Russell Westbrook’s Injury Could Derail Thunder’s Title Hopes, Reveal Polarizing Guard’s Worth

Russell WestbrookThe Russell Westbrook haters are about to have their eyes opened, big time.

Westbrook is out indefinitely after the Thunder disclosed Friday that their All-Star point guard suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee during Oklahoma City’s Game 2 win over the Rockets.¬†Since the timetable for every knee injury is different,¬†Metta World Peace‘s recent return less than two weeks after meniscus surgery is not much of a guideline. The only thing we do know is that the Thunder will immediately become a much, much worse team, and all the critics who believe Kevin Durant and the Thunder will be better off without him are about to be shown just how wrong they are.

No matter what happens in this series — which Oklahoma City still figures to win — the Thunder will not be better without Westbrook. That was a popular conversation topic in Boston as it related to the Celtics after Rajon Rondo‘s torn anterior cruciate ligament, but the Celtics’ current difficulties against the Knicks have stopped such talk. Rondo’s absence exposed some shortcomings in the Celtics’ offense, and now Westbrook’s absence will reveal precisely how much the team has improved without James Harden.

Without much delay, the loudest voices who decried Oklahoma City’s preseason trade of Harden piped up with an I-told-you-so on Friday. A headlining trio of Durant-Westbrook-Harden fell short of an NBA championship a year ago. Minus Harden, the Thunder were going to need even more from Durant and Westbrook, and for most of the regular season, they got it. Minus Harden and now Westbrook, Durant’s abilities and leadership will be tested like never before.

This is Durant’s last chance to win a ring before the murmurs start. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley know what those sound like. There were mitigating circumstances for Durant last year, in his first trip to the NBA Finals, and Westbrook’s injury is a massive factor this year. But those excuses will not matter in June if Durant enters another offseason without a title. All that will matter to the majority of casual fans is that he remains ringless.

For all the ill-advised shots he takes, Westbrook helps relieve some of that pressure on Durant. For all the hemming and hawing about the supposed need for Westbrook to be more of a distributor, it is revealing that prior to this season, Westbrook had averaged eight assists or more in two of the last three years — and the year in which he didn’t was the year the Thunder made it to the Finals. Westbrook is the X-factor to the silky smooth Durant, the guy who adds unpredictability to an efficient yet still-developing offense in Oklahoma City.

As impressive as Westbrook and the Thunder have been, however, there is a dissenting group that wonders how much of that success is due to the player and how much is due to the environment. Two years ago, another dynamic point guard faced similar questions. Even in a season that would earn him the league’s Most Valuable Player award, Derrick Rose was doubted by some who wondered if coach Tom Thibodeau and a capable supporting cast were boosting Rose’s perceived worth. After the Bulls’ short 2012 playoff run, those doubts have largely evaporated, but it took Rose’s extended absence to prove once and for all that the Bulls need Rose as much as it originally appeared.

The Thunder could be entering such a moment of truth without Westbrook. They could band together and make another deep playoff push, in which case all credit would be due to Durant, Serge Ibaka and coach Scott Brooks. The Thunder may be able to play better for a time, just as the Celtics did briefly without Rondo and just as the Bulls suddenly are without Rose, but they will not be a better team for the long haul of the two-month postseason.

For too long, Westbrook has caused viewers to throw up their hands in disgust when he took one of his beloved pull-up jump shots or seized the momentum away from a hot-shooting Durant. On select possessions, it could seem that the Thunder would be better off if Westbrook were not there. But one play here and there is much different from a full 48 minutes and who knows how many games. For Durant’s sake, we can only hope that those who insist the Thunder are better without Westbrook turn out to be correct.

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