In the best-case scenario, what could the second half of the 2011-12 season look like if the 76ers finally get a healthy Andrew Bynum on the court?
While the Sixers have dispensed with a time line for his return - they no longer say they hope to have him back by mid- January - Bynum, who at times has not operated in lockstep with his employers, has not publicly ruled it out.
He is scheduled to have his knees reevaluated on Dec. 20. While the Sixers have not updated his condition - which includes a pair of matching bone bruises and weakened cartilage in both knees - Bynum's agent, David Lee, said that the swelling is greatly reduced.
However, because there is so much uncertainty, forget about a January return and guess that Bynum can get back to the court by Feb. 1 (home vs. Sacramento), just in time for the Sixers to begin a five-game home stand right before the all-star break.
By that time, the Sixers would still have 37 games remaining on the regular-season schedule, and maybe they will have played well enough to stay in the hunt for one of the bottom seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
That would give Bynum, who for a man of his size (he's modestly listed at 7 feet) has done an exceptional job of keeping weight off while inactive, about three months to play himself into shape.
I asked the head of pro player personnel for an elite Western Conference team how having Bynum on the floor could change the way teams plan for the Sixers.
Taking into account the rust and the lack of conditioning - Bynum last played in an NBA game eight months ago - he still felt that the Sixers would be a significantly more dangerous team.
He views the Sixers, as of Friday ranked 27th in points per game (92.8), as a limited offensive team that has stockpiled spot-up shooters (Dorell Wright, Jason Richardson) too reliant on shots from the outside. The problem, he said, is that beyond Jrue Holiday the Sixers are mostly incapable of getting to the basket.
"They don't have anybody on their roster who can consistently attack the rim and put pressure on the rim," he said. "Jrue Holiday is the closest thing they have to a pure penetrator, but not having that consistently is going to continue to contribute to their struggles because they don't apply pressure at the rim.
"That's what Bynum will do," he continued. "He will change that in a major way. He is a powerful force. Of the biggest people in the league, he has the best combination of size and ability at the rim in the league."
The team's shortcoming has put added pressure on Holiday, who leads the league in turnovers despite his dramatically improved play.
"Do you ever see the 76ers throw lobs to their big men? No," the personnel man said. "Holiday never gets to throw them the way [Boston's] Rajon Rondo or [Brooklyn's] Deron Williams does. I think he plays with more pressure to do more than any other point guard in the Eastern Conference."
The biggest change will be in their shooting, not from just the outside but from everywhere else on the court. Offensive stagnation shouldn't be the problem it has been.
"The shooters will benefit, and they will start, as a team, to score more efficiently," he said.
The biggest weakness in the Sixers defense has been on the perimeter. The loss of Andre Iguodala is a part of that, but it's not the entire reason. The Sixers have gotten bigger in the paint (when Kwame Brown is healthy), but no one is blocking shots as well as undersize and now-departed Elton Brand did last season (1.6 per game).
Bynum, who averaged almost two blocks per game last season, would allow the defense to extend farther out, with defenders knowing they'd have help if they are beaten. A good defense would become better.
"He can defend the other good post players in the league and he can defend the rim and cover up a lot of mistakes and breakdowns," the personnel man said. "They will be able to be more aggressive with him, and they won't get punished for being aggressive when he's out there."
Is it wishful thinking to think Bynum can return and be a force? Perhaps. However, he has already watched millions of potential dollars disappear. The only way he can staunch that is to reemerge and show that he's healthy.
Like, maybe by Feb. 1.