LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers are the only NBA playoff team whose success prompts both optimism and wistfulness, an acknowledgment of how good they've become and curiosity about how much better they could be if they had Andrew Bynum.
Bynum, who averaged 13 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 35 games, hasn't played since he injured his left knee in a game against Memphis on Jan. 13, and the official Lakers stance is there's no set target date for his return. That leaves everyone to wonder whether he'll be back in time to join the Lakers during the playoffs.
The only place, it seems, where there isn't much speculation is in the Lakers' locker room, as indicated by Coach Phil Jackson's response to how Bynum's return would affect the chemistry that's developed between Lakers big men Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
"Andrew would come off the bench and we would play him a little bit off the bench if there was any chance that he would come back and play," Jackson said. "But it's such a remote thing that we're really not seriously thinking about it."
That's a pretty clear indication of the Lakers' mind-set: Prepared to move on without him.
Kobe Bryant said he has told Bynum that the most important thing is for him to take his time. Bynum talked to the media on the last weekend of the regular season, saying the issue with his knee was being able to trust it when he landed (he first injured it when it gave out when he landed). He's worried about overcompensating, which could cause other injuries.
After Lakers practice Monday, he said he was "feeling less pain."
But Bynum didn't seem like a full member of the team. He wore a white T-shirt, not a reversible purple-and-gold practice jersey. Afterward he got his knee wrapped by his personal trainer, Sean Zarzana, not one of the many members of the Lakers' deep training staff. Then, as reporters were cleared out of the practice gym, Bynum and Zarzana went to work out in what Bynum called the "first test" of his knee.
At the moment, the Lakers are particularly short-handed up front. Chris Mihm, who played a total of 82 games the past two seasons, is back. But Ronny Turiaf, who has been a productive backup, sat in the second half of Sunday's victory over Denver and was sent home from practice Monday with what the team is calling a sore throat. That sounds a lot better than when Jackson said on Sunday that Turiaf was "diseased" -- as if he had caught the bubonic plague.
To make it worse, DJ Mbenga suffered bruised ribs after he took a knee to the body Monday in practice. The Lakers are calling both Turiaf and Mbenga day-to-day.
Those are the matters for Wednesday, the second game of the Lakers' opening-round series against Denver.
There are longer-term issues in play.
Bynum hadn't traveled with the Lakers for most of the time after the injury, missing out on the longest trip in L.A. team history when he stayed home from a nine-game trek that started 18 days after he went down.
The Lakers brought Bynum along on the their trip to Sacramento and Portland for games on April 6 and 8 just to get him back in the mix with his teammates. Not only had he missed out on the camaraderie-building road trips while injured, he lost one of his closest friends on the team when Javaris Crittenton went to Memphis in the Gasol trade.
After the Lakers returned, Bynum went to New York to get his knee re-examined by his personal doctor, David Altcheck. Afterward, Bynum's return timetable was reset, Jackson said, adding that, "There's still a process to go through again to get to the spot he was at before he went back to see his doctor."
Eventually, everything in the NBA comes down to money, and there's a lot at stake for Bynum. He has one more year remaining on his rookie contract, but he can sign an extension this summer. It's not good for your negotiating position if you haven't played in six months. It also wouldn't be fair to judge him coming off a few weeks of tentative play as he re-adjusts to the game in the most pressure-packed time of the year.
On the other hand, Bynum's camp doesn't want him to be rushed back for the team's benefit at his own long-term expense. On April 11, Bynum said the possibility of lasting damage was "definitely a concern."
"You don't want to come back when you're not ready, have your muscles shut down and do something really bad," Bynum said. "I want to get all the way right before I return."
The Lakers don't want to alienate him. He's their most significant young player since the last teenager they brought aboard, a guy by the name of Kobe Bryant. They used the No. 10 pick -- their highest in 11 years -- to choose Bynum in the 2005 draft. They placed enough value in him to pass on a trade for Jason Kidd last year, one of the management decisions that caused a frustrated Bryant to publicly air his trade demands. On the other hand, the Lakers owe Gasol $49.3 million over the next three years, Lamar Odom $14.6 million next year and Bryant $69 million over the next three years -- probably more if he opts out after next season and re-signs with the Lakers.
Do the Lakers pay to keep all of them around? Do they pay Bynum the money he wants if he'll be relegated to a backup behind Gasol and Odom, both of whom have played at All-Star levels lately?
I'd take the long-term view. Leave him out for these playoffs, so he won't have to play with fear or extra pressure. Sign him to an extension this summer. If the full house doesn't work out, if there isn't enough time and space to be divvied up among the frontcourt players, they could always trade him.
If they got Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, imagine what they could get for Bynum.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.