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Bryant's latest six-week absence another step back for him and Lakers

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The Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant were just inching back to normalcy. While Bryant had only played six games this season and the Lakers were still under .500, there was hope that they would heat up eventually. That hope took another blow on Dec. 19, as Bryant's latest injury will put him back on the bench for six more weeks.

This time around, Bryant suffered a left knee fracture on Dec. 17, although it is far less serious than the Achilles tear that ended last season and delayed his return this season. Nevertheless, the Lakers announced he will be out for six weeks anyway, in the latest blow to the franchise and its hobbling icon.

Los Angeles is under .500 and is unlucky enough to be in the Western Conference -- whereas it would be a contender in the East with its 12-13 record. However, this record and the Lakers' playoff hopes may well be worse by the time Bryant returns, to the point where a playoff berth would be a long shot.

In that context and with Los Angeles a world championship longshot, its hard to see what Bryant would be coming back to this year. In the bigger picture, it is getting harder to see why Bryant keeps coming back at all -- and why the Lakers still gave him a two-year, $48.5 million extension last month anyway.

That extension, as well as the desperation to cling to a declining Bryant, may make it harder for Los Angeles to get the mega free agents it needs to contend again. Yet next summer's free agent class will be filled with big names, and the appeal of playing with Bryant - and potentially being his successor in Lakers lore -- might still be strong even now. Then again, Dwight Howard failed miserably at it last year and appears to be much better off in Houston.

There will be serious time to ponder these issues next offseason, which could start sooner than the Lakers like, or are used to. Yet Bryant will go right back into rehab first, so that his second comeback this year can go much smoother and longer -- even if it just ends in a one-and-done postseason for the Lakers. Whether Bryant and Los Angeles can still do more than that together is a harder question.

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