Andrew Bynum's status is no laughing matter for the 76ers. (AP)
When Philadelphia 76ers center Andrew Bynum — shelved since September with a bone bruise in his right knee and unlikely to play until January — told reporters prior to the Sixers' Friday matchup with the Utah Jazz that he'd suffered a "setback" in his left knee (which, again, isn't the one in which he'd suffered the pre-training camp bone bruise that's kept him out), it seemed like the continuation of a cosmically frustrating joke perpetrated on Philly fans who've patiently awaited for the unveiling of their low-post centerpiece since he came over in the four-way deal that shipped Andre Iguodala to Denver and landed Dwight Howard in Los Angeles. The punch line came late Saturday night, when ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Chris Broussard reported that Bynum had suffered the setback while bowling, of all things. Ba-dum-tish.
After all, the idea that the 7-foot, 285-pounder — who's probably a fair bit above that now, after months without regular full-go workouts — would push his estimated time of arrival back even further by rolling a few frames with his pals seemed at once both completely ridiculous and as reasonable as anything else that's gone on with Andrew Bynum of late. The jokes, Photoshops and GIFs came fast and furious — your leader in the clubhouse comes from Got 'Em Coach, although there's a lot to like in this "Big Lebowski"-inspired offering from @Marco_Romo and I'd sure like to see Bynum as young Roy Munson from the "Kingpin" intro — while everybody waited for more details from the 76ers, and perhaps even an explanation from the sidelined big man himself.
Bynum offered one on Sunday, holding court with reporters before the Sixers took on the Cleveland Cavaliers and reiterating some of the Friday night commentary — the left knee injury's a "mirror image" of the right knee, he said, with doctors telling him that the knee cartilage is "in a weakened state." When it came time to discuss the specifics of how his trip to the lanes impacted matters, though, Bynum had precious few answers, which is the kind of thing that quiets down the laughter and makes you start thinking about the future.
Reporter: "What exactly happened when you were bowling?"
"Nothing. I didn't do anything. I didn't twist it, I didn't fall or nothing. It just kind of broke off the cartilage and got big. Made the bone bruise bigger."
Reporter: "Like, after you bowled, you just noticed it swelled up?"
Reporter: "That's got to be a feeling — you're just bowling."
(laughs) "Yeah, obviously, that's the question that all the doctors kind of have, and myself. It's like, you do that — which is relatively nothing, three steps — what would happen when you play? I think that's the most important thing and why everyone is being so cautious. And, you know, I can't answer it, and they can't now, either. We're trying to figure out what's going on. [...] I have issues with my knees, and we're going to have to try and resolve it. There's really nothing to do, there's no surgical procedures that would really help or are safe to do at the moment. So I've just got to kind of bide my time."
The nature of the incident has led some commentators — even some in the characteristically compassionate and reserved Philadelphia sports media — to rail against what they perceive as a lapse in judgment on the center's part, to slam him for stupidity for heading out to the alley in search of some relief amid the perpetual drudgery of rehabbing his injured wheels. This comes from a reasonable enough place — again, the mental image is ridiculous, it's not as if Bynum's done much of late to quell the notion that he's basketball's new clown prince, and as Trey Kerby noted at The Basketball Jones on Monday, he's shown himself to be a bit cavalier with behavior-while-under-contract before.
But in terms of dangerous activities, bowling isn't bungee-jumping; hell, it's not even basketball. So when Bynum sounds stunned when he talks with ESPN.com's Windhorst, it sounds genuine, and you can understand why:
In the middle of defending himself for simply trying to enjoy a Saturday night out at the bowling alley, Andrew Bynum offered some sobering honesty.
"I'm sure some people feel I shouldn't [have bowled]," Bynum said Sunday night. "But I'm kind of taking the position if that happened bowling, what happens dunking? I don't see anything wrong with going bowling."
Take issue with the fact that Bynum wasn't spending that time doing some kind of prescribed stretching or exercise if you want, but the basic point — stepping toward a line on a lane and bending probably isn't anywhere near as stressful or strenuous as literally anything Bynum would have to do on a basketball court — makes sense, and if any 76ers fans weren't scared about Bynum's situation before Saturday night, they damn sure should be now. Giant men with bad knees don't tend to get significantly healthier as they age; when big, hulking things fall apart, they get more and more difficult to put back together. It's still too early to look at Andrew Bynum and see Greg Oden, but the more these setbacks mount — the more the cartilage breaks down, the fewer answers Bynum and the Sixers have for why it keeps breaking down and the less comfort the ones they do have offer — the easier it is to start feeling that familiar trepidation deep in the pit of your stomach.
For what it's worth, ESPN.com's Windhorst reports that the 76ers "aren't changing the timetable set for Bynum's return" before this most recent setback, sticking with a schedule that will see him re-evaluated in three weeks in hopes that he'll be cleared to return. In the absence of new medical information that would indicate otherwise, that makes sense, but considering we're talking about a player who has had multiple surgeries on both knees (arthroscopic surgery after dislocating his left kneecap in January 2008, a procedure to repair a torn right medial collateral ligament in February 2009 and another to repair a torn right meniscus in July 2010), had Orthokine treatment in both knees this offseason to improve arthritic conditions in both, and that his return from a subsequent bone bruise in the right knee has already been pushed back three times in less than two months, you'll forgive 76ers fans for not holding their breath on getting a clean bill of health come that December checkup.
You can also understand some Sixers fans beginning to wonder — despite having waited more than two decades for a legitimate low-post threat to anchor their offense and a dominating big man to man the middle of their defense, despite those summertime visions of contending for the Atlantic Division crown and a late-round Eastern Conference playoff run behind the inside-out duo of Bynum and Jrue Holiday, despite it all — if they'd be better off punting on the season than pinning their hopes on a full-fledged recovery anytime soon. On Saturday morning — after learning of the setback, before learning of the 7-10 split — Tom Sunnergren of Sixers-focused blog Philadunkia made the case for shutting Bynum down:
[...] Even with their center, the Sixers are, by preseason consensus, a group that could expect to win somewhere between 42 and 50 games. That's not good enough to join the top four. Unfortunately, it would be just good enough to discourage a GM concerned with his job security from taking the potentially disruptive, but necessary, risks that could position the team to win.
Enter Bynum's injury. [...] it's becoming increasing likely that the Sixers will not get a full strength Bynum this season. That's fine. Shut him down until 2013-14.
Then, with expectations further cooled, use the PR cover to flip a few of the more attractive peripheral parts (the team's depth is a legitimate and unique strength, but players like Thad Young, Jason Richardson, and Spencer Hawes are replaceable) for guys who can help down the road, but are at no risk of winning games this season.
If the Sixers shift gears now, like immediately, they could lose enough games to position themselves to draft a foundational talent like Shabazz Muhammad, Nerlens Noel, or someone of their ilk.
The comparison Sunnergren makes, of course, is to the San Antonio Spurs, who shut down All-Star center David Robinson after he broke his foot in 1997, became terrible enough to earn the top overall pick in the next year's draft and selected Tim Duncan, triggering an Alamo near-dynasty in which San Antonio fans still bask today. The difference, of course, is that Robinson was just two years into a "lifetime" contract he'd signed with San Antonio in December 1995; the Spurs' ownership and front office had already decided that "The Admiral" was the franchise's cornerstone and locked him up. Bynum, on the other hand, is in the final year of his contract and would still likely top many teams' free-agent wish lists if the Sixers elected not to offer him a long-term contract, even after dealing with knee injuries in each of the past five years and even if he barely sees the court this season. Plus, Robinson's relatively clean medical history made him a much safer bet to return from the broken foot (and the preseason back injury he'd suffered) than Bynum is to just stop feeling pain in his knees.
If you're the 76ers' braintrust, then, having ostensibly rebooted the franchise to remake it in Bynum's (increasingly awe-inspiring) image, can you just walk away from him without having gotten the opportunity to see if that offseason vision would've made in-season sense? Or, as Liberty Ballers' Michael Levin suggests in an alternately sober and sobering look at the situation, are the Sixers "too pot-committed to check out" if they think he can be even two-thirds of a franchise player, given all they invested — not only Iguodala, but a lottery-protected future first-rounder to Orlando that could wind up being two first-rounders if they haven't sent it by 2018, which is a problem because they also owe a lottery-protected first-rounder to the Miami Heat, which could turn into two first-rounders if they don't ship one to South Beach by 2015; RealGM's got the draft pick debt details — in rebuilding around Bynum this offseason? These are the questions that are making for a lot of sleepless nights in Philadelphia, and they'll continue to do so if that December checkup doesn't come back clean; the cosmic joke's never as funny when it's being played on you.
Video of Bynum's Sunday comments via Beyond the Buzzer.