Russell Westbrook's injury sends Thunder reeling into the great unknown
The news of Russell Westbrook's meniscus tear and ensuing surgery is glum reminder that the most powerful force in the basketball universe is luck. It has derailed titans and unseated contenders, and in this case could cause the Thunder a wide range of potential trouble as they attempt to return to the Finals.
With Westbrook sidelined indefinitely, the ball-handling duties will likely fall to Reggie Jackson -- the speedster reserve guard who made Eric Maynor expendable in OKC this season -- and Derek Fisher -- who is hanging onto an NBA roster spot by way of the Thunder's generosity. That may not be a particularly inspiring combination, but Jackson has done a decent job in helping to operate Oklahoma City's second-unit offense this season. He still falls well short of the standard for intensity and shot-creation that Westbrook sets nightly, but Jackson's quickness and caution with the ball (he committed a turnover just 1.9 times per 36 minutes during the regular season) position him to succeed a higher-usage role.
So much of what the Thunder run on offense is predicated on Westbrook's unique talents (his ability to draw contact, his pull-up capability, the fear he causes with his drives), making it a sound bet that OKC's go-to sets and actions won't have quite the same bite without him. Jackson will need to be ready to cut and Fisher ready to fire (though I can't recall a time where he wasn't) at all times, and the Thunder offense on the whole will need pitch-perfect spacing to ensure that Durant isn't totally swarmed by opposing defenses.
That's less of a concern against Houston than it would be against a potential second-round opponent, but the very thought may make Oklahoma City's small-ball options more enticing than ever before. It's hard to project the Westbrook-less Thunder's weaknesses with any certainty given that Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka (as a tandem) have played a whopping 34 minutes this season without Westbrook on the court, per NBA Wowy, but I'd suspect that a better defensive team would be able to cheat away from Jackson, Perkins, Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha too easily for Durant to consistently create good looks. Swapping out Sefolosha for Kevin Martin might serve as a spot solution, but the defensive trade-off between the two would prove painful in a series where the Thunder also have to find ways to limit the influence of James Harden. Surely the Thunder rue that painful bit of coincidence.
An added complication comes by way of a game progression in which Westbrook often functions as a first-quarter dynamo. Only one other player (Carmelo Anthony) posted a higher usage rate in first quarters this season, in large part because Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks has built his team's early game offense around Westbrook's inextinguishable energy. One can almost hear Westbrook's motor revving from the moment his sneakers hit hardwood, and from the opening tip he surges and screams as if every possession were the emotional climax of a Game 7. He's pure kinetic energy, and though a player like Jackson may be able to match Westbrook's end-to-end speed, he won't produce comparably and can't manage the same instant electricity. That's a bit less tangible than some of the Thunder's other concerns, but the kind of dynamic that shouldn't be overlooked in terms of how Oklahoma City goes about managing this unexpected loss.
This will be a massive adjustment for the Thunder -- both because of the wealth of production lost and because of the complete lack of familiarity in terms of Jackson's function in Oklahoma City's top lineups. His most common usage this season by far has come in a unit that also featured three other reserves, though, to his benefit, Jackson logged almost 500 minutes alongside Kevin Durant over the course of the regular season. Jackson and Durant haven't demonstrated much in the way of specific chemistry, but that pairing seemed designed to alleviate some of the playmaking burden on Jackson while empowering Durant to do more with the ball in his hands.
We're likely to see plenty more of that pairing, with Durant being called upon to be a dominant scorer, ball handler, playmaker and rebounder (let's not forget that Westbrook rebounds as effectively as a solid small forward) until the Thunder's injured All-Star returns. Durant is capable of obliging in many of those capacities, but the great unknown is how opponents -- starting with the Rockets -- will defend against a lineup they've never really seen before.
The lack of a precedent in all of this is startling. (The presumptive starting five of Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins has seen just 19 minutes of action together this season.) Other stars have sat out for the sake of injury or rest, but Westbrook has rather famously never missed a game in his entire basketball career. He's an active part of most every Thunder possession, for better or worse, and takes an incalculable amount of heat off of Durant, Martin and Ibaka just by being on the court. Yet now there exists a sudden and undeniable void. This is not a contingency that Oklahoma City is at all prepared for, which in itself leaves this team in a unique and terrifying space. We could see more from Durant or Jackson than we ever anticipated, and in the process see an outstanding team grow to fit a new mold. We could see Durant, finally in a position to fire at will, overwhelmed and Westbrook's impact made more pronounced. We could see the full range of trial and error, as a team redefines itself under constant duress. But for now, we can only be certain of just how little we know about a Thunder team without Westbrook, and how much is still to be determined in a Western Conference field that just became astonishingly competitive.