The ripple effects of Russell Westbrook's surgery
When Russell Westbrook returns from his latest knee surgery, his absence will have had a ripple effect across the Thunder.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Westbrook will recover from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to play a majority of the season. But Westbrook's procedure has already paved the way for some silver linings and potential pitfalls for the Thunder ahead.
Less now, more later
In the short term, Westbrook being re-evaluated in four weeks and missing most, if not all, of preseason, may be a positive. It equates to less wear and tear on Westbrook's legs in preseason practice and games.
Arthroscopic knee surgery is relatively common among NBA players whose knee cartilage takes a pounding year-after-year. Westbrook has shown to be extremely durable in the years since his initial trio of right knee surgeries in 2013.
The concern is the future. The soon-to-be-30-year-old plays a style which will continue to wear away at his knees. Westbrook had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left knee last summer to alleviate chronic soreness.
Dr. Joshua Dines is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Dines said the good news is Westbrook isn't dealing with the severity of an ACL or a bad meniscus tear that would require longer recoveries. But there's an effect to numerous arthroscopic surgeries.
“Any time you've had three of four clean ups, each time you go in there there's sort of less cartilage,” Dines told The Oklahoman. “So at some point, you get to a point where it's almost an arthritis situation.”
It's unclear how Westbrook will age in the next five years of his $205 million extension. Dines said new data and treatment could emerge to help athletes with knee ailments, similar to research revealing the benefits of PRP injection for arthritis sufferers.
As for the present, Dines said he's seen athletes come back from arthroscopic surgery anywhere from three to eight weeks. Westbrook took eight weeks to return from his last arthroscopic surgery in 2013, but that came after two previous surgeries and included the All-Star break.
“The quicker they get the swelling out of there, the quicker their quad strength is going to come back, and they'll be safe enough to return,” Dines said. “The timing of the season benefits the Thunder in that you can be a little bit more conservative and not have to push too much.”
Time to grow
The Thunder also doesn't have to push as much because of Dennis Schroder, who could benefit from Westbrook's absence.
Schroder getting Westbrook's first-team reps in training camp could help accelerate the on-court relationship between the 24-year-old and Paul George, a tandem which will be utilized in second units. Raymond Felton was a clear upgrade to the Thunder's backup point guard spot last season, but he and George never found consistent success. Thunder lineups with Felton and George were outscored by 7.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
For as talented as Westbrook is and as many positives as he provides, his dominance in isolation can slow down the intended offense of Billy Donovan, who wants more ball movement and pace. Additional repetitions for wing players such as Abdel Nader, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson in camp won't hurt that.
What will hurt is less time for Schroder and Westbrook to build chemistry. The Thunder wants to play Schroder and Westbrook together to maximize their speed and athleticism and put pressure on opposing defenses. Westbrook's surgery means less time for two similarly-styled players to grow accustom to each other.
Slow start, the sequel?
Last season, the Thunder notoriously started 8-12 as Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony struggled to find offensive rhythm.
This season, the Thunder can ill-afford such a start in a deeper Western Conference. Fifteen of the Thunder's first 24 games are against teams who didn't make the playoffs in 2018. That doesn't include two games against the post-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers.
With or without Westbrook, the Thunder has an opportunity in the first quarter of the season to get out to a fast start. Westbrook may not even miss any regular-season games. In the event that he does, the Thunder should still be able to practice better defensive discipline, pace and ball movement in the first weeks of the season. Westbrook being out shouldn't determine overall improvement.
Even if Andre Roberson (those inside the Thunder still see Roberson on track in his rehab from a ruptured left patellar tendon, but he won't be 100 percent to start the season), and Westbrook don't start the season, the Thunder can ill afford to start poorly again. Westbrook's surgery only increased the degree of difficulty.