Three knee surgeries in less than a year. That is what All-Star guard Russell Westbrook will have to overcome in order to help the Thunder compete for a NBA championship this season.
According to the Thunder’s official release, Westbrook is out until at least the All-Star break:
Russell has been playing pain free, but recently had experienced increased swelling. After consultation and consideration by his surgeon in Los Angeles, a plan was established to monitor the swelling that included a series of scheduled MRIs,” said Presti. “On the most recent MRI it was determined by the surgeon that there was an area of concern that had not previously existed, nor was detectable in the previous procedures, and it was necessary to evaluate Russell further. The consulting physician determined that arthroscopic surgery was necessary to address the swelling that was taking place. We know that Russell’s work ethic and commitment will help him return to the level of play that we have all come to appreciate…Westbrook is expected to return post All-Star break.
OKC finds themselves in a somewhat surprising battle for the Northwest Division title with the Portland Trail Blazers and the loss of Westbrook for such an extended period could greatly effect their seeding come playoff time. But the Thunder shouldn’t be written off just yet.
Reggie Jackson has been a candidate for most improved player this season and has played exceptionally well in a back up role to Westbrook. He will now assume the starting point guard position, as he did when Westbrook started the year on the injured list, and will share option B duties with Serge Ibaka behind Kevin Durant. Jackson’s per 36 minute averages of 18.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.3 steals compare nicely to the 21.3 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks Westbrook was posting before getting injured.s
The biggest difference between Jackson and Westbrook isn’t statistically but it’s in their mentality and approach to their roles. Even though Jackson will be given a semi-green light to make decisions, he knows he isn’t the alpha male on the Thunder. That distinction belongs solely to Durant and it will be up to him to carry the load while making his teammates better for the stretch run of the season. This is something Durant has also done before but the burden of that load doesn’t give the Thunder their best chance at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. Especially with the roster as currently constructed.
OKC’s schedule over the next 30 games has them pitted against roughly 17 playoff-bound teams (give or take a few with seeding in flux). That stretch includes two games each against the Spurs, Rockets, Heat, and Trail Blazers. Staying at the top of the conference will be difficult and keeping a winning percentage of .828 isn’t necessarily in the cards either. They could very well slip to the fourth or fifth seed while but should remain within striking distance of two or three until Westbrook returns.
It must be kept in mind that his immediate return doesn’t propel them to elite status. He will need a few weeks to regain his timing and rhythm, assuming he is able to come back in the specified time frame. If for some reason he takes longer to heal and returns towards the end of the season or during the playoffs, there could truly be problems with integrating him back into their system smoothly.
But now more than ever the Thunder need to be cautious about their super-talented guard. His injury is boarding “chronic” status and OKC’s future, both immediate and long-term, depends on his recovery despite people’s foolish thinking that Durant can and should do it by himself.