HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When the Oklahoma City Thunder holds Media Day — the prelude to the official start of training camp — in 11 days, it will mark exactly five months since Russell Westbrook had surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
The injury, sustained in Game 2 of the first round against Houston, derailed the franchise’s championship hopes. It’s no secret that the Thunder won’t sniff the 2014 Finals without a healthy, bouncy, frenetic, All-NBA Westbrook.
Oklahoma City has lost its sixth man in consecutive offseasons. The team traded James Harden to Houston prior to last season and this summer the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Kevin Martin to a contract beyond the Thunder’s tax bracket.
It leaves improving third-year guard Reggie Jackson, high-mileage veteran Derek Fisher, plus hopeful second-year shooter Jeremy Lamb as the backcourt backups. That makes OKC’s bench scoring as uncertain as it has been since the Thunder moved into the NBA’s elite. If a reliable scorer doesn’t emerge, it will require even more of Westbrook’s locomotive-like play as he rebounds from the first serious injury of his career. Westbrook’s recovery and the Thunder’s questionable bench scoring are causing some to ponder if OKC has enough firepower to again reign in the stacked West.
“How will Russell Westbrook return?” is the question Darnell Mayberry presented to Thunder fans on Sunday in The Oklahoman. The good news is Westbrook’s injury was not an ACL tear and so not as difficult from which to recover. Still, it is a question that can’t be answered until the three-time All-Star takes the floor. Even then it might take time for Westbrook to regain full confidence in his knee to resume his hard-charging style.
Westbrook had a monster 2012-13 season, averaging 23.2 ppg and 7.4 apg — but also 3.3 turnovers a game (second-highest among point guards). If there are areas of improvement for Westbrook they are reducing unforced turnovers and increasing his shooting percentage. Westbrook has become far more proficient with his high-bounce free-throw-line jumper, yet he still shot just 43.8 percent last season (20th among point guards), barely up from his career average of 43.2 percent, and down from his career-best of 45.7 percent in 2011-12.
How can Westbrook better his percentage? The simple answer is to become a more selective shooter (something critics have pleaded for from Kevin Durant‘s teammate), which some might suggest means becoming a smarter, more aware floor general.
But can a player whose game is structured on athleticism, explosiveness and high doses of improvisation actually slow the game down enough to regularly make what are often split-second decisions?
Westbrook might have started to figure out that answer for himself as he watched playoff games from high above the floor in a suite, a bird’s eye perspective he said allowed him to better dissect the game and his impact on it. When he addressed the media during the Thunder’s West semifinal series loss to Memphis, Westbrook said he believes he will come back “a better player mentally:”
“I think that’s the biggest thing. Mentally, it’s going to be a big step for myself and moving forward with this team. Getting the opportunity to kind of sit back — this is my first time basically seeing the game from a different view — to kind of sit back and watch a whole game when I’m not playing is different. I think it’s something that can help me to see some of the things that you guys [the media] may see or somebody may see, the crazy shots I shoot, I can sit back and see, so I think it’s good for me.”
For a player who is typically short-winded and often defensive in discussions with the media, the “crazy-shots-I-shoot” revelation has to be a great sign to coach Scott Brooks. He has always taken Westbrook’s bad with his good, understanding that attempting to put a restrictor plate on Westbrook could diminish his natural advantage over opponents.
But if Westbrook discovers ways to implement his own restrictor plate at appropriate times, it could make an already efficient, high-scoring attack — but one dogged by frustrating turnovers (OKC finished in the bottom eight in the league in four of Westbrook’s five seasons and 30th twice) all the more effective.