A couple quick thoughts on the news Russell Westbrook would be out until after the All-Star break:
1. That’s 27 games exactly Westbrook will miss, assuming he comes back Feb. 20 against the Heat, which is the first game following the break. In that run, OKC plays 10 games against the East, 15 against teams with a sub.-500 record and 12 at home. But they also have two games against the Blazers, one against the Heat, two against the Rockets and one against the Spurs. It’s a pretty favorable stretch of the schedule, despite the heavy number of road games.
2. The starting lineup we’ll see — Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins — has been exceptionally good together this season, but those numbers are a bit skewed. Westbrook’s missed three games — first two games of the season, then against the Jazz on No. 24 — and in that last one, OKC completely blasted Utah. The new starting lineup has played four games and 58 minutes together, posting offensive rating of 106.2 and a defensive rating of 78.4, for a net of +27.8.
3. I don’t think inserting Jackson into the starting five will cause too many issues. Where I fear the Thunder will feel Westbrook’s absence most is in the second unit, which has been a massive asset so far this season. Taking Jackson away from the bench means Derek Fisher is now the backup point guard. Fisher’s been playing quite a lot this year anyway (and his on/off numbers look fine — net rating of +11.6 — because of who he’s playing with), but asking him to commandeer the offense for stretches isn’t good.
The Thunder do have a newly developed potential weapon to deploy in Perry Jones, which is something they didn’t previously without Westbrook, so he could possibly aid the second unit. Even still, Scott Brooks is going to need to stagger his rotations better and make sure that he’s keeping potent offensive players on the floor and not subjecting the teams to lulls.
4. Serge Ibaka. Westbrook is the engine that makes the IbakaFerrari go. This season, with Westbrook on the floor, Ibaka is shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 22.1 points per 100 possessions. Without Westbrook, 43.6 percent from the field and 19.9 points per 100 possessions.
With Westbrook on the floor, Ibaka gets more shots at the rim, and takes more shots from 15-19 feet. What’s interesting about that is, Ibaka shoots 49.4 percent from 15-19 feet with Westbrook and just 35.7 percent without him. That’s telling. Because of the pressure he puts on opposing defenses, and the respect he commands, defenders hedging in the pick-and-roll hang with Westbrook a few steps more, creating more space for Ibaka in the pick-and-pop. Plus, Westbrook is just really good at running it.
Ibaka only spends roughly eight minutes a game on the court without Westbrook. But those eight minutes, he isn’t the same kind of effective, highly efficiency offensive player he is otherwise. We saw it in the preseason how Ibaka tried to create more shots on his own and do more in isolation. I don’t necessarily think that’s a good idea. It’s just up to Scott Brooks and the rest of Ibaka’s teammates to try and get him involved in the places he’s most effective.
5. You can’t replace Russell Westbrook. This is the No. 1 lesson we’ve learned in the games OKC’s been without its explosive point man. You can’t replicate him. You can’t replace him. There’s nothing you do that can fill the void of his energy, his competitive spirit, his toughness or his relentlessness. Westbrook creates 8-10 points a night either from himself or for other just by playing effing hard. He soars in on the offensive glass to create critical second chance opportunities. He rebounds misses and turns them into transition chances all in one swoop. Westbrook is a complete wrecking ball of a monster, and not having him will hurt the Thunder greatly.
And while a third knee operation in a nine-month span is very disconcerting and alarming, the fact is the Thunder aren’t worried as much about playoff seeding and homecourt advantage as they are about having a healthy Russell Westbrook for the postseason.
I think the Thunder will be mostly fine for the weeks Westbrook is out. Jeremy Lamb is improving game by game and can supplant some of that scoring punch. We know what Jackson is capable of. And KD is reaching new levels and if anything, this could be a big boost to his MVP campaign (optimism!). They won’t win as many games as they otherwise would’ve, but the Western Conference, while stacked, doesn’t necessarily have teams in it that appear capable of running off and hiding. The Spurs have some holes. The Blazers are good, but still unproven. The Clippers are a bit inconsistent. The Thunder aren’t likely to go on to win 60-65 games like they otherwise might’ve, but 57 or 58 might be enough to still take home top seeding honors in the West anyway.
Presti said in his conference call Friday afternoon the Thunder will continue to “manage” Westbrook’s situation, which I think means regular MRIs and checkups and such. Which could mean fewer games throughout his career and some eventually minute-watching. But when he’s been on the floor, he’s been dynamite. His play hasn’t suffered one bit and if anything, he’s reaching new levels. He’s explosive, he’s athletic and he’s as gloriously reckless as ever.
So it’s just about getting him back when he’s most needed. It’s a shame for the Thunder because this team is clearly very good and they were headed for a special season. But as long as Westbrook is ready to play in the postseason, you may forget he ever missed any games at all.