Sometimes, in difficult times, people turn to music to help ease their struggles. Just jump in the car or slip the headphones on, and let Pandora, Spotify, or whatever you use take you to where you really want to go. That’s how I find myself relating to Russell Westbrook’s latest setback. On December 27th, the Oklahoma City Thunder sent out a press release advising that Russell Westbrook had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and would be out until after the All Star break. The press release stated that while Westbrook had not been experiencing any lingering pain in his knee, there had been some acute swelling that had occurred as of late. The team performed an MRI which showed an area of concern and decided to do the arthroscopic surgery. Those are the current facts the Thunder organization is letting out.
In this song, Jay-Z raps about how he and a cohort got into the drug trade together, but things quickly soured when his friend got picked up by the police. While the premise of the song (drug trafficking, snitching, police involvement, etc) holds no water to the Thunder and their players, hopefully, the chorus is a different story. It was all good just a week ago. In fact, it’s been all great for the past 6 weeks. In that span, the Thunder have gone 17-2 and have undoubtedly joined the ranks as one of the top title contenders in the league. It wasn’t that they were just winning games; they were beginning to throttle and dismantle opponents with their aggressive, attacking brand of basketball. And that was all spearheaded by the return of Russell Westbrook in the 3rd game of the season.
Now, we’re back to where we were in the beginning of the season. The angst that we are feeling now is the same angst that we should have been feeling for the first 4-6 weeks of the season, which was originally the amount of time Westbrook was supposed to be out when he had his first arthroscopic surgery on October 1st. But he came back about 5 weeks earlier than expected and was playing extremely well as of late.
Kevin Durant will never verbally admit it, but he knows that he can’t win a title without a healthy Russell Westbrook. He got a taste of that in the playoffs last season, and will get another swig of that vile flavor for the next 4-6 weeks. As apt as Reggie Jackson has been at handling the starting point guard duties in Westbrook’s absence, he lacks that “it” that drives this team. More specifically, he lacks that “eff you and the horse your rode on” mentality that Westbrook brings to the court that permeates to his teammates through the process of teammate osmosis. Without that, the Thunder are literally a shell of themselves. Now mind you, that shell is better than 75% of the league, but not enough to get the Thunder to the top.
We Thunder fans know what we have in front of us. We know, when the team is healthy, we have one of the top 3 teams in the league, without question. But this is going to hurt. In the span that Westbrook is supposed to be out, we are going to face Portland (three times), Houston (twice, DAMN YOU PATRICK BEVERLY), Minnesota (twice), San Antonio (at their place), Golden State, and Miami (probably twice). Can we beat these teams? Of course. But the margin of error goes down to basically zero when we play these opponents. The measuring stick of the next 4-6 weeks may be completely different than the measuring stick heading into the playoffs if Westbrook comes back healthy. For some of us Thunder fans, a 4-6 week coma may be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Everyone loves the back-up quarterback in football. Team execs get wooed by 1-2 game performances during a season and try everything to get that back-up quarterback to be their starter. Sometimes it works. And sometimes a back-up quarterback is just a back-up quarterback. It’s no different in the NBA when it comes to back-up point guards. Three years ago, when the young Thunder were first coming up, everyone was looking at Eric Maynor and wondering, “Wow, he could start for half the teams in the league.” In hindsight, though, Maynor was probably nothing more than a product of not only the system, but also of playing next to James Harden.
Reggie Jackson recently signed with uber-sport agency CAA in anticipation of his upcoming extension/restricted free agency eligibility. After this season, Reggie Jackson is eligible for an extension from the Thunder. If the Thunder decide to not extend Jackson this offseason, then he enters into restricted free agency in the 2015 offseason, where any team can sign him to an offer sheet and the Thunder have 3 days to match it. The latest example of the “best back-up point guard” getting a lot of love is Eric Bledsoe of the Phoenix Suns. For the three season prior to this one, Bledsoe was Chris Paul’s back-up in Los Angeles and even played a lot with Paul in small ball lineups. His athletic style of play garnered many looks from fans on up to team executives. Since Bledsoe is now starting for the Suns, the next guy on that “best back-up point guard” totem pole is Jackson.
Jackson proved his mettle in last season’s playoffs, subbing in for the injured Westbrook, and putting on a Westbrook-lite performance. He has shown some improvement on his mid-range and 3-point shooting and is starting to learn how to manage being a floor general and a scorer. All the media pundits on ESPN, TNT, and NBATV are starting to rave about Jackson and that usually means added exposure. That added exposure usually equates to not only added scrutiny, but also added praise if he continues to perform as he has all season. If Jackson increases his averages during this 4-6 week period, especially against the upcoming competition, he may likely see his bank account skyrocket in the foreseeable future.
Bill Simmons and Patrick Beverly. Yeah, laugh it up fellas. We’ll get the last laugh when its all said and done.
All three of these songs have different elements of Westbrook’s game and how his knees react to it. If there’s one thing about Westbrook, it’s that he didn’t change his game at all, knees be damned. His first game back he was dunking and flying all over the place. While the timing may have been a bit off and the explosiveness may have gone down by 5%, the game did not change. Westbrook’s only speed is still GO! A mad man on the court that just flies around and revels in the havoc and chaos. But in the end, is Westbrook’s style of play conducive to his future health?
Three surgeries in a little over 8 months. It doesn’t matter if it is a knee or a tooth. If you dig metallic objects into flesh in an invasive fashion three times in an 8 month period, that area is never going to be 100% the same. I think the problem with Westbrook was that he rehabbed from the knee injury, but never got the time to recover. He went directly from rehabbing from the meniscus tear to rehabbing from the arthroscopic surgery to playing his brand of basketball. All that contorting and friction on his knees was dangerous before he suffered an injury. But now, after two surgeries, this was almost bound to happen. He never had a chance to recover from all the surgeries. The future ramifications of this is unknown. Athletes have arthroscopic surgeries all the time, but those that rely heavily on athleticism, tend to suffer the most from repeated surgeries. If there’s one man that can buck the trend, though, I hope it’s Westbrook.