Russell Westbrook is set to miss at least 4-6 weeks of the regular season because of arthroscopic knee surgery to alleviate swelling in his repaired right knee. This is not great news to get with the season exactly one month away.
It puts a Westbrook return right around Nov. 27 at the earliest, and Dec. 10 at the latest. Potentially, the Thunder could play 18 games without Westbrook, or about 22 percent of their season. And that’s just not having Westbrook in name. Because when he returns, it’ll be without a training camp and without having played since April 24. It was already going to take him some time to round back into form anyway, but with this setback, it might be February before he starts looking like Russell Westbrook again.
Last season, the Thunder were dealing with the uncertainty of trading James Harden. This season, it’s starting it without Westbrook. How about just a normal October for once?
But with this news, five big questions came to mind for me:
1. First, is Westbrook going to be OK?
Him being out is disappointing, but no one is feeling this more than Westbrook. By all accounts, his rehab and recovery were going extremely well and he was right on track to return soonish. The team was optimistic about him and with Westbrook’s aggressive work ethic, it was looking likely that Westbrook would be back sooner than later.
A torn meniscus is no joke, though. Having a full repair done creates the potential for complications, and it was a serious surgery and recovery process. The team, and Westbrook, went that direction with the future in mind, trying to make sure they made the best decision for Westbrook’s long career. Now, he’s had to go under the knife again and things have been delayed. Maybe because people are antsy with the way Derrick Rose’s recovery went, but there’s real anxiety about Westbrook’s 2013-14 season.
The most important thing to remember is that this is all done with Westbrook’s long-term career in mind. The Thunder don’t want to take any shortcuts or cut any corners. Presti said this Monday: “Although we lost a little bit of time, we gained a tremendous amount of confidence in the recovery and the knee itself.” The meniscus repair was found to have been successful, so that much seems to be covered. This setback is more about the recovery and less about the original injury. That’s a good thing.
There have been some questions as to why the lengthy timetable then. Remember: Westbrook wasn’t completely back from the original surgery. He was still rehabbing, still recovering. Though the Thunder didn’t release a timetable on it, he wasn’t expected to be fully cleared until right at the beginning of the regular season. So the 8-10 weeks he’s set to be out aren’t all for the scope he had, but on top of the recovery he’s already dealing with.
Make no mistake: This is a major bummer. But as Presti said Monday, they want to get this handled now, rather than potentially be dealing with a complication in February or March.
2. Second, are the Thunder going to be OK?
The Thunder already had plenty of questions about depth and bench coming in to this season anyway. Is Jeremy Lamb ready? Can Reggie Jackson be a sixth man? Who else can score? Now, without Westbrook, those issues are only amplified.
But keep in mind, we’re talking about November and December here. The least important months of the NBA calendar. Presti has mentioned this time and again, but the focus of the team is not to be playing well Nov. 15, but to be playing at their best April 15. To get to that standard of performance, you use the entire season as a crock pot to let the recipe come together. But stressing over games early isn’t the focus of the team. It’s about constant improvement, so even though not having Westbrook might cost the Thunder wins, it may not impact their overall goal for the season.
Also, possible brightside for you half-fullers: Again, the Thunder already had questions about their depth and about their second unit even with Westbrook. Now, while it places a spotlight squarely on the role players and adds pressure, it also provides an opportunity to gain some footing. Lamb will have more responsibility, Jackson obviously will have a lot more on his plate. There’s an opportunity to build confidence and maybe when Westbrook returns, as Presti said, the team will be better.
Still, that said, put me firmly in the screw-that-I’d-prefer-to-have-Westbrook-now camp.
3. Does this justify OKC’s dormant offseason?
Here’s my thinking: Westbrook’s injury and surgery were going to place a level of uncertainty over this season no matter what. Not that anyone expected this setback, but there was always caution from the organization that Westbrook might not be Westbrook for a little while. With him coming back from something so significant, there really was no way to know exactly how he was going to respond, or even when he’d play.
So with the team so dangerously close to the luxury tax, did that uncertainty of Westbrook’s health seal it for Presti that “going for it” wasn’t worth it? Because as I’ve outlined before, dipping your toe into the tax is much more complicated than just having to pay some extra money. It’s about adding a season of being in the tax and bringing into play the repeater. So again, it wasn’t as simple as just the Thunder shelling out their mid-level exception, because had they done that and Westbrook wasn’t able to return to form this season, what was the point? Now you’re a year into the tax and damage your ability to spend in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
The Thunder are going to break over the tax eventually. There’s a perception that they are afraid to spend and therefore, don’t want to win. Which of course, both are complete nonsense. The Thunder are trying to build a roster that can contend for a championship over the next 10 years, not just make a run at it once. This idea of “going for it” is plain silly, because the Thunder are going for it. And they have been the last four seasons. They just don’t want to blind themselves with a single season in mind and obliterate their chances to go for it again next season, or the next season, or the next five seasons. And this uncertainty with Westbrook kind of proves that point.
4. Do the Thunder sign someone else?
They only have Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher on the roster as point guards. If Jackson were to roll an ankle, the Thunder’s starting point guard would be Fisher. Hang on, I’m vomiting into a garbage disposal right now.
There really isn’t much left available on the free agent market and while the Thunder signed Diante Garrett for training camp, he’s really more of a combo guard. There’s Daniel Gibson, who hasn’t found a team yet this season. There’s Chris Quinn, who has bobbed up and down between the D-League and NBA. There’s Roddy Beaubois who didn’t get re-signed by the Mavs. There’s Chris Duhon who was waived by the Lakers. There’s Keyon Dooling, there’s Sebastian Telfair, and there’s Jamaal Tinsley.
Will the Thunder just roll the dice, or do they make a move? The Thunder already have 17 players under contract with Garrett and Rodney McGruder. Waive both of them, and someone like Daniel Orton or Hasheem Thabeet would have to go to make room. That’s kind of a tough choice to sign an extra point guard for the short-term.
5. What do the Thunder’s first 4-6 weeks look like?
It’s a worthwhile question: How many wins is Russell Westbrook worth? We won’t really know, unless God-forbid he misses the entire season, but my estimation would be that if the Thunder were going to win 58 games this season with him, they’d win 48 without him. I think Westbrook is worth 10 wins, at least.
Again, if Westbrook returns Dec. 10 against the Hawks, he will have missed 18 games. Nine are on the road, nine are at home. Eight games are against 2013 playoff teams. If I was ranking those 18 games on a scale of 1-to-10, with 10 being the hardest, I’d give it a six. The Thunder play the Clippers twice, the Warriors twice, and the Spurs and Pacers once. But they also get the Jazz twice, the Kings, the Pelicans, the Suns, the Pistons and the Wizards.
If Westbrook were completely healthy, I’d estimate the Thunder would go something like 14-4 in those opening 18. Without him, they still might be able to get close to that, but 11-7 would be pretty good, I think.