Early Russell Westbrook Return Would Put OKC Thunder Back in Title Contention

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 22, 2013

EDMOND, OK - SEPTEMBER 27: (LtoR) Serge Ibaka #9, Thabo Sefolosha #25, Russell Westbrook #0, Kenrick Perkins #5, and Kevin Durant #35 poses for a portrait during 2013 NBA Media Day on September 27, 2013 at the Thunder Events Center in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
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When NBA iron man Russell Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus during the 2013 playoffs, no one was quite sure how to process the injury.

After all, the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder point guard had no injury history to draw from.

Prior to Game 3 of the Thunder's opening-round series with the Houston Rockets, he'd never missed an NBA game. He was also a full-time participant during two seasons at UCLA. Via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, Westbrook never even missed a contest while suiting up for Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, Calif.

So the pundits did what they always do when medical red flags fly. They broke out their medical books, fired up their web browsers and scanned for past precedents. After surgery, Westbrook's rehab window was set for anywhere from two-to-eight weeks.

While obviously derailing Oklahoma City's 2012-13 campaign, the injury wasn't supposed to carry over beyond that season. That was until Westbrook underwent a second procedure on his right knee near the start of training camp, presumably costing him the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season.

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For the second time in less than a month, though, his rehab has taken an unexpected wrinkle. Via Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman, the three-time All-Star was a partial participant in practice on Monday.

“There were bits and pieces where Russell participated in practice, so that was good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks told Slater. “It was good to get everybody out there, working together.”

According to Thunder sixth manWestbrook's placeholder in the starting fiveReggie Jackson, Westbrook more than impressed in his return to the hardwood. "Oh, man. Russell today..." Jackson said, via Slater. "One of the dunks (today), he went up and looked like the old Russell, plus some, head at the rim."

The highlight reels have already started spinning in anticipation of Westbrook's return. Between his explosive athleticism and larger-than-life personality, few players have pieced together more action-packed game film.

But this is bigger than posters and eye-popping clips. There are championship aspirations at stake, and the odds of realizing those goals grow exponentially with the inclusion of Westbrook.

Detractors still are not convinced that Westbrook can quarterback a championship team. They say he's too ball-dominant, that he forces inefficient looks instead of deferring to three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant.

Traditionalists cannot picture Westbrook as a championship-caliber point guard, because they do not view him as a "pure" point guard. But that fails to capture the changing face of the position, the growing responsibility list that includes so much more than simply setting the table.

Five of the league's top 15 scorers in 2012-13 were point guards, a group paced by Westbrook and his 23.2 points per game (sixth highest). Three others (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and James Harden) handled traditional point guard duties by initiating their team's offense.

Westbrook also led all point guards in rebounds (5.2 a night) and finished sixth in steals (1.8). Restricting his game by placing him in an outdated box judged solely by his passing ability hinders the exact things that make him a transcendent talent.

But even by traditional measures, Westbrook grades out far better than his critics would like to admit. He might not set the table the way pundits would like, but he could hold his own in an etiquette training course.

He tied for the seventh most assists (7.4) last season. He's shred more than four percentage points off his turnover rate over the course of his career (13.2 down from 17.6) while seeing a seven-point rise is his usage rate (32.8 up from 25.8).

Any team would welcome a floor general like Westbrook, but his importance to the Thunder is the difference between regular-season success and the ultimate postseason triumph.

Oklahoma City was severely weakened by Westbrook's loss last season. After opening the playoffs with back-to-back wins, the Thunder managed just three victories over their final nine games.

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The Thunder's hierarchy with Westbrook, convoluted as it may seem at times, presented offensive puzzles that were impossible to solve. Overcommit to Durant, and Westbrook would keep the scoreboard rolling. Form defensive gameplans around stopping the two, and Oklahoma City's complementary pieces would add the notches to the win column.

The Thunder's role players are not ready for a trip under the spotlight.

The addition of a three-point stroke has helped, but the absence of a reliable low-post game limits Serge Ibaka's potential production. Jackson's better served for the sixth man he's been prepping for as opposed to another run with Brooks' starters. Young guns Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III and rookie Steven Adams all have high ceilings, but their basements remain low until proven otherwise.

The longer Westbrook is on the pine, the more time those players will spend out of place. Ibaka will attempt to fill the second scorer role he's not equipped to play. Jackson's run as a miscast starter will continue. Lamb, who spent nearly as much time in the D-League (21 games) as the NBA (23) during his rookie season, will try to fill the sixth man shoes vacated first by James Harden, then later by Kevin Martin.

But it's the four-time All-Star Durant that stands to lose the most without Westbrook. As freakishly gifted as he is, there is not a player yet who can consistently thrive when facing double (or even triple) teams.

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He tried his best in those nine playoff games without Westbrook last season (31.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists), but his shooting percentages told the big-picture story of Westbrook's absence. Fresh off a career shooting slash during the regular season (.510/.416/.905), Durant dropped back to mortality without his dynamic running mate (.461/.339/.811).

No one means more to the Thunder's success than Durant, but no one means more to Durant's success than Westbrook. Westbrook's a top-10 scorer defenses must respect, which inevitably leaves them vulnerable to lethal "Durantula" bites.

For all of those doomsday predictions that surrounded this franchise in the wake of the Harden trade, the Thunder remained an NBA power without him. Oklahoma City paced the Western Conference with 60 wins during the regular season. The Thunder's plus-9.2 point differential was the NBA's best in 2012-13.

That kind of dominance would not survive a lengthy Westbrook absence. But if he's back sooner than later, Oklahoma City's championship window is wide open.

Durant is the Thunder's engine, but Westbrook is the accelerator. He has an extra gear (maybe several) that other NBA players don't, and he can downshift on a dime. He's a terror in the open court and far-better-than-advertised when the pace of play slows.

The West is a rare combination of top-heavy and incredibly deep teams, flush with championship contenders and tough playoff outs alike.

But no team in the conference strikes more fear in their opponents than the Thunder. Oklahoma City has experience, peak performers and high-potential players.

Brooks has some big uglies (Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison) to bang with oversized frontcourts. He can employ Westbrook, Jackson and Lamb (or Thabo Sefolosha) on the perimeter and Durant with Ibaka up front against those trendy, undersized attacks. The Thunder can overwhelm with offense or dominate defensively.

That's assuming, of course, Westbrook is ready to go. It's a tough assumption to make, but then again, so is any assumption when it comes to his health.