The fallout: Thunder, Hawks can’t replace contributions of Westbrook, Horford
Major injuries have come in waves this NBA season, with the latest swell claiming two All-Star caliber players essential to their teams’ success. The first and foremost among them is Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, who underwent a third surgery this calendar year to address lingering issues in his right knee. His exit makes for a dispiriting trio alongside the absences of Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, both of whom — like Westbrook — came back from major surgeries this season only to suffer further injury thereafter.
The biggest issues, then, extend well beyond Westbrook and the Thunder. The NBA’s teams are due for a comprehensive and introspective look at whether those recovering from serious ailments are being treated in the proper manner, and the league at large is long overdue for a formal reconsideration of the NBA schedule. There is a point at which the schedule actively works against the best interests of the league’s players, and one could certainly argue that the prevalence of back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-nights scenarios have already pushed past that threshold.
More centrally, though, Oklahoma City has lost a clear and obvious star, one whose absence in the recent past has been incredibly difficult to account for. So much of what OKC does offensively is driven by the cooperative propulsion of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and with one gone typically comes a spiral. The Thunder defense is oppressive enough to keep things interesting through any extended absence, though even that side of the ball is compromised a bit in the depth chart adjustment that results from Westbrook’s injury.
In this case, that’s far, far less of a problem in the dip from Westbrook to replacement Reggie Jackson than from Jackson to veteran Derek Fisher. The Thunder do not have a functional, three-deep rotation at the point. Westbrook, for all his faults, is one of the best in the game. Jackson is a promising up-and-comer, and has made big strides even since the beginning of the season. But the 39-year-old Fisher is not an NBA-caliber contributor at present, as he provides neither the long-range shooting nor the perimeter defense that formerly comprised his appeal. He nevertheless has swiped 14 minutes a night from the Thunder rotation even when Westbrook was healthy, and one shudders at the thought of how much he might play under these more dire circumstances.
Jackson, though, seems better equipped now to take on Westbrook’s role than he was in the 2013 playoffs. That process of promotion was a whirlwind; Westbrook’s freak meniscus tear threw the 23-year-old Jackson into the thick of a postseason series with precious little experience to fall back on, which showed in the Thunder’s performance over two playoff series. This current ascent, on the other hand, has been a slower build toward more productive results. Over the past few months Jackson has established himself as one of the top reserve guards in the NBA, in part because of his expanded repertoire as a creator and the Thunder’s acclimation to his playmaking style. Jackson is very different from Westbrook — more slink than sprint, more teardrop floater than authoritative finisher — but capable of serving some of the same basic functions and better steering the offense than he did previously.
Even that will likely come at a cost, though, as the West is too brutal and too uncompromising to allow such bad luck to go unpunished. Oklahoma City has been the best in the conference thus far as winners of 24 of 29 and owners of the second-best pace-adjusted point differential in the league. No matter how capable Jackson might be, taking Westbrook away makes a team of that caliber appreciably worse.
If anything, this is when the questionable rotation choices of Thunder coach Scott Brooks may truly take their toll. Playing Fisher more than his due is one thing, as OKC may now have little alternative given its roster makeup. But the decision to thus far commit to a floundering starting lineup (of Westbrook, Durant, Perkins, Sefolosha, and Serge Ibaka) stands to be even more costly with Jackson slotted in for Westbrook. Even the more promising of the Thunder’s Jackson-driven lineups have been middling offensively, as the young guard can no more fully compensate for the limitations of Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha than Westbrook could.
In terms of raw performance, the straight replacement of Jackson for Westbrook in the starting lineup has fared well this season, but in such a limited sample and against such lacking opponents that the basic statistical indicators aren’t all that useful. Brooks played that lineup in just five of the Thunder’s 29 games this season. Two of those were against the then-hapless Jazz. One came against the Bulls, who were missing Rose, Luol Deng, and Kirk Hinrich before Jimmy Butler exited the game with an ankle injury. The others came against the Bobcats and Timberwolves — solid teams, both, but hardly elite competition.
We’re left then, with what we know of the players involved beyond that narrow, tilted sample: The Thunder’s starting — and most-used lineup — has been a mess this season for reasons that don’t seem to be rectified in the switch from Westbrook to Jackson. There’s room for Jackson to be a slightly better fit as the particulars of team chemistry allow, but we have every reason to expect OKC to sputter a bit even as Jackson performs admirably.
This is a workable contingency, but Westbrook’s loss is glaring all the same. It’s because of his ability to create shots and at an elite level that the Thunder overwhelm opponents offensively. By extension, he had enabled Jackson to thrive off the bench as part of a terrific second unit — one that will now need adjustment with Jackson bumped up a spot. It’s Westbrook that had assisted on 78 of Durant’s field goals thus far, more than the rest of the Thunder roster combined. It’s through Westbrook’s presence, too, that Ibaka becomes a steady offensive contributor, while his absence typically correlates with steep drops in production and efficiency. Westbrook is a genuine superstar and an outright dynamo, the likes of which is impossible to fully replace in even the best of circumstances.
What matters most is how healthy and able Westbrook is on the other side of his recovery, which at this point the Thunder are in absolutely no position to rush. Yet his time away — which could last 27 games if he’s sidelined until after the All-Star break as expected — won’t come without consequence. During that time, the Thunder are slated to meet the Blazers thrice, the Rockets twice, and the Warriors, Spurs, and Heat once apiece. They’ll likely be fine in the grand scheme of things, even as they press on through some tough games. Yet “fine” could still drop Oklahoma City a few spots in the standings, which could then be difficult to make up as they work Westbrook back into the mix after the break. The possible implications there are far too distant to parse at this point, but could wind up defining the Western Conference playoff picture. Stay tuned.
Through 29 games, the Hawks had leveled out as an above-average team on both sides of the ball. They’re more an assemblage of working professionals than a cache of high-level talent; the only thing exceptional about Atlanta’s roster is its clean cap sheet and its persistent ability to execute.
The most recent injury to Al Horford, though — a torn pectoral that will sideline him indefinitely — should send the utterly competent Hawks sliding into the Eastern Conference muck. There’s only so much that a team like Atlanta can afford to lose, and Horford offers far too much on both ends of the floor for the Hawks to continue apace. Theirs was an undersized frontcourt as it was, but one that managed by way of length, flexibility, and defensive technique. All three of those dimensions are compromised without Horford in the lineup, as his minutes will be filled by some combination of Mike Scott, Elton Brand, Gustavo Ayon, and Pero Antic in addition to whatever else Paul Millsap is able to provide beyond his usual play and production.
That cast of role players can rebound about as well as Horford, but falls short in most every other category of performance. There are some among them who can defend well enough in Atlanta’s system, while Millsap and Scott can score in bunches under the right context. Yet they fail to approximate Horford’s value even in piecemeal, as none can match the balance and reliability that Horford offers as a baseline.
He did not become the crux of Atlanta’s nine most-used lineups this season by coincidence or accident. To be able to work off of a stable interior defender and a versatile offensive threat like Horford means a ton for the Hawks, a cost-conscious, rebuilding team otherwise reliant on specialists. Millsap is a valuable contributor, and Jeff Teague a potent creator. Yet beyond those two, players like Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, and Lou Williams fill very finite roles for Atlanta and do so well. Their arrangement works when Horford is around to attract attention as a pick-and-pop threat, cover for their defensive weaknesses, or set them up with passes from the high post. Take away those elements, though, and Korver’s three-point attempts aren’t quite as clean, Carroll’s limitations are a bit more binding, and Williams’ defensive issues become all the more apparent. When dynamism is in such short supply, a loss of this magnitude billows throughout the entire roster.
Even that won’t likely be enough to completely take the Hawks out of the Eastern Conference playoff race, no matter if Horford returns this season. Those below Atlanta in the standings — Charlotte, Toronto, Washington, Detroit – are simply that unremarkable. None among the remaining playoff contenders is in any position to take up the mantle as the third-best team in the conference behind Miami and Indiana, leaving a clear void where a potential bronze medalist should be. Those teams interested in winning (Atlanta included) have been devastated by injury, and those less so stand to win more games than expected (or in some cases, desired) in the fallout. It’s an odd, foul mix, and while the reasons for that are far too sprawling to be tied to Horford’s injury alone, his absence pushes an already stratified conference to become that much more stilted.