Andrew Bynum's Knee Injury Won't Squash the Philadelphia 76ers' Ceiling

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2012

Oct 17, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Andrew Bynum (33) (in street cloths) sits next to center Dan Gadzuric (14) at the end of the bench during the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Wachovia Center. The Sixers defeated the Cavaliers 113-99. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

The Philadelphia 76ers' much-heralded Andrew Bynum era has started off with a thud.

After acquiring Bynum in the summer of 2012 for swingman Andre Iguodala and a few minor pieces, the Sixers suddenly had a presumed franchise cornerstone again, something missing in Philadelphia since Allen Iverson in the mid-2000s.

One week into the 2012-13 season, however, Bynum still hasn't suited up for the team.

A bone bruise in his right knee, originally scheduled to keep him out until Oct. 24, is turning out more problematic than expected. As of Nov. 5, Bynum is still out indefinitely, with no public timeline for his return.

The Sixers knew when trading for Bynum that his knees would be one of the major concerns about him. (The others: His semi-regular bouts of immaturity and his upcoming free agency in 2013.)

It's no exaggeration to say the fate of the Sixers' 2012-13 season rests with the health of Bynum's knees, which have been balky to date over his seven-year career.

If this bone bruise subsides in the next few weeks, allowing Bynum to play at least 60 to 65 regular-season games in 2012-13, the team will likely only benefit from his early-season absence.

If it ends up being more serious, limiting Bynum throughout the year, the Sixers' chances at advancing deep into the playoffs will go up in smoke.

In September, Bynum traveled to Germany for the same Orthokine procedure on his knees that reportedly made former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant feel years younger.

After he returned, the Sixers claimed that they would hold Bynum out from most of the preseason for precautionary reasons.

He felt discomfort before the start of training camp, and the team wanted to provide him maximum recovery time, recognizing that they need a fully healthy Bynum to have any chance of playing deep into May (or June).

His preseason absence may have been a disappointment for Sixers fans, but it could have been a blessing in disguise for the rest of the Sixers' new offseason acquisitions.

By adding Jason Richardson, Dorell Wright and Nick Young, the team reinvented itself as an inside-outside club, instead of the transition-reliant, half-court-deficient offense that they had run in recent years.

Bynum would provide the muscle inside and help the Sixers improve their half-court game, specifically giving them a dump-off option late in the clock when plays otherwise break down.

Richardson, Wright and Young, meanwhile, would benefit from the theoretical double-teams that Bynum would be drawing, leaving at least one of them wide-open from the wing.

The absence of Bynum means that the Sixers' inside-outside game won't thrive as it's meant to, meaning that the team needs to find other ways to win so long as Bynum remains sidelined.

In theory, this is only a positive.

In the playoffs, teams aren't guaranteed to dictate their own terms against their opponents. The Sixers may need to win games by trading blows and matching buckets one night, then relying on stout defense the next.

Having Richardson, Wright and Young become accustomed to the Sixers' old style in Bynum's absence will only give the team more offensive options when Bynum returns.

Then again, that "when" is becoming more and more of a question.

If Bynum returns within the first 10 or 15 games of the season, the team still has time to acclimate to the post-centric inside-outside game long before the playoffs start.

To date, there's no reason to believe that Bynum's knee bruise should keep him out longer than that.

However, there's always the chance that Bynum's knee troubles remain chronic throughout the 2012-13 season. If he can't play at least 45 games, the Sixers could very well struggle to earn a playoff berth.

The Sixers simply need to stay afloat at somewhere around a .500 level while Bynum (and now Richardson, too) remains sidelined.

Whenever Bynum returns, the Sixers have a chance at emerging as one of the elite teams in the East. Until then, the Sixers won't be much more than the eighth seed they were in the 2011-12 season, despite how defensively solid they appeared in their opening-night victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Call me a hopeless basketball romantic, but I'm still of the mindset that Bynum's coming back sooner rather than later and that his knee problems won't prove chronic this season.

He's admitted that he'd be able to play with the pain, but the Sixers simply want to be cautious, ready to sacrifice a few early November games for a fully healthy Bynum later in the season.

If he's not healthy come playoff time, though, the Sixers' chances of getting deep into the playoffs are slim to none.