Andrew Bynum closing in on debut with 76ers

Center Andrew Bynum could be back on the court just before or after the All-Star Game. YONG KIM / Staff
Center Andrew Bynum could be back on the court just before or after the All-Star Game. YONG KIM / Staff
Posted: January 29, 2013

The world is a better place after a win, and the 76ers practice court was definitely a happier place Sunday morning as the team high-fived and chest-bumped through a spirited scrimmage at the end of a brief session.

On Saturday night the Sixers beat a team that is leading its division, and they did it by blowing out the New York Knicks on a night when the Knicks didn't shoot very well and, frankly, didn't seem all that concerned about it.

It's difficult to conclude that the Sixers improved their perimeter defense by inserting Nick Young, along with Spencer Hawes, into the starting lineup, but something worked. Maybe it was better defense, maybe it was just an off night for the Knicks.

"Probably a little bit of both," said Young, a dedicated gunner who played 41 minutes and shockingly led the team in assists by the end of the decisive first half.

"That's a first," he said.

After two months of drifting toward last place in the Atlantic Division, the Sixers are ready for some firsts. The biggest one of all will be the first time center Andrew Bynum plays a game, of course, and the organization is more optimistic every day that Bynum's debut is very close.

As the Sixers practiced Sunday, Bynum put in his mileage on the zero gravity treadmill. He has been participating in shootarounds on game days and also taking part in noncontact drills on the court.

According to general manager Tony DiLeo, the team believes that Bynum could begin full practice by the end of this week and might be in uniform shortly thereafter barring a setback to his creaky knees.

"We're hoping for the first of February for practice," DiLeo said. "But we have to just wait and see how it goes. He's done a lot of work, but he hasn't had to go hard and stop and start. That will be important."

The coaching staff has ramped up its preparation for getting Bynum into a game, and throughout the organization there is a giddy sense, whether warranted or not, that it will happen surprisingly soon.

"It's exciting. You give up a lot to get him, and when he's healthy and on the court, he's one heck of a player," said associate head coach Michael Curry, who ran practice Sunday in place of an ailing Doug Collins. "The fact that his level of activity has picked up and he's here working three hours or so, you're going to get excited. You start to get ready for the next phase, so we know what kind of sets we want to run and what kind of personnel we want on the court with him."

If there are no setbacks, the organization quietly is hoping to have Bynum play in a game or two before the all-star break, which begins Feb. 14. The benefit of having him play and then using the break to have him recover and evaluate how it went is a real consideration.

"We're saying all-star break," DiLeo said. "It could be a little before the break or a little after. Both are possible."

Internally, according to one team source, there is already a debate about the best setting for Bynum's initial appearance. In their last two games before the break, the Sixers are home against the Los Angeles Clippers and then at Milwaukee. After the break, they start up with a game at Minnesota, followed by a home game against Miami.

The two home games, obviously, would be difficult tests both for the team and for a 7-footer who hasn't played a minute in eight months. Would Bynum be better served by getting his feet wet with eight to 10 minutes on the road where the crowd wouldn't show its disappointment with a rusty start? That's one school of thought within the organization, which doesn't want to spend months getting Bynum ready below the neck only to lose him above it.

Those are questions that will be answered within the next two weeks, unless Bynum's knees swell and ache as the basketball activity increases. The question no one wants to ask is what happens to the team if Bynum isn't able to finish his rehabilitation.

There is a gaping hole in the middle of the court, and that hole has kept the Sixers from playing acceptable defense, particularly at the beginning of games. It has allowed opponents to focus their own defensive efforts on the Sixers backcourt and perimeter attack. A healthy Bynum would alter those equations significantly.

"People have to understand that [other teams] have to totally change their personnel when he's on the court, and totally change the way you guard," Curry said.

Bynum's presence (yes, if, if, if) would transform the Sixers from a flawed team heading for 50 losses on merit to a postseason team that could be dangerous once there. It is all possible, and everyone from the ball boys to the players, from the coaches to the front office can see it as Bynum sweats away another day on the treadmill and still feels good.

You hope they catch a break this time and it comes true, because this hasn't been a fun season for anyone. It is dangerous to hope, though. The only thing worse for the Sixers than not expecting to have Bynum might turn out to be the opposite.

Bob Ford:

Monday          Memphis

Wednesday       Washington

Friday             Sacramento

Next Monday       Orlando

Wed., Feb. 6       Indiana

Sat., Feb. 9       Charlotte

Mon., Feb. 11       L.A. Clippers

Wed., Feb. 13       @ Milwaukee

Feb. 14-19       All-star break

Wed., Feb. 20       @ Minnesota

Sat., Feb. 23       Miami

Sun., Feb. 24       @ New York

Tues., Feb. 26       Orlando

Thurs. Feb. 28       @ Chicago

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