Russell Westbrook Shouldn't Rush Return for Championship-or-Bust Thunder

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Russell Westbrook Shouldn't Rush Return for Championship-or-Bust Thunder
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook could return to game action within the next two weeks. Westbrook has spent the past six months recovering from a torn meniscus injury and missed his first career regular-season game Oct. 30.

For a Thunder team that's reached a level of greatness that requires the "Championship or bust" motto, it's critical that Westbrook takes his time to return.

Westbrook suffered the injury Apr. 24, 2013 during the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs against the Houston Rockets. He was forced to undergo a second procedure in early October when a loose stitch caused swelling in his knee.

Should he return in the reported two-week time period, it'd be at least two weeks ahead of schedule, per Wojnarowski.

Oklahoma Thunder star Russell Westbrook has made significant progress in his recovery from a second surgical procedure on his knee and could return to the Thunder's lineup within two weeks, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Thunder issued an original timetable of six to eight weeks from Wednesday's opening night for Westbrook, but barring an unforeseen setback he could be back in the lineup by mid-November.

That would be a dream scenario for the Thunder, but it can't be viewed in such a black-and-white manner. There is a grey area.

In order for Oklahoma City to call this season a success, it will need to win the NBA championship. I find it absurd that a core of under-25 players could face that burden of pressure, but due to their past success, that's the way it is.

For that reason, Westbrook needs to be healthy—not healthy enough.

 

Needed for the Long Haul

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

The Thunder have two of the top 10 pure scorers in the NBA with Westbrook and three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. Both players can slash, work off of the ball and, most importantly, create their own shot when facing man or zone defensive sets.

All biases put aside, there's no one else on the roster who has proven capable of helping shoulder the offensive load.

Durant and Westbrook accounted for 48.5 percent of the Thunder's total scoring during the 2012-13 regular season. Durant averaged 28.1 points, while Westbrook tallied 23.2 out of Oklahoma City's 105.7 points scored per game.

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Furthermore, the duo combined to tally 56.1 percent of the Thunder's average in assists per game. Westbrook posted 7.4 and Durant managed a career-high 4.6—Oklahoma City managed a cumulative average of 21.4 dimes per contest.

In case you aren't getting the picture, this team doesn't score very often without Durant and Westbrook.

According to NBA.com, Oklahoma City averaged 108.3 points per 48 minutes when Westbrook was on the floor and 99.1 when he was on the bench. It shot 48.9 percent from the field and 39.9 percent from distance with Westbrook active, per NBA.com.

Now, the Thunder will attempt to move forward without the only other player on the roster who could create his own looks: Kevin Martin.

Martin averaged 14.0 points on a team-best 42.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc during the 2012-13 regular season. OKC proceeded to let him walk, and Martin eventually signed a contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Now, the Thunder will turn to Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb to go from unproven commodities to borderline All-Stars. That's a risky approach, and that's exactly why the Thunder need Westbrook to be healthy.

 

No One Else Can Create

Serge Ibaka has developed into a dangerous mid-range jump-shooter, but he can't put it on the floor and has a weak low-post game. Jackson and Lamb have upside as scorers, but neither have put it together for a full season of double-digit scoring in the NBA.

Seeing as no one but Durant and Westbrook can create their own looks, the latter's availability during the postseason is far more important than it is during the opening month of the regular season.

Jackson has displayed upside, but he's attempting to fill the shoes of either James Harden or Westbrook—two top-10 players. Lamb, a second-year player who saw limited minutes as a rookie, is attempting to serve that same purpose.

Both Jackson and Lamb could become Sixth Man of the Year award candidates, but Oklahoma City can't deal in possibilities. It needs certainty.

Oklahoma City may receive mountains of praise for drafting Durant, James Harden, Ibaka and Westbrook, but it hasn't added anything of established offensive significance since those drafts. Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha are excellent defenders, but they're also limited on the other end.

Adding Steven Adams, Jackson and Lamb helps, but there's no telling how ready any of those players are to contribute in 2013-14.

What this all adds up to is that the NBA community has spent so much time focusing on the big names that it's failed to see the team's recent offseason failures. No one on the roster but Durant and Westbrook have proven capable of consistently creating their own shot, and the front office failed to add a necessary shooter.

If Westbrook wants to help his team pursue a championship, he needs to take the necessary time to fully recover and be the elite player that Oklahoma City needs him to be. Rushing back will do nothing but hinder that development.

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