For three straight seasons, Western Conference coaches have chosen Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook as an All-Star reserve.
Also for three straight seasons, NBA media have voted Westbrook to the All-NBA second team.
This season, Westbrook became one of only six players since 1992 to average at least 23 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a season.
As Westbrook continued to elevate himself at the league's most competitive position, perhaps never before had his talent been more appreciated than when he wasn't playing.
In Game 2 against the Houston Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs, Westbrook suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee and underwent season-ending surgery three days later in Vail, Colo.
From that point forward, the Thunder went backward.
OKC led the Houston series 2-0 when it lost Westbrook and managed to split the next four games to close out the series 4-2.
In the second round against Memphis, the Thunder stole Game 1, but was eliminated after losing four straight close games.
Though Westbrook's worth was acknowledged before the injury, it perhaps was undervalued given OKC's 3-6 record after his departure.
“Let's face it, Russell's really good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He's not only one of the best point guards, he's one of the best players in the league. … We are a much better team (with him in the lineup), there's no ands, ifs or buts about that.”
Every OKC player who was asked said he was not surprised how much the team missed Westbrook, who averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists and a career-high 5.2 rebounds.
“He puts so much pressure on a team it's ridiculous,” center Kendrick Perkins said. “He's the most athletic guy to ever play that position. And what he brings to the table is crazy. I mean, he's a Top-5 player.”
His right leg immobilized in a brace, Westbrook was not able to travel with his team to Houston or Memphis and watched helplessly during home games from a suite at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It's tough being up high, I can't really go down on the sidelines and say what I want in huddles and things like that,” Westbrook said. “All I'm thinking about is how I can help. I wish I (could) be playing, but at the same time, I'm kind of sitting back thinking, ‘If we end up losing, what can I do coming into next year that I can learn from watching this situation?' ”
Westbrook said it was particularly difficult not being able to help fellow All-Star Kevin Durant, who constantly was being triple-teamed.
“I felt bad about that part,” Westbrook said. “Me and Kevin have grown so much over the years, creating a bond through our games. Sometimes Kevin will take over the third (quarter). Sometimes it's me. Kevin (would) take over the fourth.”
Though Westbrook's exact recovery time is still unknown, it's expected he will be able to participate in training camp next October.