Four questions for three writers, examining the stunning news of Russell Westbrook’s third knee surgery. How does it affect the team? How could it affect Westbrook’s career? What’s next? We discuss:
1. How concerned should the Thunder be about Westbrook’s latest surgery?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Very concerned. Chronic swelling suggests something’s wrong. While I don’t pretend to know what that something is, I do know that continuing to operate on Westbrook’s knee can’t be good. Not for him. Not for the team. Not only is he missing time in the short term, but Westbrook’s athleticism also could be at risk of being diminished down the line due to numerous surgical procedures. So it’s a big concern.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - Clearly a legit concern, but let me be a voice of optimism. Three knee surgeries in eight months. Sounds awful. But only one of them was truly reconstructive. Two were just scopes. Clean-ups. So while it’s not ideal, it’s not a Brandon Roy/Derrick Rose/Greg Oden situation. No ACL tears or microfracture procedures. And it’s important to note: The Thunder say Westbrook was playing pain-free. And he looked incredible. As springy as ever. So it’s a concern, and potentially a career-long problem, but there’s reason for optimism.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - The Thunder should be very concerned. Something is amiss. Either the initial damage to Westbrook was much more than anyone believed, or the surgeries have been botched. Whatever the case, Westbrook’s long-term health suddenly becomes a question.
2. Do you see this affecting WC seeding? Does it even matter?
Mayberry - Yes, but not much. The Thunder was rolling, and much of the team’s success of late was a product of Westbrook’s stellar play. But I can’t see the Thunder slipping past the 4 seed, if that far down. Portland will cool off eventually, and, let’s not forget, the Thunder could still have more than 25 games remaining after Westbrook’s return. That’s plenty of time to string together some wins and finish the season strong. Does it even matter? No. In the West, a healthy Thunder team can beat any team anywhere.
Slater - Yep. OKC averaged 107.9 points in the 25 games he has played this season, but only 91.5 points in the four he’s missed. So the Thunder will lose games it normally wouldn’t have, dropping them down the standings. But whatever. The West playoffs are going to be an absolute battleground this season. Once it starts, it could get weird. Seeding won’t matter much. Get in and you’ve got a chance. Get in with a healthy/productive Westbrook and you’re probably the favorite.
Tramel - Yes, I see it affecting West seedings. But I’m not sure it matters. If Westbrook misses 20 games, let’s say, the Thunder might go 12-8 instead of 15-5. That could be enough to drop OKC from first to second or maybe even third. However, the Thunder, if it can get Westbrook back, should be OK. Homecourt matters only in a Game 7. The most important thing is not seeding or homecourt. It’s having Westbrook back.
3. Predict the date he returns and the record while he’s gone.
Mayberry - Monday, Feb. 3 against Memphis. That’s right. That’s before the All-Star break. I’m not buying the post All-Star break timetable. No way will Westbrook miss 27 games. He looked as good as ever before the injury. That tells me he won’t need the full recovery window. Besides, there’s always something extra when the Thunder and Grizzles play. Always. I say the Thunder goes 14-7 in Westbrook’s absence.
Slater - Westbrook had his second surgery — the first scope — on Oct. 1st. On Nov. 3rd, less than five weeks later, he had 21 points in 33 minutes against the Suns, looking as explosive as ever. And this surgery isn’t being accompanied by an offseason rehab. So I think a similar, and maybe even earlier, timetable can be expected. But for prediction sake, let’s place it to the exact date. From surgery to game, he missed 33 days last time. This time, a 33-day absence would place his return on Jan. 29th. The Thunder play that day. At Miami. Sounds like a target date to me. Oh, and record, I’ll go 11-6 in the 17 games between now and then.
Tramel - I’m going to say he’s back on Feb. 9, for the Knicks. So let’s go 16-7.
4. Who’s the player who must step up most in his absence?
Mayberry - I’ll go with a sleeper here. Jeremy Lamb. We pretty much know what Reggie Jackson can do. We have questions about Serge Ibaka in Westbrook’s absence – and rightfully so – but even he appears to be figuring things out. So, to me, Lamb is the guy who has to step up most. He has to take ownership of the second unit now that Jackson is the starter. He has to make shots. He has to make plays. Without Lamb raising his level of play, the bench will become entirely dependent on Kevin Durant to supplement it (not ideal) or suffer a sizable drop off and just become bad.
Slater - Reggie Jackson’s the obvious answer, just because he slips into Westbrook’s starting role. But how about Serge Ibaka? The first time Westbrook missed an extended stretch, an 11-game absence, Ibaka shot 34 percent. He’s a career 55 percent shooter. So that’s a huge drop-off. And it clearly has to do with Westbrook, who gets Ibaka wide open pick&pop looks and easy dunks/layups on attention-grabbing drives. In the past two games without Westbrook, Ibaka went a combined 14-of-21 for 29 points. A great sign. But can Ibaka maintain (or even boost) his production without his All-Star playmaker? We’ll see.
Tramel - Reggie Jackson. Jackson was phenomenal until the last few games. He’s got to be the player he was the first seven weeks of the season. Now that’s more important than ever.