by Michael Doutey
We all knew it was coming. “The Email of Death,” finally arrived in our inboxes Tuesday afternoon. But nothing could have prepared Thunder fans for what the news would hold. It was not a secret that Paul George had been dealing with shoulder issues going down the stretch from this season. The Thunder’s press release confirmed what we had all feared. Paul George had surgery on his right shoulder to repair a torn rotator cuff. To compound that, George is set to have surgery on his left shoulder to repair a small tear in his labrum later this summer.
But that wasn’t all. Russell Westbrook was also in on the surgery action, having two himself. Westbrook had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right hand and also had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. This has been the fifth surgery on Westbrook’s right knee.
All four of these surgeries are worrisome. George is likely to miss at least some of training camp. Meanwhile, Westbrook should make a return to basketball activities in a few weeks. Still, it is concerning that Westbrook is having his fifth knee surgery while turning 31 at the beginning of next season, especially with how much he relies on his athleticism.
This marks the second consecutive offseason where George and Westbrook have had operations. George had arthroscopic knee surgery in May of 2018 and had 20 ounces of blood removed from his bursa sac in his right elbow. Westbrook also had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee that caused him to miss all of training camp and the first two games of the regular season.
Both George and Westbrook are the faces of the Thunder franchise. They are in the middle of their prime. But after two disappointing playoff appearances with first-round exits that followed with offseason surgeries, the Thunder now must do more to protect their stars. And that falls at the feet of Sam Presti.
George played the fifth most minutes in the NBA this season, trailing Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, James Harden and, Bradley Beal. PG played a total of 2,841 minutes over 77 games, averaging 36.9 minutes per game. This is after George played 2,891 minutes in 79 games, ninth most in the NBA last season.
Then there is Westbrook. He played 2,630 minutes in 73 games this season, good for 16th most in the NBA. In 80 games last season Westbrook played 2,918 minutes eight most in the league.
PG averaged the second most minutes per games in the entire NBA while Westbrook averaged the fourth most. Neither could leave the floor for extended periods of time or the Thunder would massively struggle.
You can even throw in Steven Adams into the mix. Adams, who is arguably the Thunder’s third best player, played the 12th most minutes in the NBA playing 2,669 minutes over 80 games. Now, he didn’t have an announced injury or offseason surgery, but we saw a clear drop off in production from Adams over the final 30 games of the season.
Now, this is a physical sport. These players put their bodies on the line every night. Injuries are apart of the game. But there are ways to take care of the franchises premiere players in the form of load management or minute restrictions. But to do that the roster must have capable players to run the offense and alleviate the pressure from George, Westbrook and, Adams.
But that sits on Presti. He’s had a long history of wanting to make young roster additions. Presti has brought guys in like Deonte Burton, Hamidou Diallo, and Abdel Nader. They played some and showed some promise at times during the regular season but were never going to make an impact in the playoffs.
Instead, veteran Raymond Felton was called upon to play minutes in the playoffs and not even at point guard. He was playing off the ball next to Dennis Schröder. That was something that was needed but he didn’t exactly fit the role OKC needed him to fill. Once Alex Abrines was out of the picture and Andre Roberson was ruled out for the season, Presti admittedly didn’t have a backup plan.
The Thunder needs guys who already know how to play to aide Westbrook, George, and Adams. They don’t need more young players who need to be developed in the G-League or over Summer League. They don’t need projects.
They need experienced veterans who know how to play and can help lessen the workload for OKC’s current Big Three. Otherwise, the Thunder risk running their best players into the ground and never fully capitalize on the talented core the Thunder has.