The Los Angeles Clippers have a brutal schedule of opponents in the first five weeks of the season. Of their first 20 games, 14 come against playoff teams from last season -- and two more are against the Minnesota Timberwolves, considered by many a likely playoff team this season with a healthy Kevin Love. Overall, that ration should be more like 1-to-1 between playoff and non-playoff foes.
That will of course even out in the long run, leaving the Clippers will a more forgiving schedule the rest of the way. But the timing is arguably bad, given that the team is adjusting to a new coach, a new offense, a new defense, and new players. It's reasonable to expect an adjustment period before this Clippers team reaches its full potential -- and that adjustment period is happening in the teeth of the toughest part of their schedule.
It did however seem like they had caught one scheduling break amid all the bad news: included in their November slate were not one but two meetings with the Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of the best regular season record in the Western Conference last season, a record that included a sweep of the Clippers. With OKC's All-NBA point guard expected to be out until mid-December recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Clippers had got one small break that could prove big at the end of the season -- they would twice face OKC sans their spark plug point guard before Thanksgiving.
Well guess what? He's back.
There were hints last week that Westbrook was way ahead of schedule, and the team announced today that he'll play tonight against the Phoenix Suns.
Russell Westbrook has gone through a methodical rehab process jointly created by our medical and performance teams and treating physicians. The process has been instrumental in getting Russell to this point and has included various physical and medical benchmarks. The final benchmark being unrestricted basketball activity. After hitting the necessary marks, all parties, including the team, consulting physicians, Russell's representatives, and most importantly Russell, jointly determined that returning to play was the correct next step.
It remains to be seen how effective Westbrook will be after missing about six months, but the Thunder are undoubtedly thrilled to have him back. In two games to start the season, they barely held on in Utah against a team expected to be among the worst in the Western Conference and then got absolutely obliterated by the Wolves (behind by 20 at halftime and 34 in the fourth).
In a way, I'm happy that Westbrook is back. I've made a point of calling the Thunder overrated this summer, saying that most people are ignoring their flaws and glossing over the loss of Kevin Martin and complete lack of any roster improvements. I still believe that to be true, and if I'm correct, it will be good to take away Westbrook's absence as an excuse. We'll see.
His much-earlier-than-expected return is certainly worth a whole bunch of regular season wins to the Thunder, which could prove critical for playoff seeding. And of course it completely changes those November meetings with the Clippers. As if the LAC schedule wasn't tough enough already.