5-on-5: Russell Westbrook's surgery
Just two days after posting a triple-double in a Christmas win over the New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and is expected to be out until after the All-Star break.
This is the third surgery for Westbrook, who originally injured the knee in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. What does it mean for him, the Thunder, and the Western Conference as a whole? Our writers weigh in.
1. How worrisome is the news of Westbrook's surgery?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: It's troubling because there are only so many times the doctors can dig in a knee before it stops responding the same way. And even though Westbrook appeared to be the same physically after the first two pokes into that knee, his timing and shot-making weren't quite the same. It takes reps to get those back, and the timetable given by the Thunder gives Westbrook 27 games at most to get back to speed before the playoffs. It's also disturbing because Westbrook is being punished for playing hard; he maintained his relentless pace and the knee couldn't handle it. Will he have to learn to coast?
Daniel Nowell, TrueHoop Network: Somewhat worrisome. It's heartening that Westbrook was playing pain-free despite the problematic swelling, but also discouraging that this issue apparently cropped up suddenly. As long as Westbrook is unhampered by pain, he should be able to be his explosive self, but this may be an injury that requires long-term monitoring and minutes management.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: I'm no doctor (shocking, I know), but I do believe that consistent knee trouble qualifies as a concern. With Westbrook, there's the sense that his game would really suffer for lack of explosiveness. Though he's a decent enough shooter, his value is mostly derived from terrorizing defenses with ultra aggressive drives. Right now, he can't really afford to lose his burst or hops.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Trying to answer this as level-headedly as possible. Short term? The Thunder will be fine. They're plugging in one of the league's best sixth men in Westbrook's place in Reggie Jackson ... and no one in the West is really rolling these days outside of Portland and the Thunder themselves. Long term, though, it takes an uber-optimist not to be concerned by the fact Westbrook's right knee has required three surgeries in the space of eight-plus months. This is a guy whose durability, until this injury, was almost as impressive as the freakish athleticism Russ brings to the position. Worrisome is putting it mildly after three operations to repair one injury.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Very. Maybe Derrick Rose's personal nightmare has put doomsday scenarios into the conversation more than it should, but this is now three surgeries on the same knee in eight months. The Thunder seem upbeat, and Westbrook put up a triple-double playing through it, but talk of "previously undetected" swelling -- for the second time -- makes me wonder if the doctors and/or Russ are doing something wrong. Not a good sign for a guy who plays a more violent brand of ball than any other guard not named, well, Derrick Rose.
2. Will Reggie Jackson adequately fill Westbrook's shoes?
Adande: He'll more than adequately fill them. Jackson went through his initiation during last year's playoffs and showed this season that he's better for the process. He understands the flow of the game so well now; he knows when and where to get his shots. Jackson will get the Thunder through the next month and a half or so. He just isn't enough to get them to the NBA Finals if Westbrook doesn't return to full strength.
Nowell: More than adequately. There's only one Russell Westbrook, but the Thunder have the league's best backup ready to step in and bring his own physical, explosive style. Sure, the rotation will be out of sorts and there will be too much Derek Fisher (any Fisher is too much), but the Thunder are as well-positioned to absorb this injury as they could be.
Strauss: No. He'll do an adequate job as a Westbrook understudy, but it won't fill Westbrook's shoes. Let me explain. The Thunder aren't just losing Westbrook; they're losing Jackson's bench minutes too. While Jackson might do a fair Westbrook imitation, there's no one backing up Jackson to replace his value. In the NBA, the backup often isn't the concern, but the backup's backup is.
Stein: Yup. As long as we're strictly talking regular season. The most compelling case for billing OKC as the West favorites, though, is the luxury of bringing a quality tempo-changer like Jackson off the bench behind the dynamic KD-and-Russ duo and in support of Serge Ibaka's expert anchor work on D. The Thunder are still a KD-and-Russ operation at their core. They're not getting out of the West unless Westbrook makes his first lasting recovery from this injury.
Verrier: Certainly. In fact, the Thunder's best lineups have come with Jackson filling in at the 1 or sliding next to Westbrook at the 2. As a strong, aggressive, score-first combo guard, Jackson fits the Westbrook profile well, only he's been a slightly better shooter and a better scorer off drives this season. The bigger question may be who fills his void on that increasingly scary second unit.
3. Should the NBA be worried about injuries in the league?
Adande: Sure, the league can worry, but what's that going to accomplish? There are no rule changes that can overcome basic biomechanics. Injuries happen to everyone in this sport eventually. If it seems there are more frequent and more serious injuries, it's due in part to improved diagnostic tools that reveal major damage that players would have pushed on through the discomfort in the past. If there's anything to be changed from Westbrook's case it could be a harsher penalty for any injury caused by action after the whistle blows, such as the Patrick Beverley play that initially damaged Westbrook's knee.
Nowell: Of course. Regardless of whether injuries are more frequent or catastrophic now than previously -- which would be difficult to prove in any case -- the league should always be looking for ways to keep stars healthy. Schedule, some standardization of training practices, nutrition -- these and other areas all make sense for the league to rigorously examine as a way to keep players healthy.
Strauss: Yes, and the NBA should really look into cutting down the schedule. We hear about how the owners don't want the drop in revenue that comes with fewer games. But what about the drop in revenue that comes with decreased interest in starless playoff series? There was hardly any buzz over last year's East playoffs until that Miami-Indiana conference finals. The Rose and Rondo injuries had a huge hand in that diminished interest.
Stein: Of course. Freaked out, actually. The problem is that even shortening the season to the dream target of 58 games -- where each team plays the other 29 only once at home and once away to fix the whole conference inequality thing -- doesn't guarantee that we won't see the exact same rash of injuries. I suspect that the total of games lost to injury this season is not miles higher than the norm. But when the stars are the ones who keep getting hurt, even when the injuries are of the freak variety, panic is inevitable. Understandable, too.
Verrier: I'm more concerned about re-injury. The number of ailments seems around average, but three of last season's most high-profile injuries (Rose, Kobe Bryant, Westbrook) are now back on the sidelines in less than two months of action, with Brook Lopez breaking the same foot he broke two years ago. Maybe recovery, not prevention, is the real battle at hand.
4. Who will finish as the top three seeds in the West?
Adande: 1. Portland. 2. San Antonio 3. Oklahoma City. Portland has been perfect against the East so far and still has 19 games left with Eastern teams. The Spurs win regular-season games even when they don't seem to emphasize it. The good news for the Thunder is they're capable of winning the Western Conference even if they don't have homecourt advantage throughout.
Nowell: 1. San Antonio. 2. Los Angeles Clippers 3. Oklahoma City. The Clippers are gelling and will only get better when J.J. Redick comes back, the Spurs seem to have solved the issue of winning in the regular season for good, and the Thunder are simply too good to fall out of the top tier. Portland and Houston could certainly finish in the top 3, but if forced to choose, I say they finish 4 and 5.
Strauss: 1. Oklahoma City. 2. San Antonio. 3. L.A. Clippers. I believe Oklahoma City will recover in time to nab the top spot, even if it struggles for a while in Westbrook's absence. San Antonio's been a consistent regular-season machine, and the Clippers will receive a boost when Redick returns. I love watching the Trail Blazers, but eventually they'll hit a harder schedule and worse luck in close games.
Stein: 1. San Antonio. 2. Portland. 3. L.A. Clippers. But I'm man enough to admit this is a total guess based on the idea that Portland isn't going anywhere no matter how many times outsiders ask if the Blazers can really keep this up. The Clippers, Rockets and Warriors haven't been consistent enough through the season's opening third to easily project whether they can really capitalize on OKC's misfortune. I imagine OKC is going to sink some -- because you have to believe Westbrook is going to be brought back extra slow this time -- but it wouldn't be a shocker to see the Thunder cling to a top-three seed through the rest of the regular season. They're a resilient group and quite proud of that resilience. They won't just surrender.
Verrier: 1. San Antonio. 2. L.A. Clippers. 3. Oklahoma City. Houston has the firepower to leapfrog into the three spot, with the goods to add more via trade, but this is the only trio that's shown enough on both sides of the ball thus far to maintain a foothold in this top-heavy conference. Consistency wins the regular season, and there's too much to be determined in Portland and Golden State at the moment.
5. Who will win the Western Conference title?
Adande: Oklahoma City. The Spurs were my preseason pick and the first month of the season didn't change my mind. But the way the Thunder had been playing before Westbrook went down did. The playoffs often come down to whose best is better, and if Westbrook can get back to form and the rest of the team stays intact, I like Oklahoma City's best the most.
Nowell: Oklahoma City. I'm assuming the Thunder will be at about the level they've been the past few weeks once Westbrook is back, and that may well be the best team in the league. Any of the West's top 5 teams strike me as viable options with a few breaks, but the Thunder are deeper than they've ever been and just as explosive.
Strauss: I picked the Clippers this preseason, and sticking with that choice means I can only be wrong once. But, if you got me in an interrogation room, I might admit that I secretly think OKC is the favorite. The Thunder have been crushing a difficult schedule and they're a benched Kendrick Perkins away from being unbeatable.
Stein: Nice try. Look at you trying to get me to change my preseason pick before New Year's Day. Something tells me, deep down, that you haven't forgotten how stubborn I am. I picked the Clippers to get out of the West coming into the season and, for all of L.A.'s own warts and injury woes, I haven't see anything that demands me to run away from that pick pretending like I never said such a thing. So I'm stickin' with the Clips. Let it ride.
Verrier: Thunder. Oklahoma City is currently playing better than anyone, and is the only team in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They'll probably slip some in Westbrook's absence, but, barring further knee complications, there's no reason they can't again be that same team upon his return, regardless of what seed they end up with.