For some teams with losing records that are fighting for playoff crumbs, the last month of the NBA season will be spent in semi-isolation, far from fun, focus or fans, with one possible exception.
We'll all rubberneck at the Sixers occasionally to see how much shine is left on Andrew Bynum when he suits up. Meaning: Does he finally have a clean injury slate after missing nine months, or is he washed up at age 25?
"I'll definitely be back this year," Bynum said. "I don't see any more surgeries. I definitely can't get hurt by playing. That said, I'm focused on being back and being right than being rushed. Maybe a week, maybe two."
Here in the doldrums of late winter, there isn't a more perplexing case east of the Los Angeles Lakers right now than the guy who spent his best years there. Bynum is a walking enigma, or maybe a limping one, depending on whether he reaches for a body part. He's inching closer to making his debut for the Sixers and whenever that happens, there will be so many dynamics at work, so many things that can go right or wrong, and so much at stake for the player and the team, all in such a small window. How can you watch a former All-Star still in his prime with his history of injuries and not wonder what the future holds?
And it's all about the future for Bynum because this season is shot. With the Sixers sure to put him on a short leash, at least initially, he won't get enough burn to make a difference. He'll be rationed the way Ricky Rubio was in Minnesota and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas but he won't have the cushion of three months to work with, as they did. He won't play on the back end of back-to-back games. Also, he just started practicing last week, begging in on a five-on-five scrimmage. He's not in basketball shape and coach Doug Collins said Bynum needs to lose weight. That's why he'll be brought along too slowly to give Philly a significant playoff push by himself, although if nothing else, that's one way to reduce the odds of re-injury.
"He said it felt good to be out there," Collins said. "That's what I took away from it. I don't think there should be any bells and whistles that he's close to playing. He says he's going to play but the season is slipping away."
There's a debate simmering in Philly whether the Sixers would be better off shutting down Bynum for the entire season, even if he begs to play, but that doesn't do any good for the team or player. Bynum's free-agent status this summer changes everything. This is different than Derrick Rose, who's signed long-term; if Rose skips the season then no big deal for the Bulls. Even if Bynum is limited to the final 15 or 20 games, the Sixers need to see something that'll help them reach a decision about him in July. They need to know: Should they hand him a contract or simply bail and write off the whole frustrating experience as an expensive and regrettable mistake? The Sixers haven't made any public commitment either way, which could indicate that they're not sure.
Fate and crummy luck put Bynum and the Sixers in this mess together and they're both looking for clarity about his knee issues. He's had surgeries and setbacks and more surgeries and more setbacks over the last five seasons, enough to raise serious doubts whether he'll ever play close to a full 82. But really, that's the least of anyone's concerns. First and foremost, the Sixers need to know if Bynum is a game-changer at center, or just a big and brittle body who'll deliver some All-Star pop every now and then.
"Just him standing out there in practice, he kind of distorts the whole practice, and you get visions of what might've been," said Collins.
Right now the Sixers, and really the entire NBA, have concluded Bynum will never be the picture of perfect health and that his knees will always give him problems, to a degree. That's the safe way to judge him, anyway, and if he played any other position he'd be dismissed as too much of a risk. But size and centers remain in demand in the NBA and teams are willing to roll the financial dice if the player is good enough. Look at the interest in Greg Oden, who really hasn't played in two years. Look at why the Sixers gambled on Bynum in the first place, even with his reputation for being hurt.
In the three-way Dwight Howard trade, Philly surrendered Andre Iguodala, a solid defensive player and Olympian who only has one more season remaining on admittedly a substantial contract. And he wasn't the most valuable sacrifice. They also gave up an emerging young big man in Nikola Vucevic, who's fourth in the NBA in rebounding at 11.4, along with rookie Moe Harkless and a conditional No. 1, to Orlando. Right now, who in Philly wouldn't rather have all that instead of Bynum?
When you factor in the reality that the Sixers must sign Bynum, perhaps for decent money, in order to justify making the trade, it looks like a deal that could wind up horribly wrong in the big picture.
But it's still too early to reach any conclusions. First, Bynum's return, however brief, must serve as a trial run. The Sixers have too much invested in him to completely dismiss whatever he does this season. They sorely lack what Bynum brings: low post offense and rebounding. He should flash those skills even with the rust of being inactive for almost a calendar year. There won't be pressure on Bynum to carry the Sixers to that last playoff spot, but to show in spurts what he can do when healthy.
"When you throw the ball into the post, and we don't do that, there was like five guys on him at practice," Collins said.
Bynum has a lot riding on his return, too. If he doesn't play at all, or very well, he'll raise more red flags than Oden. Half of the teams who can afford him will sprint in the other direction this summer.
"I have the most to lose by not playing," he said. "I want to play. I know what I can bring. I can play with pain and there's not as much of that anymore, although it's there. It's something you have to get used to."
The most logical way for the Sixers to approach Bynum's free agency is offering a short-term contract, two years tops, with the club holding the option on the second year based on number of games played in the first. That protects the Sixers and also gives Bynum freedom and a measure of leverage in case he stays healthy and has a big season. If someone else offers more money and longer years with little or no protective clauses -- in other words, if some team is that crazy or desperate enough -- the Sixers should cut the cord and move on. They can't afford a repeat of a broken-down Chris Webber or Elton Brand, two big men who cost them plenty and swallowed up the salary cap.
Five months after the Howard trade shook up the league and changed the dynamics of the three teams involved, only one team is still on hold. The Lakers are at least getting something from Howard after back surgery -- and he was an All-Star. The rebuilding in Orlando was made easier by Vucevic, and Harkless to a lesser extent. As for the Sixers, best anyone can say is Bynum has looked interesting in his strange and ever-changing hair styles.
Now it appears he's ready to return and reach two important goals: Make us pay attention to his comeback, and the Sixers pay for his future.