After two long, heavy-usage seasons from Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder finally had the free agency they so desperately needed. Paul George, in the face of Lakers rumors and perhaps common sense, agreed to stay in Oklahoma for the long haul, signing a four-year, $137 million contract. A still very capable Nerlens Noel was picked up on a minimum salary. And, in a savvy three-way trade that ended their Carmelo Anthony experiment, they acquired Dennis Schröder and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot; Schröder instantly became the league’s best backup point guard. It was no longer going to be all on Westbrook to hold together the team. But after the announcement that Westbrook had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Wednesday, it’s suddenly all on the team to hold it together without Westbrook. For a few games, at least.
The franchise point guard is expected to miss the entire preseason and possibly the first few regular-season games. He’ll be reevaluated in about a month. A bumpy start will hardly be the deciding factor in OKC’s overall success, but the suddenness of the surgery raises a few questions. Westbrook had the procedure because he experienced knee stiffness during the past week, according to ESPN’s Royce Young. Young reported that the surgery was described as a “pre-emptive ‘maintenance’ procedure,” and that the team is not worried about the issue lingering deep into the regular season. Here was Russ seven days ago:
Surgery sounds like an extreme measure for just a week of knee stiffness, but Westbrook should know the early signs of something more severe. He’s had knee issues tracing all the way back to 2013. He tore his meniscus in the playoffs that year after colliding with Patrick Beverley, leading to three surgeries on his right knee in under a year. More than four years have passed without any other related (or publicly known) complications.
Westbrook has averaged 35.1 minutes a game over the past three seasons, during which he’s missed only two games of a possible 246. Given the Thunder’s dependance on him and his aggressive play, they’re not easy minutes, either. (To be fair, he does stand around on occasion. But if you had the second-highest usage rate in the league last season, wouldn’t you?) That’s not including the 38 minutes a game he’s averaged over the past three postseasons.
It’s fine to take the Thunder’s word that this isn’t something to fret over. But it does introduce the frightening possibility that Westbrook might be sidelined for longer. OKC is better equipped to survive such a loss for a time with Schröder now in the fold, but it still can’t afford it over a full season.