He was the second-best player involved in last summer's blockbuster Dwight Howard trade, or maybe the grand prize if you subscribe to Shaquille O'Neal's power rankings of NBA centers.

Andrew Bynum may soon measure up to that, but right now he hasn't even suited up, leading you to wonder if he'll possibly hurt more than help the Sixers in the long run, given his history of hobbling.

The timetable for his return from surgery on his right knee was just pushed back a third time, to early January, and if it happens a fourth time, will Greg Oden beat Bynum back to the court?

The Sixers are saying all the right things, and so is Bynum, who isn't in a rush to return. Nor should he be. By stressing patience, the Sixers are doing right by Bynum and vice versa. The last thing he and Philly need is a serious relapse caused by a hasty decision. That would jeopardize the Sixers' season and put the brakes on their desire to be something greater than a middle-of-the-pack, ho-hum playoff team.

"If he goes backward it's not going to be good for anybody," said Sixers coach Doug Collins.

The season is a secondary issue, anyway. They didn't bring him to Philly for the short term. Bynum becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, and if he does return in January, the Sixers will have only four or five months of playing evidence to use when they weigh whether he's worth a max contract. Even if he gets back to dropping double-doubles, which he did routinely in his final season with the Lakers, is that enough to throw major money at someone who makes you hold your breath every time he falls down? He'll only get older. He's had at least one procedure done on each knee. That's exactly the kind of consistency you don't want from your franchise big man.

This is a dicey situation, because the Sixers are essentially committed to re-signing Bynum, if only to justify the trade and save face. That's the danger when teams trade for players on the last year of their deal. Unless they're willing to cut their losses and let him go, most if not all leverage is lost when it's time to negotiate. It's a bad way to do business.

The Nets know. They did that last summer with Gerald Wallace. When they gave Portland a No. 1 pick for Wallace (which, yikes, became rookie sensation Damian Lillard), they were then forced to give $10 million a year to a player who's on the downside. How would it look if they let Wallace walk? Especially with the Nets moving to a new town and new arena they absolutely had to fill?

Bynum is only 25, so he's far from the wrong side of the mountain, but he's rolling on 45-year-old wheels. Not counting the lockout-shortened season, Bynum hasn't played anywhere close to a full season in four years. If they sign Bynum and his issues turn chronic and he never plays 75-plus games a season again, his contract becomes a lead balloon. The Sixers would be stuck, like they were with an old Chris Webber and Elton Brand. They're willing to gamble not only because of Bynum's age, but because he plays a position that's getting increasingly tougher to fill, and does it well enough to be an All-Star. When Bynum is right, he brings everything you'd want in a traditional center: inside buckets, rebounds, defensive intimidation. When his body is wrong, he and his new Afro become a striking presence over on the bench.

"It's tough, you know, because I want to be out there playing and helping my teammates," he said. "I want to get my career in Philadelphia started. But this is not a setback."

Late last month, both of Bynum's knees received an injection of a lubricant used to treat arthritis. Last summer he underwent a breakthrough procedure in Germany that Kobe Bryant did multiple times, the blood-spinning Orthokine treatment that's supposed to quicken recovery and stabilize the knee. Look how Kobe's hopping around; he's a walking advertisement for the surgery, and knee patients everywhere are suddenly booking trips and grabbing their passports.

There were complications with Bynum, though, because of a bone bruise that will cause him to miss all of November, and he won't be cleared to step on a court until Dec. 10. Since he hasn't practiced or played since spring, Bynum will need an additional two to three weeks of fitness work to whip into game shape, taking him to January. And even then he might be too rusty to keep up with the giddyup Sixers, who flourish on the fast break.

The Sixers have plenty invested in Bynum. Besides the financial commitment they're prepared to make, they gave up Andre Iguodala and a future first-rounder in the four-team deal that sent Howard to the Lakers. Collins, whose power is expanding in the organization, wasn't a major fan of Iguodala or his contract, nor were many Sixers fans, so that alone wasn't such a major sacrifice. But Iguodala was an asset, and the right trade could've given the Sixers what they needed to become a contender. Bynum is supposed to be that player, a center to build around, and eventually he might be.

But what happens when you build around someone who's fragile? Yep: Look out below.

There are plenty of cautionary tales about teams that invest in players with questionable bodies. Twenty years ago, the Hornets gave a record contract to Larry Johnson after he had back surgery, and not only was he never the same, they couldn't afford to pay Alonzo Mourning. The franchise was essentially ruined. More recently, the Blazers dealt with Oden, although that was more of a bad-luck situation, and besides, they never gave him an extension. They did give one to Brandon Roy, though, who quickly became damaged goods.

All the Sixers can hope is Bynum returns strong enough to allow them to make an easy decision next summer. Of course, if he gets hurt again, that would make for an easy decision, too.

"I'm getting better every day," Bynum said. "It's not where I want to be, but I think I'll make a full recovery."

Didn't we hear the same rosy outlook in L.A.?