Tuesday’s news that Russell Westbrook needs another surgery on his right knee is just the latest blow in a series of setbacks for the 2012 Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC officials say the swelling in Westbrook’s knee is being caused by a stitch that came loose from the original surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus back in May. Thunder general manager Sam Presti says Westbrook was performing well in the early stages of training camp, but when the swelling continued, the team made the decision to have their doctors take another look. And an arthroscopic clean-up procedure will give the three-time All Star the best chance at being 100-percent healthy. Westbrook is expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season.
Long term, losing Westbrook for the first month and a half of the 82-game marathon might not have a big impact on OKC’s title chances, but with the Western Conference looking more evenly balanced than ever, home-court advantage could play a big role in deciding which team ultimately advances to the Finals. And, as we all saw during the Thunder’s second-round playoff loss to Memphis last spring, OKC becomes way too reliant on Kevin Durant when Westbrook isn’t in the lineup. Durant might be the best pure scorer in the league, but when you ask him to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense, his overall effectiveness suffers.
Presti is optimistic the Thunder will get more production from back-up point guard Reggie Jackson, who did average just under 14 points in the playoffs with Westbrook sidelined. But the Thunder didn’t address their need for an impact shooting guard during the offseason because of luxury tax concerns. Kevin Martin signed on with Minnesota as a free agent, leaving the all-important shooting guard spot to ex-Bull Thabo Sefolosha and untested second-year man Jeremy Lamb.
OKC is already offensively challenged inside with shot-blocking specialist Serge Ibaka and former Celtics’ enforcer Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder should have used the one-time amnesty provision on Perkins in the summer of 2012, which could have allowed them to keep dynamic shooting guard James Harden. Installed as the No. 1 scoring option in Houston, Harden emerged last season as an All Star and one of the top 15 players in the league. Now, instead of having a superstar trio of Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the Thunder will rely more than ever on Durant to provide 30-plus points per night.
Thunder owner Clay Bennett might be one of the richest men in the U.S., but he’s instructed his front office not to exceed the luxury tax under any circumstances. That edict forced Presti to trade Harden for pennies on the dollar last year and led to this summer’s decision not to re-sign Martin or make a serious offer to free agent Mike Miller, who was amnestied by Miami. As a result, OKC might not be able to keep up with the likes of San Antonio, Memphis, Houston, Golden State and the L.A. Clippers in a tightly packed Western Conference race.
Durant loves Oklahoma City and probably won’t make any demands for help to the front office, but Presti has to be concerned about keeping his star player happy. I would have loved to eavesdrop on the conversations between Derrick Rose, Durant and Westbrook during their summer workout sessions in Los Angeles. At this point, every star in the NBA not named LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh is trying to come up with a plan to knock off the Heat, and who knows what future partnerships cold be hatched in free agency down the road?
Still, for this season, Oklahoma City looks to be short of offensive firepower in their bid to reclaim the West. And, if Bennett continues to tie the hands of his front office in trying to improve the team, it might not be long before Durant and Westbrook start making noise about looking for a better place to win a title.