Lakers hope for an early Christmas

NEW YORK -- The Los Angeles Lakers have played the first 23 games of the season without injured 23-year-old center Andrew Bynum in the lineup.

As the 7-footer has been sidelined rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee, his team has shown how much they miss him, losing seven of those games without him manning the middle.

The Lakers play the Nets on Sunday in Newark, N.J., just about 40 miles away from Bynum's hometown of Plainsboro, N.J. He told ESPN.com's J.A. Adande last week that he plans to make his return to the court Tuesday in Washington when the Lakers play the Wizards. But that was before the team let second-round draft pick Trevor Booker abuse them inside in a home game against Washington, before Blake Griffin and the Clippers outscored the Lakers in the paint, and before Chicago outrebounded L.A. on Friday.

Right now Bynum's team is feeling a little like a kid who sees the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve but is told he has to wait until the next day to open them. In other words, the Lakers just want to unwrap Bynum out of those street clothes, slap a jersey on him and put his big body to work.

The chances of a surprise Sunday return are minuscule, especially after Lakers head coach Phil Jackson canceled practice in New York on Saturday. Before the Lakers started their six-game road trip, Bynum reasoned to reporters that he wanted "a couple more" practices under his belt before he finally came back.

If the team had the option, it surely would welcome a Bynum return a game earlier over an off day at this point.

"[We could] absolutely [use Bynum]," Pau Gasol said. "And Theo [Ratliff]. It would be good to have a little deeper rotation, especially on the inside game for us. We've been limited and it's been that way for a while."

Ratliff, the Lakers' offseason pickup to reinforce Bynum and Gasol on the front line, is recovering from a minor procedure on his left knee as well. He underwent an operation on Nov. 16. The team said he would be out a minimum of 4-6 weeks. He was ahead of schedule until a too-much, too-soon workout a week ago delayed his progress.

When asked when he would be available before the Lakers played the Bulls on Friday, Ratliff declined to provide a timetable as he changed into workout clothes to go lift weights before the game.

Gasol played 45 minutes against the Bulls. It was the seventh time in the last nine games that Gasol played 40 minutes or more, and L.A. lost five of those games. The heavy minutes also contributed to a left hamstring strain that has since subsided, but is a lingering threat if he keeps bearing the load by himself.

Jackson has tried to mix second-round pick Derrick Caracter into the rotation, but the rookie has cracked double-digit minutes just four times in the 13 games since Ratliff went out. At the beginning of the season Jackson said he hoped Ratliff would provide 16-20 minutes of playing time with Bynum out. He fell short of that, averaging just 8.4 minutes before knee tendinitis led to surgery.

Caracter averages 7.0 minutes per game and played just two minutes and 29 seconds Friday. When Jackson put Caracter in the game with 5:12 remaining in the second quarter, the Lakers were up by 10. When Jackson took Caracter out of the game with 2:43 remaining in the second, the Lakers were up by only two.

Jackson has praised Caracter for his attitude, but lamented that the first-year player still has a lot to learn in the triangle offense and dubbed him a "small power forward," not tall enough to bang with the true centers down low.

"There's tough times right now as far as our options as far as bodies so we look forward to get bodies back," Gasol said. "Andrew's important and Theo, especially when Andrew's not playing, is important. We just need bodies to be able to have options out there and have a good rotation so we're not forced to keep guys out [on the court] for longer than they should."

Bynum averaged 15.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 30.4 minutes per game last season. The roles were reversed last year, when it was Bynum who had to step up his game early on in the season with Gasol out for 17 games with hamstring issues. But when the two played together for all 23 games on the Lakers' championship run during the playoffs, their size could not be stopped.

So the Lakers wait in anticipation for their big present that cost Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss $13.8 million in salary this year to join in.

Only the box the sixth-year center is waiting to bust out of is stamped, "Handle with care."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.