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The Oklahoma City Thunder announced Tuesday that Russell Westbrook had "successful arthroscopic surgery" to alleviate swelling in his right knee earlier in the day, and that he is expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the 2013-14 regular season. That timeline would delay Westbrook's return to the Thunder lineup for somewhere between 12 games, if he comes back on Nov. 27 (four weeks on the dot) against the Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs, and 20 games, if he comes back on Dec. 11 (six weeks exactly) against the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that ousted Oklahoma City in the second round of last year's playoffs.
The early-season absence of the All-Star point guard deals a tough blow to a Thunder team that is once again expected to contend for the top spot in the Western Conference but was already searching for some additional offensive firepower after losing third-leading scorer Kevin Martin to the Minnesota Timberwolves in free agency ... and that was convincingly defeated by the Grizz in five games without Westbrook to ride alongside top gun Kevin Durant.
That second-round loss came after Westbrook suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee during Game 2 of Oklahoma City's first-round series with the Houston Rockets. At the 5:34 mark of Game 2's second quarter, Westbrook hit the deck after Rockets guard Patrick Beverley tried to steal the ball as Westbrook was calling a timeout, and Westbrook came up limping:
Westbrook played the remainder of the game, finishing with 29 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in the Thunder's win. Shortly thereafter, though, he was ruled out for the rest of the postseason after having surgery to repair the tear. He's been sidelined ever since.
He's "been incredible in his work and rehabilitation [and] has been pain-free and has performed at a high level during practice, but has experienced recent swelling that had not subsided,” Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti said in a team statement Tuesday:
“After careful consideration and recommendations from the medical team, we elected to do the procedure today based on our consulting physician’s belief that the swelling would be alleviated, and in turn give Russell the best chance for sustained performance throughout the season and beyond. During the procedure it was determined that the source of swelling was due to a loose stitch, and fortunately we were also able to confirm that the meniscus has healed properly.”
So the surgery wasn't spurred by anything having gone awry with the meniscus repair or Westbrook's rehabilitation — that part, at least, is great news for the Thunder, as it could mean that the 24-year-old guard's eventual post-swelling return proceeds smoothly. Plus, as Presti told reporters in a post-announcement conference call, while the Thunder this past spring were forced to deal with Westbrook's absence — a completely new circumstance to all involved, since Russ hadn't missed a game in five NBA seasons (including four playoff runs), not in two years at UCLA, not even stretching back to high school — in the middle of their highest-stakes games of the season, head coach Scott Brooks will now have a full training camp and preseason to prepare for opening the 2013-14 campaign without their three-time All-Star triggerman.
That said, as Daily Thunder's Royce Young noted, it also means that Westbrook won't have any training camp or preseason games to knock the rust off his game after not having competed in live action since April 24. It's not exactly easy for any player to hit the court running at full speed after six months on the shelf, and you would understand it if it was even more difficult for a player like Westbrook, whose game is so heavily predicated on speed, athleticism, sudden directional changes and pell-mell drives to the paint. (Just ask Derrick Rose.) Westbrook said last week that "once he's fully recovered, he doesn't plan on changing anything about his playing style," according to The Associated Press; while Thunder fans (and NBA fans writ large) certainly hope that'll be the case, it remains to be seen whether a second knee surgery in a year's time has any effect on Westbrook's stance.
In the interim, OKC's story figures to be very similar to what we saw after Westbrook's injury last postseason, with reserve point guard Reggie Jackson once again likely to replace Westbrook in the starting lineup. The Boston College product posted respectable individual numbers during his nine playoff starts — 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 36.2 minutes per game, shooting 47.2 percent from the floor and 89.7 percent from the line — but Oklahoma City's offensive efficiency on the whole dropped off mightily in those outings. The Thunder averaged just 100.3 points per 100 possessions in the games Jackson started, according to NBA.com's stat tool, a far cry from their regular-season mark of 110.2 points-per-100, which trailed only the world champion Miami Heat.
To be fair, five of those games came against the withering Memphis defense, which is enough of a meat-grinder to pose problems for even healthy and fully functioning offenses. But without Westbrook's ability to make nothing out of something, to beat the first line of defense and force help from the second to open up lanes and looks for his teammates — the Thunder just didn't have enough firepower to outscore Memphis, even with Durant going for 32-10-6 in 45 minutes a night. The sheer weight that Durant had to carry — acting as primary scoring threat, primary ball-handler and primary facilitator against the No. 2-ranked defense in the NBA — just took too much of a toll without enough secondary options, thanks in part to the miserable struggles of power forward Serge Ibaka and some shaky play from Martin, who shot just 39 percent from the floor after Westbrook's injury took away so many of the tasty, wide-open looks on which he routinely feasted during the regular season.
With Westbrook again out and Martin gone, the Thunder will need Jackson to be a more successful table-setter. They'll need rising sophomore Jeremy Lamb — the 2012 lottery pick who came over from the Houston Rockets in the James Harden trade and who spent most of last season with the D-League's Tulsa 66ers — to go from little-used propsect to major-league contributor. ("He's ready," Durant said. "I know he's ready.")
They're going to need Ibaka to take another step forward offensively this year, resembling an evolutionary version of the player who became a legitimate supporting offensive option last season rather than the can't-shoot-straight version who showed up after missing that potential game-tying bunny against Houston. They're probably going to need another point guard off the scrap heap, unless you consider 39-year-old Derek Fisher and training-camp invitee Diante Garrett a solid enough backup tandem to make it through the next 2 1/2 months. (I don't.) They're going to need Brooks to show a level of ingenuity and creativity in tailoring his sets and rotations to be able to come up with a better offensive design than, "Go get 'em, Kevin." And they're going to need Durant to be able to come up even bigger than usual if/when Brooks can't.
The point is, they're going to need a lot. That's what happens when you lose a player like Russell Westbrook — arguably one of the 10 best in the entire world, the engine that makes the Thunder offense hum and a hard-nosed, tough-minded leader that you want on your side heading into battle with the likes of the Spurs, Grizzlies, Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. Twenty early-season games without him won't sink the Thunder's chances of outshining the West's top tier come April and May, especially with Oklahoma City's season-opening slate looking fairly friendly aside from meetings with the Clips, San Antonio, the Golden State Warriors and a couple of potential playoff teams out east. But if the Thunder are slow in finding their footing without Westbrook, they could find themselves behind the eight-ball when it comes to seeding, and that sure won't help.
Throughout the Thunder's rise from up-and-comers to conference elite, we often remarked upon the good fortune that Presti's team has had in terms of collective health and continuity. Now, unfortunately for Thunder fans, they're finding out how the other half lives, and it's kind of a bummer.