HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti had little choice but to spin Tuesday’s strange and slightly unsettling news of Russell Westbrook‘s surprise second knee surgery as little more than a silver-lined cloud passing through beaming rays of sunlight.
After all, Presti said, when surgeons delved back into Westbrook’s knee and discovered that a stitch from the original surgery was somehow floating around and causing the swelling that has confounded him since last week, they also confirmed that the knee had healed just fine from the procedure to repair a torn meniscus more than five months ago.
That, Presti said, should provide Westbrook and the organization with peace of mind for the long haul while he sits out the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season. It’s tough to say how much additional time he’ll actually be out because there was no official timetable set for his return and he was still in the process of the original rehab. During the team’s Media Day last Friday, an exuberant Westbrook was pleased with his progress, but couldn’t be sure he would be ready for the Oct. 30 opener.
That doubt has been eliminated. Christmas might be more like it.
“From our standpoint we’d like to have him on the floor as soon as possible,” Presti said during a teleconference Tuesday. “But in this case, although we lost a little bit of time, we gained a tremendous amount of confidence in the actual progression and recovery process of the knee itself.”
As spin-positive as Presti was during his teleconference, there’s no reason to believe he’s also not right. Westbrook is not dealing with an ACL rehab that makes comebacks so difficult as we’ve seen with Ricky Rubio and Derrick Rose. Westbrook’s recovery had been moving along just fine and, as Presti tells it, Tuesday’s arthroscopic clean-up was nothing more than unfortunate development, an ancillary issue and not one related to the fundamental repair work. Westbrook’s knee, we are assured, is structurally sound.
The collateral damage is more time out of the lineup and a more challenging start for a team built on a two-star system with Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It means Westbrook will celebrate his 25th birthday on Nov. 12 in his hometown of Los Angeles and then watch his team the next night take on the Clippers. And hopefully soon after that he will be back, capable again of that amazing burst and OKC will begin its expected, if not briefly delayed, title run in earnest. If the Thunder must climb their way up the Western Conference standings, well, the No. 1 seed has never been the guarantor of a championship.
The bigger takeaway from this is how Presti will handle future medical issues. NBA teams work directly with some of the best sports medicine physicians in the country to care for their high-priced and, in this case, invaluable players. Yet, neither of Westbrook’s knee surgeries were performed by the Thunder’s team physicians at the recommendation of Westbrook’s representatives, Presti said. The initial surgery was performed on April 27 by doctors at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo.
As swelling became persistent in Westbrook’s right knee last week, Presti agreed to fly Westbrook not back to Vail but to Southern California to be examined by orthopaedic surgeon Neal ElAttrache. He determined an arthroscopy was needed to find the cause of the swelling. During both surgeries, Presti said Thunder team doctors were on hand to observe.
“The people in Vail are fully aware of the decision to have a second opinion and [it is] pretty standard in these situations to have other people look at something when you can’t seem to find a specific cause,” Presti said. “And in this case, our first issue was identifying what the cause could be because his performance levels were great, he looked great in practice, he was feeling no pain, so we wanted to try to have another look at it. The communication amongst parties has been good.”
Both medical staffs are respected and trusted, but that doesn’t erase the fact that a rare complication — Presti called the loose stitch an “outlier” from information he’s received of such an occurrence — arose from the first surgery. And that Presti’s All-Star point guard, irreplaceable for a title run and who will be paid $14.7 million this season, needed surgery for a second time, forcing him out of action longer and back into tiresome rehab.
Presti said he doesn’t regret not having team doctors perform the surgery. Complications happen. But the next time Presti’s faced with such a situation, he might drive a harder bargain to keep it in-house with a medical team he knows face-to-face.
“I think the thing to focus on is that the surgery itself and the meniscus itself is healing properly,” Presti said. “The stitch issue is obvious an outlier and something we had to address. But we feel very fortunate in looking at all the information that the stitch was the cause of the swelling. We were able to identify that and see at the same time that the meniscus itself had healed, which is obviously very positive.”