Playing on a thrice-repaired right knee, Westbrook has effectively become the NBA's most expensive X-factor. His production and his status are both a mystery and capable of altering Oklahoma City's playoff course for better or worse.
Recent developments have only increased the impact Westbrook will have on the Thunder this spring.
First, he left midway through the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night after re-injuring his right knee in a collision with Kyle Lowry. It was a chilling occurrence watching Westbrook writhing in pain, a sight the Thunder and their fans didn't want to see.
Disaster, per Daily Thunder's Royce Young, was luckily averted:
An MRI on Saturday revealed no further injury to Russell Westbrook's right knee. Just a knee sprain.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 22, 2014
Now inhale again.
Westbrook is operating on a minutes cap and frequently sitting out the tail end of back-to-backs, the former of which may not change during the playoffs, according to The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry:
Scott Brooks said he isn't sure if Westbrook's minute restriction will be lifted in the postseason. Said it's something they have to discuss— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) March 24, 2014
This far into the season, the Thunder still don't know what version of Westbrook they're going to get—the good, bad, in between or completely absent—giving him more control over their immediate future than Durant or anyone else.
Despite what some will maintain, Westbrook is imperative to Oklahoma City's postseason survival.
Writing on the Thunder's ability—or lack thereof—to rely on Westbrook long term, Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley perfectly encapsulated the situation Oklahoma City is facing moving forward:
Westbrook is also wildly unpredictable—and no longer solely for a shot selection that teeters between questionable and shameful.
He has the volatility of an X-factor, but the responsibility of a featured star. His ceiling, when healthy, is high enough that his basement blunders have to be overlooked.
But when is the last time he was truly healthy? When can the Thunder expect him to get back to that point?
Carpers tend to come out of the woodwork each time Westbrook goes down, suffers a setback or puts forth unsightly efforts. Anything he does wrong, anything that goes wrong is periodically used to diminish his importance and portray him as an in-house deterrent.
Nothing could be further from true.
For all his accolades and basketball ingenuity, Durant cannot win a championship this season on his own, with Serge Ibaka as his No. 2 and Reggie Jackson his No. 3. The Western Conference is built in such a way that Westbrook—or rather, the role he's supposed to assume—is paramount.
Over the past 15 days Russell Westbrook has the best Win Score per 48 in the NBA (18.2). Let Russ be Russ, I guess— The man with the #'s (@ArturoGalletti) March 14, 2014
Having that second superstar is invaluable. Necessary. Pay little attention to the Thunder's record without Westbrook. That 24-9 showing without him is impressive, but it's wiped clean come playoff time, and it presents little evidence that they're better off with just Durant. Not when they're 28-9 with him.
As good as the Thunder are without him, as great as Durant can be on his own, a healthy Westbrook makes them more dangerous—statistically, not just theoretically.
|Thunder||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Ensuring he remains healthy is the problem. And ensuring this postseason is looked at outside a Westbrook vacuum is impossible.
Realistically, the Thunder's postseason campaign will be viewed a an immense failure and another letdown, or long-awaited success. And it will be viewed as a failure or success because of or in spite of Westbrook.
If the Thunder are ousted early again, or even trounced by another team in later rounds, we'll be talking about Westbrook. If he didn't do enough, his health and future will come under siege.
How are the Thunder supposed to win anything with Westbrook's durability adversely impacting his play?
Assuming he plays up to snuff, nothing changes. Doubt and distrust arguably become more pervasive tools.
If the Thunder cannot win with a healthy Durant and Westbrook now, what's going to change?
Any exodus, however late or early, will incite that conversation. This will be Westbrook and Durant's fifth playoff campaign "together." Failing to secure a title or reach the NBA Finals again will get people talking.
Experiencing success without him or with him playing poorly will have a similar effect.
Say Westbrook goes down again or plays like he has in his last five games, shooting less than 40 percent from the field, or even worse. Then say the Thunder still make a deep playoff run, reaching the Western Conference or NBA Finals. What then?
What's the point of building around Westbrook and Durant if the latter can lead Oklahoma that far on his own?
More questions. More doubt.
One Way Out
All the Thunder can do to quell speculation and lessen the eminence of Westbrook's play, good or bad, is win.
To be more specific, win with Westbrook being Westbrook, playing like Westbrook.
"Can't play cautious," Westbrook said after aggravating his right knee injury against Toronto, per Fox Sports' Andrew Gilman. "Can't play timid."
Which player will define the Thunder's playoff run?
Winning while playing like himself allows Westbrook to manipulate which direction their playoff crusade is spun.
Last year, he was the missing link. His absence prevented the Thunder from making it past the Memphis Grizzlies.
Whatever happens this year, he won't be given that honor. He'll either be a liability the Thunder overcome or collapse under, or a primary reason why they win.
Completely averting what's to come isn't an option. The Thunder's postseason is going to receive a Westbrook-anchored spin. Their triumphs or foibles are tethered to him, for better or worse, rational or ridiculous, no matter what.