will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. (Matt Slocum/AP)
By Rob Mahoney
Andrew Bynum's primary contributions to the 2012-13 NBA season have been as follows:
• Inciting a debate over whether or not NBA players should be allowed to bowl -- or do other non-threatening recreational activities -- in their time off the job.
• Inspiring a great recurring meme/game with his creative hair styling and sartorial splendor.
• Instilling Sixers fans with a sense of dread as their potential franchise player misses deadline after deadline in his rehabilitation work.
He hasn't yet had a chance to show what he can do without Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol as teammates and has delayed Philadelphia's rebirth since the team parted ways with Andre Iguodala. Bynum can't exactly be blamed for his lack of relevance (unless you're of the mind that bowling is some grave violation of the pro athlete social contract), but his prolonged absence has left the NBA world to wonder if and when he might return this season. The possibility of Bynum missing the entire season hasn't been invoked specifically, but it lurks between the lines of Bynum's interviews and the team's press releases. The nature of the communication concerning Bynum's injury seems to suggest (and only suggest) that this could turn out to be an extreme case -- one so significant as to erase an entire season from Bynum's playing career.
That thought, according to his comments in a recent press scrum, had never really occurred to Bynum. From John Finger of CSN Philly:
“No, [the possibility of missing the entire season] has never crossed my mind,” Bynum said when asked if he considered not playing this year. “It’s a possibility depending on what my doctor tells me, but I really think I’ll be fine. If my left knee gets better and feels like my right knee, I’ll be playing.”
And it’s that left bilateral bone bruise that is giving Bynum the most trouble and slowing down his return to the court. It was [in] the left knee that Bynum suffered a “setback” while bowling last month and it’s still bothering him.
According to Bynum, it’s the left knee that has derailed his return to basketball-related activities.
“I feel pain walking around, so it’d be silly to go out and start playing basketball right away [once cleared] because it’s just going to get worse,” Bynum said, noting that the swelling in his right knee is gone. “If this was the Finals and we have a chance to win, I’d be able to play. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? But why risk anything when you have time to come back and be 100 percent?”
Bynum makes a fair point, and considering that he's had to rehab both of his knees over the last few months, no one should fault him for taking his time in returning to the court. It's surely best for Bynum in the long run, and should the Sixers be his employer beyond this season, it will likely behoove them as well.
That said, Bynum's discussion of his injuries did hit a more worrisome note, particularly in a comment from that same media session more fully transcribed by The Delaware Post (via BDL):
"Health is going to be an issue. There's nothing I can really do about it. It's arthritis in the knees. Cartilage is missing. That's not going to regrow itself. Maybe in the future, the next three to five years, there may be something out there that really does help. For right now, it's a waiting game."
That's the thing: with cartilage damage, it's always
a waiting game. There will come a point when that specific structural damage will beat Bynum, and limit how much he can offer on the basketball court. There's only so much that can be done to alleviate the stress on the knee that results from a lack of cartilage, and only so many surgeries that can be performed to extend the playing career of a player with that kind of damage. This isn't to say that Bynum is done, but that the damage in his knee cannot be undone. Even if he pans out as a superstar-caliber player over the next several seasons, the physical limitations of his knee will always loom, and that bone-on-bone pressure will always threaten to sideline him for weeks or months or even years. It's an unfortunate way to play out a career, but one that's unavoidable for Bynum from this point forward.