The Oklahoma City Thunder will be without Russell Westbrook for at least four weeks -- and as possibly as long as six weeks or more -- after he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, the same one he injured in the playoffs last season. A single loose stitch has created a chaotic opening to training camp for the Thunder, the top seed in the Western Conference last season.
So, now what? Here are five follow-up questions we have:
1. So what's going on?
Westbrook was experiencing swelling in his right knee after undergoing successful surgery to repair, not remove, his torn lateral meniscus. The decision was made to perform arthroscopic surgery on the knee to find the cause of the swelling, and two things were discovered:
1. The meniscus was fully healed. (Good news)
2. A loose stitch caused the swelling and Westbrook will now miss four to six weeks. (Bad news)
Westbrook could have had the meniscus removed in order to make a quicker recovery, but the team took the long view and decided to repair it instead, hoping to maximize Westbrook's career by keeping the meniscus intact. Unfortunately, the view just became a bit longer because of a loose stitch.
That said, complications from this kind of surgery are not uncommon, so in time, this may prove to just be a minor hiccup in Westbrook's recovery. Then again, two surgeries on the same knee is scary.
2. What does this mean for the chase for the top seed?
The Thunder play six games on the road to through their first month of play, the minimum amount of time Westbrook will be out. That's 14 total games, seven of which are against playoff teams from last season. A two-week stretch in November looks particularly daunting with the Clippers, Warriors, Bucks, Nuggets, Clippers, Jazz, Spurs and Warriors all on the schedule.
Two games separated the Thunder from the second-seeded Spurs last season. There were only four games between the first and fifth seeds. The Western Conference was a tight-knight bunch at the top and the Thunder just lost their leader in assists and steals, as well as their second-leading scorer. It's not just their hold on the first seed in the West that is now up for grabs. A few extra losses could cost the team first-round home court advantage in the top-heavy West.
They won 60 games with Westbrook playing in all 82 contests. How many will they win if he misses a month or longer?
3. Can the Thunder survive this better than the playoffs?
The Thunder should be able to handle Westbrook's absence better than they did during the playoffs, where they escaped the Houston Rockets before being eliminated by the Memphis Grizzlies. They won't be facing single teams in a series format, reducing the familiarity level their opponents have. Teams are preparing for multiple teams over a long stretch, adjusting to new personnel with a new season. The Thunder also won't be facing an elite defense like the Grizzlies on a nightly basis.
This isn't an ideal situation for the Thunder, but it will be easier to deal with at the start the regular season than in the middle of it. They have training camp and preseason to begin making adjustments. Oklahoma City is ahead of the injury this time.
4. Will Kevin Durant be able to shoulder the burden without Westbrook?
Kevin Durant joined the 50-40-90 club after his efficient 2012-2013 regular season, but his numbers through the playoffs without Westbrook didn't resemble a player who joined elite shooting company. Defenses were able to key in on Durant without the threat of Westbrook present. Durant shot 45 percent from the field and just 31 percent from beyond the arc -- even his free throw percentage dropped to 83 percent. That was with sharp-shooter Kevin Martin, who shot 42 percent from beyond the arc in the regular season, available to stretch the floor. He won't be there this year, though, because Martin signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.
Durant needs Westbrook more than many realize. Fifty-one percent of Durant's made field goals last season were assisted and 56 percent of those assisted field goals were specifically from Westbrook. By contrast, Durant was assisted on only 27 percent of his made field goals during the 2013 playoffs, according to NBA.com.
Durant is ultra-talented and only 25, but he can't do it alone.
5. Who needs to raise their game?
Westbrook is crucial for Durant's performance, but he's even more important for the Thunder's other players. Tom Ziller took a deep look at Westbrook's shot creation and concluded that he created roughly 25 shots per 36 minute (either for himself or teammates), making him the leagues most frequent shot creator.
The player who immediately comes to mind as a "raise your game" candidate is Serge Ibaka, but he must shed his Westbrook dependence. Ziller notes that Ibaka the player on the Thunder who creates the least amount of shots. Only 24 percent of Ibaka's field goals were unassisted, with Westbrook specifically assisting on 38 percent of his made shots. As of last season, Ibaka's game relied on another player creating opportunities for him.
This leads into the next obvious choice: Reggie Jackson. Jackson is entering his third year in the NBA and averaged just 14 minutes per game in the 70 games he appeared for the Thunder last season. Jackson's first career start was during the playoffs after Westbrook suffered his injury. He averaged 13.9 points and 3.9 assists over 11 playoff games so he has potential.
A deeper look at how he affected the Thunder's offense during the playoffs shows that he totaled 159 field goals and 40 assists over 11 games. The Thunder attempted a total of 898 field goals, meaning Jackson accounted in some way for just 17 percent of the Thunder's total field goals. Training camp and preseason can allow the Thunder time to prepare Jackson for an increased role, but he can't fill the void left by Westbrook.
Projecting a player beyond Ibaka or Jackson being "that guy" becomes foggy with unknown quantities or journeymen like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Derek Fisher and Ryan Gomes filling out the Thunder's roster.
There's no singular path to replace Westbrook on a personnel level, which leads to the person who has to figure this out: Scott Brooks. Brooks no longer has his number one shot creator for the team in Westbrook drawing defenses away and finding the open man. The Thunder's offense needs a blueprint to follow -- off-ball movement and screens to free up Durant, for example -- and can't rely on a freelancing Jackson or suffocated Durant.
If the Thunder are going to survive the loss of Westbrook, they need a more diverse offensive game plan. "Set plays, pet plays, smart plays" should be the slogan going into the season. Brooks has to figure out a way to maximize the talent he has on the court, and the best way to do that is tightening up their half-court offense so that it's less Westbrook-dependent.