Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
We've seen Oklahoma City have success both with and without Russell Westbrook this season, which is actually a new development.
Remember, Kevin Durant couldn't carry the Thunder on his own during last year's playoffs. With Westbrook sidelined with a torn meniscus, the Memphis Grizzlies eliminated OKC in five games in the second round. After that dismantling, it seemed crazy to question Westbrook's immense value to his team.
Now, though, the calculus has changed. Westbrook has undergone three knee operations in less than a year, and it's fair to wonder whether his superhuman athleticism (always his most valuable asset) is somewhat diminished.
During Westbrook's most recent absence, Durant used all of January and most of February to take his game to another level. And in the few games he's played since returning, Westbrook hasn't done much to prove he can seamlessly fit in alongside his superstar teammate.
The Thunder have now lost Westbrook's first three games back, and the point guard has gunned his way to a combined 15-of-42 shooting performance in those contests. Worse still, the ball hasn't spent nearly enough time in Durant's hands.
OKC isn't dealing with a question of style or fit anymore. Now, there's also justifiable concern about Westbrook's physical abilities. Before, the Thunder accepted Westbrook's bad shots and overdribbling because he was such a phenomenal athlete, capable of terrorizing opponents with relentless drives in the half court and on the break.
If he can't be that guy anymore, Oklahoma City will have to face the tricky balancing act of keeping Westbrook engaged while simultaneously diminishing his role.
Look, the sample size of Westbrook's latest return is extremely small. And for what it's worth, the Thunder's most important figure isn't interested in changing his recovering teammate's role. Per Craig A. Brenner of Welcome to Loud City, Durant said:
He only missed 25 games in 6 years. So it won't be hard to get him back into the lineup. We just want him to be himself. We don't want him to come out there and try to think too much, play a little different, or play too passive. We just want him to be aggressive, and be himself. We're just going to mold ourselves around him. We're not trying to have him mold into the team. We're just gonna all rally around him.
If Westbrook can play at the level he set before his series of injuries, that'll be a perfectly acceptable approach. But what if he can't?
OKC has a very delicate question on its hands and only a few weeks to come up with an answer.