How Russell Westbrook’s absence will affect the OKC Thunder


Dec 25, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) controls the ball against New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler (6) during the second quarter of a game at Madison Square Garden. The Thunder defeated the Knicks 123-94. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The shocking news came out yesterday that Russell Westbrook went under yet another knee surgery and he will be out until after the All-Star break.

This is the third surgery Westbrook has had on his right knee since injuring it in Game 2 of the Thunder’s first round series vs. the Rockets in last year’s playoffs. The surgery Westbrook underwent Friday was because there was swelling in the knee that would have only gotten worse had Westbrook not had the surgery.

What does this mean for the Thunder? They are currently tied with Portland for the best record in the NBA at 24-5. Do they still have a shot at the one seed? Will Westbrook’s absence now cost the Thunder later?

The Thunder have been preparing for no Westbrook since he got hurt in the playoffs last season. It was originally expected that he would miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season, but it turned out he would only miss the first two games.

In those first two games without Westbrook, we basically saw the same stagnant team that fell in five games to the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Semifinals. There was less movement on offense, less plays being made on defense and the Thunder looked like a .500 team, albeit in a very small sample size.

Last night, the Thunder survived in Charlotte against the Bobcats, pulling out an 89-85 win. The pace was not the usual one for OKC and they didn’t get the same good shots they typically do when Westbrook is in the lineup.

We all have realized just how valuable Westbrook is to this Thunder team. It’s really quite incredible how different the team looks without him. My theory as to why has to do with Scott Brooks’ design offensively. The Thunder don’t run the kind of system that Miami or San Antonio does so all of their pieces are not as interchangeable. Instead, Brooks looks to put KD and Russ in positions where they can be successful. The offense relies quite a bit on their ability to create and put pressure on the defense in ways that few others can.

So what we see when it’s Reggie Jackson starting instead of Westbrook is less random good things occurring. Westbrook will decide to turn a relaxed transition opportunity into a fierce drive to the basket with a split-second decision. When he comes off picks, the defense repels a little bit more because of how explosive he can be. Even the pull-up jumpers Westbrook takes come with such certainty that it feels like he almost tricks the defense into respecting them a little too much.

Westbrook doesn’t always make the right decision, but in the heat of the moment, he is always certain about whatever decision he makes. He plays at a speed that no one else in the NBA does. That can result in out of control plays, but much more so it results in possessions where he has a huge advantage against almost any defense.

Jackson has had his confidence grow leaps and bounds this season and for good reason. He is producing at the highest rate of his career. He’s fantastic driving in the paint, his jumper is improving and his decision making as a passer is also getting a lot better. No one expects him to be Russell Westbrook, but the problem is, the Thunder offense (especially the starters) can only remain elite if a Russell Westbrook is in the lineup.

You just can’t afford to have such little outside shooting and Kendrick Perkins on the floor at the same time unless you have Westbrook, who can always make something out of nothing and always has the defense on their heels.

So I’m not knocking Jackson in any way. He’s been great this season in his role. But trying to fill in at Westbrook’s spot is almost unfair for him. We saw him struggle from the field last night shooting 4-of-19. You could tell his mindset was forced to change somewhat now that he was starting and not coming off the bench. He won’t be able to feast on second units anymore and will have to deal with starters.

Jackson has to be the starter in Westbrook’s absence, but it leaves the Thunder hurting with their second unit a lot too. With Derek Fisher running point essentially with the bench squad, the Thunder will be in trouble. Fisher is not a point guard in this league anymore. He can spread the floor, make smart plays within his limitations and provide leadership, but he can no longer make things happen as a ball handler.

The Thunder will miss those minutes Jackson ran with the second unit. It might mean less good looks for Jeremy Lamb, Brooks changing the rotation to feature Durant with the second unit more and overall, the Thunder less capable of growing leads or coming back in games.

The way the Thunder are constructed, they rely so much on Westbrook and Durant. Take one of those two guys away and so much gets affected on this team. It’s not just about replacing what Westbrook did. It’s going to be hard enough to make sure every other player can produce at the same level when Westbrook was in the lineup.

Westbrook was the spark that the Thunder needed every night. Right now, they don’t have anyone else who can replace that. Imagine the Thunder now as a car in the cold. You have to turn the key in the ignition to start it before every game, but now they have a bad battery. Some nights that car won’t be starting and the Thunder will be losing. Hopefully, they can get it going enough to survive the cold winter until their battery returns after the All-Star break.