How Russell Westbrook's Early Return Would Impact NBA's Title Race

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 30, 2013

April 11, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) rests between plays during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The City Thunder defeated the Warriors 116-97. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook could return to action far sooner than expected, leaving the basketball landscape shifting as we speak.

Westbrook, who suffered a torn meniscus in April, underwent a second procedure at the start of training camp when swelling was discovered on his surgically repaired knee. Initial reports pegged him to be to be out of action at least the first four to six weeks of the regular season.

But league sources have since told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports that Westbrook could return to Scott Brooks' lineup within two weeks.

For a franchise entering the 2013-14 with legitimate title hopes, Westbrook's return can't come soon enough. Despite the organization's impeccable draft record in recent seasons, the influx of youth was forced to surface far sooner than expected.

Oklahoma City is an NBA rarity, a championship contender with question marks up and down the roster. The potential for the Thunder's young players to grow puts a tremendously high ceiling on this team's future, but there are a few more wild cards in the deck than Brooks would like.

If Westbrook can really shed weeks off his recovery time, then those question marks are greatly reduced. With the speedy point guard leading the charge, Oklahoma City has an extra gear few NBA teams can match.


Controlled Growing Pains

Replacing a battle-tested floor general like Westbrook is incredibly different, if not outright impossible.

Seasoned NBA vets would struggle to fill his shoes. But Westbrook's understudy Reggie Jackson, who's logged fewer than 15 minutes a night over his first two seasons, is as about as green as it gets.

He's one of the few players in this league who could keep pace with Westbrook in a foot race, but the UCLA product brings more than just game-changing speed to the hardwood.

He understands how to increase the tempo without losing control of the offense. His quickness is unleashed in composed bursts, whether out in the open floor or speeding around screens on the perimeter.

If he makes it all the way to the basket, his strength and ability to contort his body help him finish his drives (61.2 percent shooting at the rim last season) or earn trips to the foul line (7.0 free-throw attempts per game). When defenses clog the middle, he can stop on a dime from mid-range (40.0 percent from 10-16 feet) or find his scorers with pinpoint deliveries (7.4 assists).

Jackson can match Westbrook's finishing ability at the basket (74.2 percent), but the rest of his game is still a work in progress. He doesn't have the confidence in his jump shot (30.2 percent from beyond 10 feet) to break off his drive when defenders give him space.

When Westbrook went down after Game 2 of Oklahoma City's opening-round series last season, Brooks handed the playmaking duties over to three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, not Jackson. Durant averaged 6.2 assists over those final nine games, while Jackson managed only 3.7.

More of a scorer (career 12.7 points per game) than setup man (3.5 assists) during his three years at Boston College, Jackson's still learning the process of leading an offense. But with Westbrook still unavailable, Jackson's forced to take on this oversized role in his absence.

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And he's not the only one affected.

Jeremy Lamb, who spent nearly as much of his rookie season in the D-League (21 games) as he did in the NBA (23), is now lined up for the sixth man role that was originally set aside for Jackson.

In a best-case scenario, Brooks could slowly build his young players' job descriptions. On good nights, they'd be given a chance to pad their stat lines and build confidence. During the rough ones, Brooks could keep those unavoidable growing pains from impacting the standings.

But Westbrook's injury never happens in a best-case scenario.

Practice time can't prepare these young guns for the game situations they're about to face. Learning on the fly is bad enough, but the difficulty layer grows exponentially considering the expectation level for this team.


Clock Is Ticking

The Thunder don't have nearly as much mileage as the typical championship-or-bust team.

All five members of Brooks' starting group are on the right side of 30. Three of the five are under the age of 26: Westbrook (24), Durant (25) and Serge Ibaka (24).

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Despite what their track record suggests—.679 winning percentage over the last four seasons—the Thunder may not have played their best basketball yet.

Durant is still in the early stages of complementing his dominant scoring ability (career 26.6 points per game) with a well-rounded skill set (career-best 4.6 assists and 1.3 blocks last season). Ibaka's offensive ceiling enjoyed a serious growth spurt last season (career-high 13.2 points per game), but he's still a long way from holding the third scorer's role that James Harden used to fill.

Westbrook himself has yet to realize his full potential. His turnovers, while decreasing, still haven't gotten as low as he'd like (3.3 turnovers per game last season). His lack of a three-point shot (career 30.2 percent) still leaves him over-reliant on inefficient long twos.

But the pressure for this core to perform is no different as it is with the Miami Heat's Big Three or the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls.

Following Oklahoma City's fruitless trip to the 2012 NBA Finals, Durant admitted that the allure of the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy grew too great last season, via Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Last year, I was obsessed with it. Like, I wasn't going to sleep because I wanted to win so bad. I was screaming at my teammates, at the refs, at the coaches. I got mad because I thought if we have a bad game here, we're not going to win a championship.

Call it the peril of greatness.

The Thunder know they have the talent in place to win a title, but things outside of their control can derail that dream.

Two seasons ago they were blitzed by the freight train known as LeBron James (28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the 2012 NBA Finals). Last season their championship plans fell apart after Westbrook went down.

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These aren't excuses, just facts.

So, too, is the fact that Oklahoma City could be just months away from celebrating the franchise's first title since the Seattle SuperSonics captured the crown in 1978.

Assuming Westbrook is healthy, of course.

A handful of DNPs to start the season is far from disastrous. It could even be advantageous if it hastens the young guns' development in his absence.


Thunder's Position in the Championship Field

Oklahoma City should be entrenched on the championship front lines, yet it feels like this powerhouse is lurking in the shadows.

Of the 28 experts who made championship predictions for, not a single one selected the Thunder. Either there's a bigger Kevin Martin fanbase than I ever imagined, or people are simply underselling this franchise:

The Thunder ripped off a conference-best 60 wins in 2012-13. Their plus-9.2 point differential was the NBA's best.

Martin was the only notable name lost from that group. Does a one-dimensional scorer really make that much of a difference?

Sure, there's a gamble to be made on a team with this many young bodies in the rotation.

But who's to say Jackson and Lamb can't replace Martin's scoring while bringing more athleticism and better defense in the process? Or that rookie Steven Adams and sophomore Perry Jones III can't add more elements to Oklahoma City's frontcourt?

Teams have a hard enough time simply stopping the dynamic duo of Westbrook and Durant. Any leaps made by the rest of the roster—Ibaka, Jackson, Lamb, Adams, Jones, Andre Roberson—only increase the difficulty of solving this offensive puzzle.

Switching sides, the Thunder are a terror defensively. Oklahoma City's 102.6 defensive rating was third-best in the league in 2012-13. Adding the 7'0" Adams and replacing the matador Martin will only strengthen this team's defense.

The 6'3", 200-pound Westbrook raises this team's profile at both ends of the floor. He pulls defenders away from Durant and changes plays defensively with his physicality and tenacity.

The sooner he's ready to go, the closer Oklahoma City can get to securing home-court advantage in the postseason. The Thunder have dropped just 14 games combined in the last two seasons at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Maybe Oklahoma City's run gets extinguished in the NBA Finals once again. Maybe the Chicago Bulls are too tough, the Indiana Pacers are too big or the Miami Heat are too experienced for Oklahoma City to handle.

But the Thunder will stick around long enough to find out. And anything can happen when Durant and Westbrook are clicking on all cylinders.