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Thunder Has An Opportunity To Make The Best Of A Bad Situation

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The heart of Thunder Nation jumped into its collective throat in early October when the organization announced Russell Westbrook would be sidelined the first 4-6 weeks of the season with a second knee surgery.

Westbrook, thought to be close to being cleared for action, will potentially be out until mid-December after he had another operation on his right lateral meniscus, placing added pressure on a roster that seems to be losing ground by the day in national perception as a title contender.

But things might not be all bad with Westbrook sidelined; there are possible outcomes that could help OKC down the line: meaningful playing time for the youngsters in the backcourt and potentially forcing the team to run an offense.

First off, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb stand to benefit the most individually from the increased playing time, but it could also result in expanded minutes for Perry Jones, Ryan Gomes and even rookie Steven Adams as the coaching staff tries to discover reliable rotations. Established players like Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison could also use this opportunity to expand their roles within the offense.

RELATED: Thunder has options with Adams

Interestingly, the players the Thunder will need the most from in Westbrook's absence aren't named Kevin Durant. KD will do his thing. He will be in the mix for the scoring title, he'll take the important shots and he will be an All-Star. If the Thunder is going to play well enough sans Westbrook to be in the thick of the Western Conference race when Russ returns, that responsibility will fall largely on Lamb and Jackson.

And since neither – to no fault of their own – have Westbrook's explosive offensive ability, it will likely become a shared responsibility. And herein lies the biggest potential benefit for Oklahoma City: an actual, functional offense.

One of the Thunder's biggest criticisms the past few years has been Brooks' over-reliance on isolation basketball from Durant and Westbrook.

For large stretches of time, and in some instances complete games, the offensive strategy has essentially boiled down to three players standing around waiting for KD or Russ to out-athlete the other team and make a play.

It's not as bad as it appears, as no team that truly attempted this would rank third in the league in points per game like the Thunder did at a 105.7 clip, but it does have some truth to it nevertheless. And maybe the problem isn't that the Thunder doesn't run an offense, but instead that the other Thunder players are overly passive and defer to two of the league's top five players.

At times the Thunder has proven itself capable of excellent ball movement, here is an opportunity to make it a habit.

This is one area that separates the Heat from the Thunder; Miami has its stars, but the remainder of the roster knows their roles and steps up with key contributions that make a big difference.

And this is not a knock on Westbrook. He hasn't prevented OKC from developing support players and rotating the ball, it's merely a byproduct of having two transcendent talents on the floor and possible lack of creativity on the coaching front.

This 4-6 week period could prove to be a window of opportunity for this team to establish an offensive identity without its explosive point guard, resulting in a Chicago Bulls-esque situation where everyone on the team was forced to evolve to stay relevant in Derrick Rose's absence.

This is doable for the Thunder. And here is where it's important for Jackson, Lamb and, to some extent, Ibaka to seize this negative and turn it into a positive.

Jackson stepped into an impossible situation against the defensive buzzsaw that was the Memphis Grizzlies after Westbrook went down in the postseason. And, much to Jackson's credit, he averaged 14 points, five rebounds and boasted nearly a 2-to-1 assist/turnover ratio against arguably the league's stingiest D.

Jackson appears ready to step into the sixth-man role that has now been vacated each of the past two seasons and the playing time he will receive early on will only foster his development down the line, potentially increasing his efficiency off the bench once he discover what works and what doesn't in 30-plus minutes per game.

And the same goes for Lamb, who hasn't proven himself nearly to the degree that Jackson has. There is a lot of pressure on the second-year shooting guard from UConn, as he is viewed as the last remaining evidence of the widely-despised James Harden trade (which isn't necessarily the case, as OKC acquired rookie Steven Adams with the draft pick it got in the deal). Lamb will have a microscope on him this season and he could go a long way toward establishing his role in the offense, similarly to Chicago's Jimmy Butler.

Butler became a valuable part of the Bulls' scoring attack without Rose and was a factor for Chicago in the playoffs. His playing time increased from 8.5 minutes a game as a rookie in 2011-12 to 26 minutes per outing last season. Lamb could very realistically see 20-plus minutes a game right out of the chute.

At this stage, Lamb is a very green volume shooter and makes questionable decisions, as evidenced by the roller-coaster ride that was his preseason in OKC. Fans will need show patience, but his trial by fire could catch him up to speed sooner than expected. He's a natural scorer and eventually found some consistency with the Tulsa 66ers last season, averaging 21 points per game on 49 percent shooting.

And it doesn't come down to just Jackson and Lamb either. Ibaka should become more assertive, Fisher shouldn't experience the early shooting struggles he did when the Thunder picked him up mid-season each of the past two seasons, Sefolosha can average double digits, Collison is an able scorer in the post, and so on and so forth.

For the offense to flow and put up numbers, it will need added contributions from everyone in the lineup. And this will potentially instill more confidence and firmer role playing once Russ returns, strengthening the team for another run at the West title and a deep playoff run.

Obviously this team will be better once Westbrook is back to his wrecking-ball ways, but the Thunder can take this lemon and turn it into lemonade for the future in the meantime.

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