Well, this isn’t exactly the kind of news that Oklahoma City Thunder fans were hoping to hear just a couple of weeks before the start of training camp and a little over a month before the 2018-19 NBA season tips off. Former MVP point guard Russell Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Wednesday, a procedure that will keep him on the shelf for at least the next four weeks, and which could knock him out for Oklahoma City’s preseason slate — and perhaps longer.
“The Thunder, Westbrook and his representation determined that after he experienced inflammation in his knee this past weekend that the best course of action was the proactive procedure, performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache with Thunder medical personnel present at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles,” the team announced in a Wednesday statement. He’ll be re-evaluated in a month, and next steps will be determined from there; if things don’t check out 100 percent in four weeks’ time, it’s possible Westbrook could miss the Thunder’s Oct. 16 opener against the rival Golden State Warriors.
Russell Westbrook’s history of knee injuries
As noted by Jeff Stotts of injury-focused website In Street Clothes, this marks the fourth surgery for Westbrook’s right knee. The first came nearly 5 1/2 years ago, when he suffered a torn lateral meniscus during a collision with then-Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley during Game 2 of their opening-round 2013 playoff series. The surgery ended Westbrook’s season, and helped contribute to an earlier-than-expected postseason exit for a Oklahoma City team that won 60 games and earned the top seed in the Western Conference; without Russ at the controls, the Thunder bowed out in the second round, suffering a five-game defeat at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Westbrook wound up going under the knife again just before the start of the 2013-14 season, an arthroscopic procedure aimed at alleviating swelling in the surgically repaired right knee. He made a surprise return for the third game of that season, making 25 appearances … before once again needing a pressure-alleviating scope right after Christmas that sidelined him through the All-Star break.
After those three surgeries in a nine-month period, though, Westbrook came back at full strength and full speed, and has looked none the worse for wear since. With the exception of a 2014-15 run that featured a pair of freak accidents that caused him to miss time — a broken right hand the night before Halloween, a broken cheekbone in late February — Westbrook has actually been almost unbelievably durable, all things considered.
He’s missed just five games in the last three seasons despite his electric and relentlessly physical style of play, marking himself as one of the sport’s most reliable commodities as he slices and dices his way through opposing defenses and traffic in the paint on the way to his now customary triple-doubles. Westbrook did have a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left knee before the start of last season, but started the season without skipping a beat on his way to averaging a triple-double for the second straight year.
Cause for concern, but maybe not panic
On one hand, the fact that Westbrook’s now having his fourth procedure on that right knee certainly seems worrisome. It’s not exactly great news that your franchise centerpiece, the offensive architect without whom Oklahoma City’s entire point-producing framework has cratered since Kevin Durant’s exit, is getting closer to completing the customer loyalty punchcard that’ll get him a free scar-tissue cleanup at any participating orthopedic clinic.
You can understand why another round of swelling that would benefit from surgical attention would give pause to OKC general manager Sam Presti and Thunder fans alike, especially with Westbrook both two months away from turning 30 and one month out from the first year of a mammoth five-year, $205 million contract extension. The concerns compound if Westbrook’s rehabilitation crosses over from preseason to live action, because even with another All-Star running buddy in the fold last year after the arrival of Paul George, the Thunder’s offense tanked whenever Russ wasn’t running the show.
Oklahoma City averaged a scorching 112.4 points per 100 possessions in Westbrook’s minutes, a top-five-caliber rate of offensive efficiency, according to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass. They averaged 102.7 points-per-100 when he was off the court, a nearly-10-point drop that would’ve ranked OKC below the dreadful Phoenix Suns in the NBA’s offensive basement. The Thunder are hopeful they’ll be able to reverse that trend this season, with the exit of Carmelo Anthony reducing some of the stress and fit issues that plagued them last year and the introduction of Dennis Schröder providing another shot creator and playmaker potentially capable of keeping the offense afloat in non-Russ time. Given their druthers, though, they’d probably prefer not to have to find out just how well they’ll be able to do that at the start of the regular season against the two-time-defending NBA champs.
On the other hand, it’s fair to remember that it’s been nearly a half-decade since Westbrook last needed a corrective on this particular part; that Westbrook has never once seemed less explosive or physics-defying in the four years since his trio of previous surgeries; and that the post-script to his past knee woes has included four All-Star berths, four All-NBA nods, an MVP trophy and the first full-season triple-double averages since Oscar Robertson. If it’s true that this procedure was more preemptive and proactive, and that it having three antecedents won’t likely impact how quickly and completely Westbrook’s capable of returning to full participation, there would seem to be a pretty good chance that this won’t necessarily disrupt the apple cart for Russ and the Thunder too much.
Still, though, Westbrook’s training-camp absence does complicate matters some for a Thunder team with designs on making a concerted push to knock the Warriors off the Western Conference pedestal after re-signing George, bidding farewell to Anthony and importing Schröder. Instead of getting a full training camp to tinker, and to try to get OKC’s talented and intriguing pieces to coalesce into a new whole — one, ideally, greater than the sum of its parts and more capable of finding cohesion than last year’s ‘Melo-featuring model — head coach Billy Donovan will now have to get everyone else up to speed without his top gun, then make room for Westbrook and all he brings with him once he’s good to go.
This, in and of itself, shouldn’t submarine the Thunder’s efforts to once again score a top-four seed and enter the postseason with home-court advantage. It could make getting out of the blocks quickly a little harder, though. And in a super-competitive conference in which at least 10 teams harbor serious hopes of playing through mid-April, a slow start might be something Oklahoma City can ill afford.
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