We recently took a closer look at the ongoing recovery of Derrick Rose, who seems to be on track to make his triumphant return from a torn ACL shortly after the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in mid-February. This time, we'll take up our stethoscopes to examine another franchise-caliber talent dealing with knee troubles—Andrew Bynum.
The All-Star center has yet to play a single minute as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers since arriving in the City of Brotherly Love as part of the four-team trade that landed Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers. Bynum finally managed to play nearly a complete slate in 2011-12, albeit one truncated by the lockout.
But Bynum's chronic knee problems cropped again at practically the same moment he was introduced as the future of the Sixers. Since then, Bynum's timetable has been drawn, re-drawn and erased altogether amidst damage to his tender joints.
Some of which was done during his (ill-advised) outings to the bowling alley.
Meanwhile, Philly has fallen on hard times in Bynum's absence. The Sixers have lost 17 of their 23 games since the start of December, when they were a season-high four games above the .500 mark. At 16-23, the Sixers sit four games behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the race for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, despite an All-Star-caliber campaign from point guard Jrue Holiday.
Clearly, Philly could use a Bynum-related boost. But where is he now in his recovery? When will the big man be back? What steps must he take between now and then to guarantee his Sixers debut? And what will 'Drew's hair look like when that day comes?
Let's take a closer look, with help from famed sports performance manager Mackie Shilstone.
The most recent news out of Philly regarding Bynum's status has been nothing if not encouraging for the Sixers and their fans. According to Philly.com, Bynum has begun to partake in some on-court activities (mostly standstill shots) and has been jogging on treadmills and anti-gravity machines at a pace of up to eight miles per hour.
Of greater interest was what Andrew had to say about the pain in his knees:
"No, it's minimal. It's not hurting is what I'm saying. . . . It's time to get ready. I'm getting ready to play."
All of this comes as fantastic news for folks in Philadelphia. Most Bynum-related updates since the big fella's arrival have contained little more than tidbits of doom and gloom. The team had originally hoped he'd be in uniform before the end of 2012. However, the Sixers finally came clean and did away with timetables once Bynum revealed that he'd incurred further damage while bowling during his initial recovery.
At the very least, it appears as though nobody in the Sixers' camp need reach for good news now that Bynum has provided plenty of his own. What's more, Bynum said that he's up to around 300 pounds, on account of weightlifting rather than all-out grubbing. What effect, if any, the added gravitational pull has on his recovery remains to be seen, though Mackie Shilstone suggested that more weight of any kind could increase the torque on Bynum's fragile knees.
As encouraging as the latest developments in Bynum's recovery may be, he still has a long road ahead of him before he's ready to suit up for the Sixers. According to USA Today, Bynum is in the midst of a six-step rehabilitation process, though team officials declined to specify what exactly those steps entail.
The news of Bynum's upgrade to working on a treadmill isn't all rosy, though. The fact that he's running on an Alter-G Anti-Gravity treadmill (per Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com)—which offloads some of his weight while he runs—suggests that his knees aren't yet ready to bear his full weight. Said Shilstone:
"Until they can let him bear his full weight without having to be offloaded, you don’t really have a full picture. If he can’t do that, the basketball court is academic."
Thus, before Bynum can even think about running normally on the hardwood, he'll have to demonstrate that he can handle bearing the full brunt of his body weight while on a machine.
Unless, of course, the NBA finds a way to truly negate the effects of gravity.
Once Bynum is able to run on a treadmill without the assistance of anti-gravity technology and without pain or swelling—the typical moderating factors in recovering from an injury—he'll likely be allowed to test his legs on an actual basketball court. As Mackie Shilstone said:
"Right now, he doesn’t have any pain, but he’s not cutting, he’s not moving, he’s not bearing his full body weight. His knees are comfortable, but what he’s doing now won’t let him play basketball. He’s got to move from being able to support his full body weight, and he’s got to be able to balance the strength and the size that he’s acquired in his upper body. He’s going to have to do it with his lower body."
The Sixers won't likely have a strong sense of Bynum's viability in a basketball sense until they see whether or not his knees can withstand making quick cuts.
Cutting is crucial to the fundamentals of the game itself. No matter your height, weight, level of athleticism, speed (or lack thereof) or playing style, you have to be able to change speeds and direction in some capacity.
At least, without fear of incurring serious physical damage as a matter of routine.
Chances are, the Sixers' training staff won't allow Bynum to test the strength of his knees in a cutting capacity until (again) he's shown that he can run in a straight line without pain or swelling over a particular period of time.
How much time that requires will probably depend on the particulars of Bynum's body and how it responds to treatment and physical exertion from day to day.
Not to beat a dead horse (or a bad knee), but Andrew Bynum presumably won't get the go-ahead to parlay cutting, stopping and starting on the court into actual practice of any kind until he can change speed and direction without pain or swelling over a period of days, if not weeks.
Even then, Bynum's participation will plausibly be limited to non-contact drills, including shooting and running through five-on-none sets.
As shown earlier, Bynum is already back to honing his shooting stroke, albeit in a flat-footed capacity. He's refining the touch on his hook shot, practicing his free-throws and even launching looks from behind the three-point line.
Perhaps to the chagrin of former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike Brown.
At the very least, Bynum won't have to completely re-familiarize himself with the feel of the hardwood under his feet once he's cleared to practice.
Pain and swelling will once again be the great moderators when determining Bynum's fitness for contact when the time comes to ramp up his activities at the Sixers' practice facility. If Bynum's able to move in practice without pain and endure a bit of predictable contact over a period of time (probably a few days), then it stands to reason that he'll get the green light to partake in more drills until he's good to go for those of the five-on-five variety.
Then, once Bynum's had a chance to (finally) practice with his new teammates a bit, he'll be fit for his debut in a Sixers uniform.
It's unclear when that day will be. On the one hand, Bynum hasn't bothered to lay out any more timetables, not after the way general manager Tony DiLeo's attempt to do so earlier this season blew up in the organization's face (per Dei Lynam):
“I don’t ideally have a date, I just want to get back."
On the other hand, Bynum is still human, with hopes and dreams. In his case, those would include a return to action at some point in mid-February:
“I am hoping around the All-Star break, that is what I am hoping, but I have no idea exactly when I will be back.”
Based on Bynum's injury history, the lethargic way in which his body tends to heal and the extent to which his recovery has already been beset by delays, the All-Star break seems like a rather optimistic goal for his 2012-13 debut.
In any case, the sooner 'Drew can play, the sooner the Sixers can pull themselves out of their current slump and back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.