How Russell Westbrook's Injury Shakes Up Western Conference

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 27, 2013

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For the Oklahoma City Thunder to survive the treacherous Western Conference waters, they'll have to learn how to survive without their All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. Again.

The 25-year-old, who had a pair of offseason knee surgeries stemming from a torn meniscus he suffered in the 2013 postseason, reportedly went back under the knife on Friday:

Although the three-time All-Star had been showing no signs of struggles—in fact, he had been playing his best basketball of the season of late—swelling and new concerns with his knee reportedly necessitated this procedure:

It's a crushing blow for the Thunder now and, as B/R's injury expert Will Carroll noted, an ominous sign of what this franchise could be facing going forward:

The recurrent nature of Westbrook's knee problems is very concerning. In both the short and long term, we have to worry about any player who has cartilage issues. We've learned that meniscus and articular cartilage problems tend to escalate and shorten careers. Until some of the experimental techniques for repairing and even replacing these structures advance to the point where they can be used on pro athletes, we'll continue to lose athletes to these kinds of injuries.

The worry now is that the meniscus repair failed and that either it was re-injured or that his knee is given forces it can't handle. The Thunder medical staff is one of the best around and they have shown a long-term bias in dealing with Westbrook. We'll have to see what the next step is while wondering if we're seeing Westbrook's chances at a long productive career fade away as he heads under the knife. 

But OKC can't hang its head over a potential long-term worst-case scenario. Not with a present worst-case scenario potentially derailing this team's championship aspirations.

Westbrook's loss obviously puts a tremendous strain on the Thunder, not unlike the one that sent them spiraling to a second-round playoff exit without him last season.

OKC (23-5) had so far managed to establish itself near the top of a fully loaded Western Conference. With top-five standings in both offensive (106.7 points per 100 possessions, fourth) and defensive (97.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, second) efficiency, the Thunder seemed poised to make a furious push to the podium.

That push would have been far easier to make on their home floor. The Thunder are one of just two teams, along with the Indiana Pacers, to have suffered just one home loss on the season.

But hosting multiple playoff series could be in doubt now, even if Westbrook makes a rapid recovery:

Even before this bombshell dropped, OKC was having a hard time separating itself from a crowded field out West. If that separation comes now, there's a good chance it would be the kind the Thunder don't have in mind.

The Portland Trail Blazers already own the NBA's best record (24-5). The Blazers already handled the Thunder once this year, a 111-104 win on Dec. 4, and are slated to meet them again on Dec. 31 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

But Portland isn't the only team that OKC has to worry about.

Any stumble can feel like a nosedive out West. The conference features nine different teams with winning records, with the Minnesota Timberwolves (13-15) and New Orleans Pelicans (12-14) not too far behind.

Even with this kind of depth, the West could grow a bit top-heavy as the season goes along. The Los Angeles Clippers (20-11), Houston Rockets (20-11) and Golden State Warriors (17-13) have all shown flashes of brilliance, but also the expected inconsistency of teams that made major offseason changes.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 13: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder look on during their game at Staples Center on November 13, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
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And don't forget about the San Antonio Spurs (23-7), even though that seems to be our specialty. Gregg Popovich's team is still searching for a signature win, but it holds the league's fourth-best net rating (plus-7.8 points per 100 possessions) nevertheless.

With general manager Sam Presti at the helm, the cupboard is rarely barren. This is no different.

Coach Scott Brooks has a strong stop-gap solution in third-year guard Reggie Jackson (12.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 24.8 minutes per game).

But there's a trickle-down effect in the rotation that could be a bigger concern. Jackson was thriving as OKC's sixth man and backup point guard, roles that now need to be filled by someone else:

Presti may be forced to look outside the organization for extra help.

Jeremy Lamb seems to be coming into his own (9.5 points, .468/.398/1.000 shooting), but it's tough to tell how a 21-year-old will handle a brighter spotlight.

Derek Fisher is 39 years old. Not only does his body seem incapable of handling a heavier load, but he's also struggled mightily in the limited action that he's seen (3.1 points in 13.9 minutes per game, .355/.256 shooting slash.)

Then, there's the tall task of keeping defenders from hounding Kevin Durant on every catch.

That means players like Jackson, Lamb and Serge Ibaka (14.4 points) all must prove they can consistently punish defenses for overcommitting on Durant. Given KD's track record—three scoring titles already, working his way toward a fourth—opposing teams will likely take their chances with letting his supporting cast hurt them.

OKC couldn't handle Westbrook's loss in last season's playoffs, and that group had Kevin Martin to help handle the scoring load. This current roster has gobs of potential, but that potential needs to be realized now.

There is no rest for the weary. The Thunder have no time to mourn this loss.

Whether they have the bodies to withstand this blow is something we'll all be discovering over these next few weeks. It's something they probably don't even know themselves.

But the West won't give them any time to figure it out. The Thunder will be sinking or swimming without Westbrook again...and hoping they can at least keep their head above water this time around.


*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of and


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