In an unforeseen turn of events, Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman reported that Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and three-time All-NBA selection Russell Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. This marks yet another chapter in a recurring saga of knee procedures that first began when he tore his meniscus during the 2013 NBA playoffs.
Westbrook is expected to be out until after the All-Star break, which has the rest of the NBA buzzing. While it may be a crippling blow in the short-term, there is reason for optimism.
In the long term, Westbrook’s injury is a blessing in disguise.
Reggie Jackson‘s Progression
A case could be made that the primary candidate for Sixth Man of the Year is Thunder scoring guard Reggie Jackson. The 23-year-old is currently averaging 12.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 0.9 steals in 24.8 minutes, and has played a major role in Oklahoma City’s early-season success at an NBA-best 24-5.
With Westbrook out of the lineup, Jackson will need to make major improvements in a rapid manner to save the Thunder from too high of a dependency on Kevin Durant.
Fortunately for OKC, Jackson has been red-hot during the month of December. He’s averaging 14.5 points in 26.1 minutes on a slash line of .467/.362/.968. If he can improve as a facilitator and continue increasing his scoring totals, the Thunder will not only survive Westbrook’s absence, but continue to win a high percentage of games.
OKC is far from a championship contender without Westbrook, but his injury does provide the opportunity for a third “Big Three” member to emerge on offense.
Jackson, a career 25.2 percent shooter from beyond the arc, desperately needs to maintain his progression in that area. Jackson must also learn how to score when he’s a primary focus of an opposing defense for a full 48 minutes.
Fortunately, Jackson and Durant have already developed a strong chemistry. It’s now time to prove that it can last once the former’s minutes are raised.
Jackson was 4-of-19 from the field with just three assists in his first start in Westbrook’s absence.
Determining Outcome of Jeremy Lamb Project
If only one player can be labeled as, “Under pressure,” it’s second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb. Since parting ways with James Harden, the Thunder have possessed a clear void when it comes to a third scorer who can take the pressure off of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Reggie Jackson has stepped up in that role, but without a consistent jumper, he isn’t yet the perfect fit alongside Westbrook. For a team that relies so heavily upon jump shooting, that makes Lamb’s development as a scorer nothing short of critical to the pursuit of a championship.
With Westbrook out, his value instantly increases.
Lamb played in just 23 games as a rookie, spending a majority of his time in the D-League. He was heralded for his length, athleticism and natural scoring ability coming out of college, but my main concern about Lamb coming out of college is coming to fruition: he’s too passive for his own good.
If he’s ever going to develop an adequate level of aggression, it needs to be now.
Lamb is averaging 9.6 points and 20.9 minutes on a healthy slash line of .465/.392/.938 in 29 games of action. He’s scored in double-digits in 14 games, and that includes six of his past 10 appearances.
If the Thunder are going to compete for a championship, however, they need Lamb to step up on both ends of the floor. With Westbrook out, the minutes will be available for him to do so.
In the end, the Thunder will be able to answer the most important question of all: should they deal Lamb at the 2014 trade deadline or hold onto him for the long-haul?
Serge Ibaka Must Grow
The single most significant ramification of Westbrook’s lengthy absence is that it forces Serge Ibaka to emerge as a stronger offensive force. That’s proven to be an issue in the past, as Ibaka has struggled mightily with Westbrook off of the floor.
Fortunately, he has an extended period of time to find his own looks.
Ibaka has developed into a very reliable mid-range shooter, and that’s a strong enough complement to his elite defensive game for Oklahoma City to keep him on the floor for as many minutes as possible. Unfortunately, the criticism that Ibaka is receiving for his lack of offensive skills are both unavoidable and situational.
In other words, the Thunder are so poor offensively along the interior that Ibaka’s woes on that end are overblown in comparison to what he’d see on another team.
Ibaka shot 49.2 percent on mid-range jump shots in 2012-13, which is a very impressive number considering 43.3 percent of his field goal attempts were from that distance In 2013-14, Ibaka is shooting 47.1 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, which he takes 4.9 of per game, per NBA.com.
According to NBA.com, Ibaka is also shooting 38.9 percent on pull-up jumpers. Perspective.
There’s no question that the 24-year-old is rapidly improving, but he’s shown no signs of developing the low-post game that Oklahoma City’s offense lacks. He’s also displayed minimal ability when it comes to creating his own looks, whether it be out of the post or on the drive.
With Westbrook out, Ibaka will need to prove he can score in such a manner. In turn, the Thunder will learn whether or not he can be depended upon come the postseason.
Playing without Westbrook hurts, but in the long term, it will make this team better.