league in deflections and made a killing in transition because of it. 

Defensive into an offense. It’s a beautiful way to play.

(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

But as successful as they were at manufacturing this defensive style – it didn’t come without its warts.

For starters, the style is taxing. It requires a lot of movement, tons of rotations, and oftentimes, results in a lot of open shots for opposing offenses. For example, the Thunder were 4th in defensive miles traveled last year – just as an insight into how much movement is required to play the way they wanted to. Still, for the most part, the Thunder were good with regard to conceding open shots. They gave up the second-fewest amount of open field goal attempts and were top 10 in ‘tight’ and ‘very tight’ shots for opponents. That means they were damn good at closing out.

But the downside was that they were an atrocious rebounding team, ranking 28th in defensive rebound percentage and 30th in opponents’ second-chance points. They contested the 3rd most amount of shots per game. 

Essentially, they were chasing guys around a lot. Add to the fact that they were switching and trapping a ton and that, generally, makes boxing out a lot harder to do.

Throwing Holmgren’s gigantic frame into that defensive as its anchor is similar to throwing a pack of Mentos into a 2-litre bottle of Coke and seeing what happens (that’s half a gallon for the Americans reading this).

It has the potential to be explosive, good, ol’ fashioned fun. 

Editors Note: Thank you to the Americans who have so kindly reminded me that they are also called 2-liters in the U.S.

(AP Photo/Sarah Phipps)

“He’s definitely going to help me. Just knowing that I get screened so much and he’s a really good rim protector,” said Dort after their second pre-season game against Detroit in his hometown of Montreal. “And I know he’s gonna have everybody’s back in that area so it’s good that we have him out to just protect the rim, and also I feel comfortable switching (with him) on the court.” 

Ultimately, as Dort mentions, Holmgren allows them to be flexible – both in their style and approach. For starters, they can choose whether they want to continue to play this aggressive scheme or opt to be a little bit more conservative, now that they can use Holmgren’s size in the middle or maybe, dare I say, up the ante even more by turning the aggressiveness up a notch. 

“You can get away with it sometimes, but it can also put him in like foul trouble. Right?” said Gilgeous-Alexander when I asked him if Holmgren’s presence enables him to be more aggressive on defense this year, “So you have to like pick and choose when you do it.” 

In all likelihood, and from what we’ve seen in the pre-season, they’ll opt to do a little bit of both, toggling between aggressive and conservative in an effort to maximize their opportunities while still honing in on the dominant transition team they can be. 

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

It’s not that Chet is going to change what the Thunder can do on defense, it’s that he allows them to have an option to change if they so desire to. His own flexibility on defense, as a player who can switch out onto some faster guards, as a player who can stretch the floor and therefore, play with other big men, makes the Thunder a wholly more malleable team. 

I watched every single defensive possession that included Holmgren in the 4 pre-season games that he played for the Thunder. The results were really, really telling about how they might use him, how much success they have, and how they’re ultimately hoping to maximize the defensive talent of this team.

Pick-n-Roll Defense

The pick-n-roll is the most commonly used play in basketball and how any given team defends it, will in all likelihood determine how good they will be on that end. Last year, the Thunder would hedge and recover, they’d trap, or they’d switch these actions in order to stop them dead in their tracks, but so far with Chet? It’s been a mixed, mostly positive bag. 

First, they’re comfortable with throwing different coverages at him early, which is a sign of the confidence they have in him as a defender.

He’s been asked to switch, to play higher at the level, to play in a drop and at times a deep drop, and as far as dealing with specific personnel on that front – he’s excelled. He’s great at flipping his hips to keep up with quicker guards, and his length allows him to contest virtually anything at the basket if a player gets downhill. He can split the difference when he does drop back deeper and has a good knack for staying between his man and the ball to avoid lobs over the top. Because of the Thunder’s perimeter defenders, Chet can comfortably drop back knowing they are always going to chase over screens and lock-and-trail, allowing guys like Dort, SGA J-Dub, and even to a lesser extent rookie Cason Wallace, to play really aggressive, turnover-inducing defense on the perimeter without having to deal with the repercussions. 

Chet is essentially a safety net.

And while he still needs to work on a few things (primarily keeping his hands up to contest shots and recognizing when to stay at the level and when to drop) – he will have an immediate impact on how the Thunder defend these actions. 

Here are about 6 minutes of good pick-n-roll film from Chet just from the pre-season: 

Post Work

A lot will be made about Chet’s slender frame when it comes to how he’ll guard in the post and to be fair, that probably will still be an issue as he grows as a defender in the league – but there are some unique workarounds that he’s showed off in the preseason.

Because of his length, he has a larger recovery radius than most bigs (other than Victor Wembanyama) and even if he does get pushed off of his spot, he’s usually able to recover to contest or block the shot. In the first 3 clips in the video below, the Spurs are force-feeding Zach Collins in the post to attack but Chet’s length plus his ability to stay vertical, allows him to be pretty formidable down low without fouling.

That won’t apply in every matchup. Against the Pistons later on in the video, he struggles because of the size of Marvin Bagley and James Wiseman and the brute strength of Isaiah Stewart. That being said, Chet is already problem-solving in real time by trying to find unique solutions. For starters, he’s doing the early work by pushing them out of the paint, and he’s working to front them to avoid a catch deep in the post. There were a few plays against Jalen Duren where Holmgren fronted, the pass still got through, and he was able to recover for the block. It was really, really impressive and I’m interested to see how that looks in the future against better, bigger and more adept offensive competition like Jokic and Embiid. 

Weak/Help Side

Okay, this is where things get interesting. Oftentimes in the pre-season, the Thunder were using Holmgren as the weak-side rim protector. This isn’t anything unique or astonishing by any means, some of the best defensive players in the league make their money by being menaces on the weak side. Think of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jaren Jackson Jr, both of which have DPOY trophies because they’re headaches to account for as help defenders. It’s basically a way to maximize length while minimizing blowback. 

And Chet shows a ton of promise in this department. 

“There’s a lot of really good shot blockers in the NBA that people put off the ball,” said Coach Daigneault when I asked him about how they’d utilize Chet this year. “I think of the way that Milwaukee’s used Antetokounmpo in the past, the way that Durant’s been used in the past, it’s not necessarily in the pick and roll but as weak-side defenders. And we’ll try him in both contexts. And then like I said, we’ll learn what’s best for him and what’s best for this particular team.”

Against Wemby, J-Dub was the primary defender and Chet was the helper off of Zach Collins. Against Detroit, Dort and J-Dub took on the assignments of Bagley and Wiseman at times, and Holmgren roamed the opposite side, ready to contest a shot. Against Giannis and the Bucks, J-Dub took on the primary role of guarding the Greek Freak but Holmgren was helping off of Robin Lopez. 

The Thunder even used Olivier Sarr in some lineups with Holmgren as a way to try out double-big lineups that could maximize their size and Holmgren’s length on the weak side, which definitely piqued my interest.

I think ideally, the future, elite version of Holmgren on defense is as the weak-side help, rather than the primary on opposing big men.

All in all, this is where Chet is going to be maximized as a defender. 


The Thunder were the best transition defense in the NBA last year. Their ability to get back on defense, coupled with the fact that they rarely gave up cross-matches on fastbreaks helped them do that and I think Holmgren can add to that as a shot-blocking interior presence. 

He’s very good at timing his chase down blocks and ultimately, he’s another guy who they should be comfortable with picking up any given man in transition. 

Enjoy the highlight reel because some of these are nice.

The Bad

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will Holmgren’s defensive prowess. He has all the tools to be an impact player on that end from day 1 but he still will make some mistakes. His biggest is the fact that he plays with his hands down a lot which can lead to foul trouble and can sometimes be caught out of position — something the Thunder already struggled with last season.

Luckily, those are things that are very fixable with more and more reps and once he does adjust to defending NBA actions, he’s going to find his own unique ways of honing in on these issues. And given the fact that the Thunder and Coach Daigneault are taking a patient approach when it comes to this roster and in particular Holmgren’s development – it’s safe to say he’s in good hands.

And yes, he does get bullied in the paint sometimes. His length is enough to overcompensate but it will be a hurdle.

If you look back through NBA history, the majority of great defenses are centered around a big man anchoring the middle alongside a litany of tough, hard-nosed defensive-minded perimeter players. It’s for that reason that most DPOY trophies are handed to bigs who have to navigate through multiple different schemes, anchoring all of them and serving as conductors for how any given team functions on that end of the floor. Because of that, Holmgren makes an already good defensive nucleus that much more dangerous.

When I asked Coach Daigneault about how he expects this group to come together and potentially galvanize headed into a big season, especially with the addition of Holmgren, he was really confident in their togetherness. 

“I think chemistry starts with their intentions and we’re fortunate that the people that we bring in the doors- credit to Sam (Presti), credit to the organization – have team orientation. They want to be a part of something, they want to belong to a group, and they don’t want to drift from the group. They don’t want to be separate from the group and that spirit starts it.” 

It’s only the start, but it’s obvious that by adding Holmgren, the Thunder have potentially laid down the final puzzle piece, particularly on defense, where he’s bound to blossom into one of the league’s very best and in turn could transform the Thunder into one of the league’s very best.

A match made in heaven.

He had them at hello.