(Be sure to check out J.A. Sherman's piece covering the news surrounding the injury if you get the chance. It covers all the details.)
What contingency plan?
After 5 years, Thunder fans just had it too good. Prior to Westbrook being sidelined for an "indefinite" period of time today, the worst injury the Thunder have had to endure was Desmond Mason's hyperextended right knee, which kept him out for the second half of a totally meaningless season. Yes, we've been that lucky.
It's amazing to me how much Thunder writers have focused on the "business" aspect of the NBA. You know, how players will move from team to team and nobody cares about where they're currently playing. Faces will change, and you have to deal with it. According to some, when the business aspect kicks in, everybody's going to turn against the Thunder. But anybody making that argument obviously doesn't watch college football, where there's significant roster upheaval every single year. Oklahomans are used to seeing guys come and go.
Instead, writers should have focused on what it will be like when the Thunder are faced with disappointment. I'm not saying that college teams haven't disappointed before, but I am saying that our track record isn't very good. Go to Norman in the midst of a 8-5 season and tell me how many people are filling the stands. Or, let's bring it closer to home. Remember when the Hornets had a legitimate playoff team, but sunk with a rash of injuries during their second season in Oklahoma City? Attendance suffered. I remember the stadium sitting eerily empty during the cold January winter that year.
But, perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's focus on the here and now.
Was it Patrick Beverley's fault?
In one word: No. Westbrook and Beverley were going at it all game, and things were getting pretty intense. But as far as I could tell, it was just one competitor against another. On this particular play, Beverley was simply trying to get a cheap steal while Westbrook's guard was down. He was trying plays like this all game, using his speed and constant readiness to surprise players when they least expected it. If you don't believe me, go back and look at some of the offensive rebounds he had.
But there's no question in my mind that it wasn't malicious. Metta World Peace elbowing James Harden was malicious. This was simply hard-nosed basketball. Sometimes unfortunate things happen, and it sucks. But I definitely won't be booing him if he returns to Oklahoma City for Game 5.
What does this injury mean?
Well, let's first look at the timetable. Russell Westbrook is stated to be out "indefinitely", but that's hardly anything to go off of. To put it in perspective, as J.A. Sherman did in his reaction piece, Metta World Peace suffered the exact same injury in late March. He was said to be out for the rest of the season (approximately 2.5 months), but he recovered in 2 weeks and was ready for the playoffs.
If Russell Westbrook makes the miraculous 2 week timetable, that would bring him back on May 10th. That's in the thicket of the 2nd round. But considering how the Thunder treat the health of their players as "paramount", I'll go ahead and say that Westbrook will be back for the NBA Finals, at best.
Can the Thunder make it to the Finals without Westbrook?
At this point, I'd love to show you a game the Thunder played without Russell Westbrook. Here's the problem: They've never played without Westbrook. The last time Westbrook didn't play, Earl Watson was the starting point guard and Kevin Durant was decidedly more green.
We don't even really have lineup examples to look at. Scott Brooks decides on his rotations very early in the season, rarely deviating or trying new strategies. On top of that, Westbrook plays the second most amount of minutes on the team, often logging heavy time with the starters. As a result, Reggie Jackson, his likely replacement, almost never gets time with the starters. In fact, the most used lineup in which Jackson is playing with three or more starters includes Russell Westbrook, and has only seen 25 total minutes on the floor this season.
All we can really go off of is conjecture. And if Reggie Jackson is to replace Russell Westbrook in the starting lineup, our future looks reasonably bright. Reggie Jackson has the advantage of being a player that's remarkably similar to Russell Westbrook. They're the same height (though Jackson is a bit bigger), both are athletic, both love to recklessly drive the paint, both are great competitors who make questionable decisions, and both are better scorers inside than they are outside.
The big question isn't really one of distribution. Russell Westbrook has never been the greatest passing point guard, and even if Reggie Jackson doesn't quite have the tricks of the trade that Westbrook has, his likely cooler head will make up for it. Rather, the question is how well Reggie Jackson can do when more shots are placed upon him. Undoubtedly the Thunder will try to look to Martin and Ibaka more, but Reggie Jackson will likely find himself slotted in as the fourth scorer. Collison, Sefolosha, Fisher, and Perkins are all too limited to carry that role. He's definitely got the tenacity for it, as he can drive the ball and score with the best of them. But his shot is still a work in progress. He's shooting 23% from three on the season, and it's hard to say whether his mid-range shot or athleticism is enough to make up for it.
In any case, I do think that the starting lineup has the tools to be nearly as good as they used to be. Slotting in Reggie Jackson doesn't require a re-inventing of the wheel, and there's enough offensive weapons to cover for his weaknesses most of the time.
But, there's one more problem that we must face....
What about the bench?
This, to me, is the biggest problem of them all. Without Reggie Jackson, the defacto point guard becomes Derek Fisher. Yes, Derek Fisher was point guard during the Thunder's NBA finals run last year. But even then, he was a point guard in name only. The majority of the ball handling was done by James Harden, the slick shooting guard who now sits on the other side of the fence. He was never a pure point guard, but he had a mean two-man game with Nick Collison, and his excellent court vision got him out of many sticky situations.
This year, the Thunder don't have James Harden. They have Kevin Martin. K-Mart is similar in caliber to James Harden, as he's an excellent scorer who can compete with anybody from behind the arc. But he's just not a ball handler. Isolation situations with him are hopeless, often resulting in a really poor mid-range shot. He can work the break, off-ball cuts, and two-man game relatively well, but he simply doesn't have the athletic tools to run point, nor does he have the passing ability.
I've discussed Derek Fisher's skillset at length on this blog, and it's still up for debate as to whether he's been an asset for the Thunder this season. But he's simply not a point guard, and never has been. On every team he's played for, he's had a ball-dominating shooting guard that can allow him to score off the ball, whether that man be Kobe Bryant or Jason Richardson. The one exception would be his lone year with the Jazz back in 2006-07, but that team had so many good passers (like Gordan Giricek and Andrei Kirilenko) that Derek Fisher's lack of ball handling didn't matter.
So, if not Derek Fisher, then who? That's the nightmare surrounding this whole situation. The Thunder have no one else. Eric Maynor was shipped off to Portland in February for
a pick a trade exception, which is looking like a terrible move at this point. Reportedly, Eric Maynor wanted to stay, but refused an assignment in the D-League and Thunder management were determined to move him. At least, that's what the word on the street was. #rumors
There are some potential solutions, though. Ronnie Brewer is by far the most experienced player that's not getting regular minutes right now, and he's a better ball handler than Kevin Martin. He's not exactly a point guard, but he's always gotten high assist numbers for a shooting guard, and his athleticism helps him draw defenders. Plus, his defensive presence would help solidify a lineup that's traditionally been a disaster on that end. The downside is that his shot appears to have completely left him, and he's always been a poor finisher near the rim.
The next best solution would be Jeremy Lamb, the rookie out of UConn. He's put up some monster stats in the D-League, and showed a decent ability to distribute the ball. The huge downside to him is that he hasn't proven anything on an NBA level. In garbage minutes, his stats have been downright terrible. He's only shot 35% from the field, bricked a ton of threes, and hasn't distributed the ball much. It's throwing somebody out of the frying pan and into the fire, but he's got to improve somehow, right?
DeAndre Liggins has been a surprise for Oklahoma City this season, but he's not a distributor, and is extremely limited in what he can do. He'd add scoring insolvency and size disadvantage to a lineup very weak in those areas, and add nothing in terms of ball handling. I'd have loved to see him next to Reggie Jackson, but he's a disaster waiting to happen next to Derek Fisher.
Though they'd add nothing to the ball movement dilemma, Scott Brooks could simply go big. Perry Jones is there, but he, like Lamb, has been a disappointment. Thabeet and Orton are both there, but it's hard to say whether they could bring any impact at all.
The cold, hard answer is that there is no solution to the problems of the bench. No matter what the Thunder do, the bench is going to see a significant drop in production without Reggie Jackson. We're going to have old man Fisher start to log regular minutes, Kevin Martin is going to have difficulty finding shots, and there's no scoring help in sight. The only real upside is that Martin and Fisher will be back at their natural positions, but that doesn't mean a whole lot when you lose so much offensive production.
What if you start Derek Fisher, and play Reggie Jackson with the bench?
This is a perfectly valid question. What if the Thunder simply started Derek Fisher and left Reggie Jackson on the bench?
Honestly, I like this solution more than most. The Thunder simply need somebody to move the ball on the bench, and that man is Reggie Jackson. Without him, the unit becomes horribly underwhelming and stagnant. I can already see the torrential rain of missed threes.
But the starting lineup with Fisher honestly wouldn't be that bad. Derek Fisher is perfectly capable of being a part-time point guard....next to Kevin Durant. Obviously, the big downside is that Kevin Durant will have to become the primary ballhandler, which isn't easy for a guy with the size of a power forward. But, he can definitely pull it off. The Thunder will have to iso him a lot on one side, but that's what he's good at. As long as he can receive the ball in the mid-range matched up against one guy, he's good as gold.
Obviously, this means that the starting lineup has to be re-tooled in the middle of a playoff series, and that's a problem. But it's less of a problem now than if you sit on it, realize the bench is killing your team, and attempt to fix it at the tail-end of the second round.
I know that the solution sounds radical, and probably gives Derek Fisher more credit than he's worth. But I really feel like the second unit is going to suffer without a catalyst.
Anyway, what's the most likely scenario?
Let's put conjecture and "what if" scenarios aside for a minute. The most likely possibility is that Reggie Jackson gets the starting point guard spot, while Derek Fisher suits up at backup point. The ninth man in the rotation will either be Ronnie Brewer or a committee of players, depending on the matchup. Though Brewer would be best suited handling the ball, he'll probably end up being miscast as a corner three shooter, just like he was on the Knicks.
The end result will probably be a near as effective starting lineup, but a bench nightmare. That could definitely carry the Thunder through a series against Houston, and maybe even a series against the Clippers or Grizzlies. But what happens when fatigue sets in? The bench will find themselves playing less and less as the playoffs go on, and we'll see more of Kevin Durant simply not sitting in the second half. The question then will not be whether the Thunder have the talent to win, but whether they have the energy to.
Anyway, until I see some actual games, I'm unwilling to speculate any further than that. But now, we get to see the first true test of Presti's player grabs and Brooks' lineup management. Can the journeymen or the rookies step up and fill some very needed roles on this team? Can Brooks re-tool a team that's currently centered around a player who's no longer there? Only time will tell.
What do you think the Thunder will look like without Russell Westbrook? Let us know in the comments!