Westbrook and the Thunder

Stephen Dunn

Tuesday's news that Russell Westbrook will miss four to six weeks at the start of the season is very bad indeed for the Thunder, a team that had already had a pretty terrible off-season.

It's no secret that I think the Thunder have taken a step back, possibly even a pretty big step back, this off-season. The trade of James Harden last October was met by much consternation and predictions of doom for Oklahoma City -- but those predictions all seemed to ignore the fact that the trade netted them a one-year rental on Kevin Martin, a terrific bench scorer in his own right. Given that Harden, for all his talents, had been limited to the role of bench scorer for OKC, Martin was a reasonable facsimile to replace him. All the doom and gloom is actually more appropriate now, with Martin following Harden out of town and no replacement in sight -- yet for the most part OKC has managed to avoid the criticisms that they received last year, despite the fact that the penny-pinching represented by the Harden trade is only really kicking in now.

Ironically, one reason that OKC has remained so esteemed has been the injury to superstar point guard Russell Westbrook. In an interesting case of misdirection, the focus has been on how much better the Thunder will be with Westbrook back -- when in fact the team had him for the entire regular season, so it's not as if they're adding anything. We know that OKC is better with Westbrook, that's a given. But they're not better than the team that finished the regular season with 60 wins, since Wussell played in all of those games. And in fact they're worse -- a lot worse -- since they were never deep to begin with and they lost their only proven bench scorer. Westbrook's return from his playoff absence doesn't change the fact that Martin is now gone.

However, now that Westbrook has undergone a second knee surgery (this one of the arthroscopic variety to clean up some minor dysfunction caused by a loose stitch from his earlier meniscus repair) folks seem to be waking up to the situation in Soonerville. Westbrook isn't going to miss a ton of time -- the estimate is four to six weeks of the regular season -- and there's no reason to suspect that he won't be one hundred percent when he does return (apparently the meniscus is fine) but the Thunder could really struggle to begin the year missing two of their top three scorers from last season.

We all saw how the loss of Westbrook impacted the team in last year's playoffs -- and that was WITH KMart still around. If you think there was pressure on Kevin Durant to do EVERYTHING against the Grizzlies last May, imagine how one-dimensional they become with Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson as dimensions two and three. No, they don't have to play Memphis every game in November -- but they do have to play against NBA teams, and one wonders if they might not wear out Durant in the first month of the season alone.

In the zero sum game of NBA playoff positioning, anything that is bad for another top team is good for the Clippers -- and Westbrook's injury has a double benefit for the LAC, as they face the Thunder not once but twice during the first month of the season. In other words, the Clippers will have a chance to go up 2-0 in the season series before Westbrook ever steps on the court.

Does any of this matter if Westbrook will be healthy for the only season that truly matters, the post-season? In a word, yes. One never knows exactly how things are going to shake out of course, but as we await the start of the season, it certainly seems as if there are six very tough teams in the Western Conference, probably followed by a pretty steep drop off in quality to the seventh seed in the playoffs. That means that securing the first or second seed holds two major benefits over the third seed -- (1) the first and second seed will probably play a team of the Dallas, Portland, Denver, Minnesota ilk while the third seed is looking at a Houston or Golden State or Memphis type opponent and (2) as always, the first and second seed will have home court advantage through at least the first two rounds while the third seed will not. If the thinking prior to Westbrook's injury was that the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers were likely going to be battling one another for supremacy in the West during the regular season, a few extra losses in the absence of Westbrook could make a very big difference. So even if Westbrook and the Thunder are playing at full strength come playoff time, a poor start will almost certainly leave them with a much more difficult path out of the West.

If you're pulling for OKC and looking for a silver lining in all of this, there's basically only one thing I can think of: Westbrook's absence is going to force them to develop another decent option in a big effing hurry. Basically, Scott Brooks can't ignore the issues and let Durant and Westbrook carry an otherwise paper thin squad all season; Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones or Andre Roberson -- someone, hell Ryan Gomes, someone -- is going to have to play a significant role from the first game of the season. With Martin gone and Westbrook out, Jackson moves into the starting lineup and Nick Collison becomes the only player on the bench who was even in the rotation last year. (And given that Kendrick Perkins is probably the single worst starter in the NBA, you're really looking at a team sans Westbrook that has five decent players and nothing but filler in reserve.) Throwing Lamb (or whomever) into the deep end might pay off in the long run if he's able to work through some growing pains and be ready to help in the postseason. Of course, that's only good news if one of those guys is actually capable of eventually contributing, which is far from certain at this point.

The NBA is a superstar league, and no team can withstand the loss of a superstar player unscathed -- but OKC will be hurt even more than most because of the limited options on their bench. Maybe someone will step up and surprise us in November, but more likely the Thunder will dig themselves a pretty deep hole that will be difficult to overcome when Westbrook does return.

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