Russell Westbrook will be back and just fine.
The second procedure on his right knee was minor. It’s not an uncommon complication considering he and the Thunder did the long-term-right but short-term-far-thornier thing by repairing his torn meniscus instead of removing it.
Westbrook missing the first month or so of the regular season won’t help the Thunder secure the Western Conference’s top seed, but Oklahoma City’s schedule is actually pretty light early on. And the way these early injuries go, it helps the lesser guys psychologically to know they have a real role right off the bat.
The question is whether the revised expectations of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, who go from helping make up for the departed Kevin Martin to much more, give the Thunder the improved depth they need come playoff time. An even greater question is whether Serge Ibaka views this as an opportunity to step up.
This first month of the NBA season without Westbrook will provide crucial material in the larger debate about the Thunder choosing Ibaka over James Harden as part of the team’s core. The logic made sense, choosing defense over offense when they already had Kevin Durant and Westbrook. Plus, Ibaka is a legit terror in the defensive paint. But if Ibaka’s upside on offense is basically what we’ve seen—a very good shooter for a big man but with a limited feel for offense otherwise—it throws into question the Thunder’s overall upside.
Considering all the pressure falls to Durant while Ibaka gets the golden opportunity to show that he can do more, there is no one in the Western Conference who’ll be more interesting to track as this season unfolds than the 24-year-old big man.
Here are my other choices for players to watch in the West—one for each team.
Los Angeles Clippers: DeAndre Jordan
Vinny Del Negro didn’t prioritize Jordan’s development, and Del Negro paid the price both in limited court production from Jordan and losing the head-coaching job. Doc Rivers now assumes the challenge of letting loose all the amazing possibilities of Jordan’s size and athletic ability.
With better three-point shooters around him, ongoing attention on Blake Griffin and a coach and point guard who both know how to make you look great, Jordan has an immense opportunity now.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
More of a defensive force than most understand, Conley was good enough last season to prove Rudy Gay was indeed overvalued in Memphis. Under new coach Dave Joerger, Conley now needs to emerge as more of an offensive weapon, being able to work better in the lane—and finish from there—for the Grizzlies to do any better than last season.
Even in a world of advanced metrics, this is still a stars’ league—as Memphis learned in a backward way in the playoffs, when its fate was changed for the better by injuries to the Clippers’ Griffin and the Thunder’s Westbrook. It’s a little late in Conley's career to think he can become a star, and with Zach Randolph and Tony Allen awfully limited, the Grizzlies are in danger of taking a step back this season.
Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward
Utah wants Hayward to become the face of the franchise. Don’t overlook that reality when thinking about Trey Burke’s potential or Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter getting their chances with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson going east.
Hayward averaged 14 points, three assists and three rebounds in 29 minutes per game last season while working in the background. A jump from that production is an absolute lock, and coming off a stellar USA Basketball summer session, we might well see in the NBA season’s first month that Hayward is ready to be special.
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins
It’s not hard to pick a player to watch on a team where the roster composition is two nondescript guys at all four other positions on the floor. What people don’t realize is just how many very rich and important people have been watching and asking a lot of behind-the-scenes questions about Cousins for years as they contemplate owning or investing in the Kings.
Now Cousins, 23 and with a new $62 million contract extension, knows who his benefactors are, and they include Kings minority owner Shaquille O’Neal. There is no doubt that O’Neal is many things, but a great mentor has never been one of them—so the idea that Cousins now has someone in his corner to help him find much-needed discipline and focus is pretty sketchy.
Los Angeles Lakers: Pau Gasol
Unlike Kobe Bryant, Gasol (knee tendinosis) is out there on the practice floor already after an offseason focused on rest and recovery. Unlike Bryant, Gasol is looking to redeem an unproductive 2012-13 season. Unlike Bryant, Gasol will see his role on the team dramatically increase this season.
All that said, everyone is going to be watching Bryant as soon as he gets his Achilles tendon back out there. Let’s just remember that Bryant only has those two Shaq-less NBA championships because Gasol landed in Lakerland.
Dallas Mavericks: Monta Ellis
There might not be another non-star player in the league whose team’s fate is riding so much on his performance.
Ellis looked destined for stardom just two years ago when he scored 20.4 points per game and unproven guys like Stephen Curry and James Harden were dreaming of being like Monta.
Ellis comes to Dallas now with the chance to maximize his speed and scoring skills: Dirk Nowitzki spaces the floor, and Rick Carlisle is one of the game’s best coaches. It’s going to take a lot for the Mavericks to make the playoffs considering Nowitzki’s decline will continue, so Ellis had better be healthy and hearty for Mark Cuban to save face this season.
Denver Nuggets: JaVale McGee
There is at least some certainty about what Ty Lawson will give the Nuggets in an enhanced role, but who knows about the quirky McGee? This team has the potential to be one of the league’s biggest busts, as Denver is basically assuming it can continue to win with altitude and energy.
New coach Brian Shaw is historically good with stubborn guys and head cases—he even got some production out of Kwame Brown with the Lakers, but not really that much—and Shaw needs to connect with McGee in an epic way.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis
It was a very good rookie season for Davis, even though the Pelicans babied him health-wise and didn’t challenge him to expand his game. The good thing for Davis is that he is willing to push himself—and he did just that by bulking up in the offseason and shining in USA Basketball sessions.
Davis is going to be an absolute stat monster for the Pelicans, who have nice-albeit-unpredictable talent on the perimeter now in Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. This is the season when people start to see how much more upside Davis has in this point guard-deep league than unanimous Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard.
Houston Rockets: James Harden
No offense to Chris Finch and his consecutive runs to the D-League title round with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, but the Rockets’ new assistant coach doesn’t quite grasp the complexity of developing an offense for superstars Harden and Dwight Howard to share.
Finch said to Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman:
We have so much emphasis on our perimeter, our quick decision making, attacking off the dribble and all that kind of stuff, but we’ve got to give time for our post play to develop. We have basically a dozen different ways to get the ball inside within the flow of our offense, and we’re hitting our guards daily with the message that we can do this two ways: We can slow the game down, call a ton of plays and get Dwight his touches, or you guys can figure out how to get him involved in the flow. And to a man they all want to get it to him in the flow because that’s how we’re so used to playing. So now we’ve got to get Dwight comfortable with that, too; understanding the things that he can do, and that A leads to B, B leads to C, and then C means he gets the ball.
It all makes sense, except for the snags where Harden doesn’t want to do it, and Howard doesn’t want to wait for it to happen.
Harden’s underpublicized ego is going to be seriously tested this season.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
Among the old guard of past Western Conference contenders that includes the Lakers and Mavericks, only the Spurs have a true leader ready to emerge. Even if Leonard’s usage rate increases only slightly, he’s capable of being an All-Star this season.
And if his usage rate increases significantly—as should happen given Gregg Popovich’s confidence in him and desire to save the old guys for the playoffs—Leonard can show his ability to hang with LeBron in the NBA Finals was indeed no fluke.
Phoenix Suns: Eric Bledsoe
Hello, Phoenix. Are you ready for the worst team in the NBA?
There is a serious dearth of both talent and experience here, and new coach Jeff Hornacek has little choice but to try something that isn’t going to work: have Bledsoe and Goran Dragic together in a backcourt where they both are doing the same thing.
This is going to be ugly, especially in the deep Western Conference. But we’ve all been waiting for Bledsoe to get out of Chris Paul’s shadow and have a chance to show what he can do. Especially if Dragic cramps his style, Bledsoe won’t be the first NBAer who failed to live up to the with-more-minutes-he-will hype.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio
Kevin Love and Derrick Williams have slimmed down, and Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer bring new qualities. But to be a really good team, Minnesota needs Rubio to fast-forward his development.
It’s going to be on Rubio to give the Timberwolves a team-minded leader. Love just isn’t the sort to bring people together or ignore the postgame stat sheet. No one in Minnesota is planning on Rubio being all the way there yet given his undeveloped scoring prowess, but if he can make the Timberwolves his team this season, that would be some exciting stuff.
Portland Trail Blazers: Nicolas Batum
Batum, 24, just had a breakthrough life moment, co-starring with Tony Parker and bringing France a European championship on Sept. 22. Batum could be poised to make the Blazers a lot better than people think if he has figured out how to give the team what it needs on a given night as opposed to what he wants to give.
The varied statistics are going to be there, regardless. But just because Batum has to give Lillard the ball and defer to LaMarcus Aldridge so much of the time doesn’t mean Batum shouldn’t be a dominant player. He has that much talent.
Golden State Warriors: Andrew Bogut
Many eyes are on Andre Iguodala as the Warriors’ difference-maker, but he’s pretty predictable in what he does. The one thing that legitimizes Golden State as an immediate contender would be a consistently real interior presence—which becomes possible once you consider Bogut has renewed health and is entering a contract year.
The best teams play their way and beat whoever is in their way. If Bogut’s defense becomes part of the way the Warriors play regularly—instead of a nice bonus that helps out at times when the shooting is off—then you have a whole different framework.
There’s so much skill elsewhere—to the point that the Warriors will be better off if guys like David Lee and Klay Thompson accept they aren’t going to get to do all they can do—that the real question mark is this: Is Bogut willing and able to be the Warriors’ rock?
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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