In a playoffs where the narrative has fast become more about who is not playing rather than who is, the biggest story of the postseason thus far comes in the form of the devastating news of Russell Westbrook’s torn meniscus and impending surgery. The effects of this are obviously disastrous for a Thunder team pegged as the favorite in the ultra competitive Western Conference, as they not only lose the second best player on their team, they lose someone who has a very good case to be among the ten best players in the entire league.
Westbrook accounted for nearly 22 percent of the Thunder’s total points, 35 percent of their total assists, 12 percent of their total rebounds, and 72 percent of their total minutes. For all the flak that Westbrook gets for being too ball dominant on a team with the much more efficient Kevin Durant, no one can deny the sheer amount of production he gives the team. Replacing that production, especially on the fly, is nearly an impossible task.
That being said, one of the only players in the league that could even hope to shoulder the burden of replacing these numbers is Kevin Durant. Per NBAWowy, in the not so small sample size of 522 minutes, the Thunder are actually 1.4 points per 100 possessions better when Durant is on the court without Westbrook than with them both playing. Furthermore, Durant’s usage rate goes up significantly with Westbrook off the court and, amazingly, it is at no cost to his efficiency going from 1.2 points per possession to 1.6.
Now this is hardly to say that the Thunder are somehow better without Westbrook, that sample size requires context and losing a player as good as Westbrook is never a good thing. But for the time being, i.e. this series against the Rockets, the Thunder should still be the favorites as long as Kevin Durant remains his ever-efficient self. Down the road when competition stiffens, however, is where the real problems lie.
If Denver manages to get out of their series with Golden State, they provide a hellish matchup for the Westbrook-less Thunder. Westbrook’s personal crusade on the Nuggets’
mascot defense was the key to the two teams’ regular season matchups, as Russ averaged 32.8 points on 49 percent shooting in the four games against Denver. Passed that, the Grizzlies are a team that bothered a fully healthy OKC team and both the Clippers and Spurs are tough enough matchups in the best of circumstances.
Another factor is the actual recovery time from the surgery. Meniscus tears are a notoriously tricky injury in terms of projected recuperation, as players recovering from this same injury have had widely varied recovery times. Metta World Peace suffered a torn lateral meniscus just this past month and was playing thirteen days following the surgery. The same injury kept Minnesota Timberwolves‘ forward Chase Budinger out for more than three months this season while Blake Griffin played six days after tearing his in his freshman year at Oklahoma. Jeremy Lin went down with a torn meniscus in early April last year and was shut down for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs. The estimated time for this type of injury is normally six to eight weeks; although it is easy to envision a Metta World Peace-like abnormally fast recovery for the young and quite possibly only semi-human Russell Westbrook.
Operating under this assumption of a speedy and full recovery that would put Westbrook’s return around the beginning of the conference finals, the hypothetical question becomes, should the Thunder risk it? OKC remains an incredibly young team considering how relevant they have been in the contender conversation and their core of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are all locked up for the foreseeable future.
While coming in favorites in the West and a much-improved team, few expected them to do any better than they did last year challenging Miami. If Westbrook is ready to come back earlier than expected, Presti will have a difficult decision to make, weighing the future of his star point guard’s health against the chances OKC has to win a title this year.
That said, until the surgery takes place, everything about the timetable for his return is just guess work. It’s safe to say that Oklahoma City will be without their athletic point for the next two rounds and will have to find a way to duplicate his production. Kevin Durant, for better or for worse, now has free reign over the offense and Scotty Brooks must find a way to distribute minutes between the Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher backcourt (preferably more to Jackson and less to Fisher). The West was already highly competitive, but this Westbrook loss has opened up the gates for everyone and now anything can happen.