- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers have played so well to start the season without Andrew Bynum in the lineup -- a 4-0 record with an average margin of victory of 13.3 points -- that the question had to be asked:
When Bynum does fully recover from offseason surgery to his right knee that's kept him sidelined since the start of training camp, will he be welcomed back into the starting lineup with Lamar Odom playing so well in his stead?
"We like what we see from these five guys [in the starting lineup]; however, there are extenuating circumstances with Drew," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said. "He has a knee that [puts him] in a situation [where] he's got to get himself prepped before a ballgame. He wears a brace because of it and, as a consequence, once he's warmed up you hate to have a guy sit down for 15 minutes and cool off and have to start all over again."
The sixth-year center has not just been absent on the court. He has not traveled with the team to either of their two road games to start the season, opting to stay in Los Angeles and rehabilitate rather than make the overnight trips to Phoenix and Sacramento.
On Thursday, Jackson updated Bynum's status after the center went through a workout at the team's practice facility, while the rest of the team was given the day off from practice.
"He's running hard and it looks like he's about ready to do almost 100 percent load-bearing activity which we think puts him on the court sometime at the end of next week going through basketball-related drills," Jackson said.
The previous potential return date for the 7-footer that Jackson had offered up to reporters was Thanksgiving, and the coach said Wednesday that a Bynum comeback three weeks from now still "might be reachable."
"We just have to see what it's like when he gets on the court," Jackson said. "You go through all this stuff. He just has to be patient and build his strength up and conditioning. Once he gets capable of doing stuff on court, then he goes a little bit deeper and he starts running on court and then we take him into actual two-on-two or three-on-three or five-on-five. So, it's a process."
Jackson faced a similar dilemma in February of last season when Bynum went out with a hip injury and the Lakers hit a stride without him. Despite some of the members on Los Angeles' coaching staff lobbying for Odom to retain the starting spot, Jackson inserted Bynum back into the starting lineup when he was healthy enough to play again.
Bynum has yet to see any on-court action, but he has steadily ramped up his activity from running on an altered-gravity treadmill with some of his body weight removed, to running on a regular treadmill with his full weight on the knee to running outside around a local track.
"He's getting [ready] for the next season -- track and field season," Jackson joked.
Questioned before the game about potentially returning to the bench after averaging 16.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and four assists to start the year while playing what Kobe Bryant described to NBA TV as "the best basketball of [Odom's] career," the typically team-centered Odom saw no problem with assuming his previous role.
"We won two championships [with Odom coming off the bench]," the forward said.
Said Jackson: "Even though Lamar's happier starting and playing big minutes, he's still capable of doing the job and coming off the bench better than Drew would be able to do it. For the team's sake, I think it's the best process."
When Bynum does return, Jackson plans to use him in the same substitution pattern he did throughout the playoffs -- playing him the first eight minutes of the first quarter and then putting him back in to start the second quarter so his body doesn't cool down too much during the interim.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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