Kobe's future after latest injury?

Kobe Bryant is injured again. The Lakers' star, who just returned from a left Achilles injury, suffered a fracture to his left knee and is expected to miss six weeks. Did he come back too soon? Is the setback a blessing in disguise? Our panel reacts:

1. Your first thoughts when you heard about Kobe's injury?

Larry Coon, ESPN Insider: My first reaction was, "Huh?" followed by "fluke." Players get injured, and there's no indication (that I've seen) that this injury is connected to his Achilles injury.

Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: "Earmuffs." As in, someone might want to get Bryant's daughters out of earshot Thursday evening because I could see him letting out a cathartic, expletive-laced tirade after this one. Bryant's immediate reaction to his torn Achilles was sadness and tears. I think this knee fracture will be maddening to him more than anything.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: That this is the continuation of a depressing rollout. Since his return, he hasn't looked like Kobe Bryant. He's looked like Kobe Bryant moving underwater on a broomstick leg. All of the Lakers' public-relations and myth-making pomp couldn't change the reality that Kobe was returning quite early from a devastating injury. We'll never know for certain if Kobe's hasty return caused this fracture, but the optics aren't great here.

David Thorpe, ESPN Insider: I saw it live, tweeted about it, then was surprised to see he stayed in the game. It came on such a nondescript movement, one that he has made countless times in every game he has played. Aging is not fun.

Mike Wallace, ESPN.com: Derrick Rose, Part 2. Kobe's knee injury gave me instant flashbacks to how Rose returned from that long recovery from one knee surgery, only to go hurt the other knee. Now with Kobe, it's also a case of a comeback in one instance and then a setback. You just hope both stars can eventually get close to their old form again.

2. In your opinion, did Kobe come back too soon?

Coon: There are a lot of facets to this answer. Considering just the Achilles, he came back when he was ready -- in fact, gave himself more time to play back into shape. In terms of his whole body, there's the danger of favoring the Achilles, leading to additional stress and injury in other areas. We'll have to see if the doctors say they are related. In terms of team strategy, maybe he should have taken the whole year off!

McMenamin: No. After seven months of cautious (yet rigorous) rehabilitation, Bryant ramped up his workouts in cautious (yet rigorous) fashion in order to get back on the court, measuring his progress with team medical personnel every step of the way. He felt ready to perform and a sense of duty to earn his keep. If Kobe decided to wait out his return and put it on the back burner just to be careful, even though he felt ready to give something out there, he simply wouldn't be Kobe.

Strauss: Yes, but it made sense from his perspective. At age 35, I understand if Kobe thought, "What's the point of waiting?" The Lakers, on the other hand, confuse me. They had a massive investment to protect, and from the outside it appears they were more concerned with hyping his hasty return than anything else.

Thorpe: Possibly, sure, though it would be hard to prove.

Wallace: No. No one knows Kobe's body better than Kobe. But sometimes even elite athletes need to be protected from themselves when it comes to pushing hard to come back too fast. Unless there's definitive proof that his Achilles rehab somehow forced him to overcompensate with the knee, I can't say he came back too soon.

3. Does this injury put Kobe's $48.5M extension in a new light?

Coon: Not a bit. The Lakers knew what they were getting themselves into when they gave a two-year extension to a 35-year-old who hadn't yet returned from a devastating injury -- or at least they should have. It's natural for guys at this stage of their careers to be less resilient and more susceptible to injury.

McMenamin: Of course it does. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said at the time that the team could have waited a month or six weeks to see a bit more of Bryant on the court before it made its offer, but he believed he had seen enough of Bryant in practice to be convinced. That $48.5 million figure would certainly look a lot different had Kupchak and the Lakers brass indeed waited it out a little longer.

Strauss: Yes, it makes a bizarrely big contract look all the worse (or better, from Kobe's perspective). Thankfully, this injury shouldn't be a long-term concern. Still, it highlights the madness of giving nearly $50 million to a 35-year-old guard coming off an Achilles rupture.

Thorpe: I always considered the extension as a gift to someone who has made that team and those owners far more money than they were legally allowed to pay him. If he was an executive on Wall Street, he would have always made more than what he did. So no, I still see it as a thank-you.

Wallace: Nope. Kobe was old and working his way back from a major injury when the Lakers backed up the Brinks truck to Mambaland. Now, he's old and working his way back from a second significant injury. The Lakers gave Kobe that money as much for what he's already accomplished as they did for what he's expected to offer moving forward.

4. Blessing in disguise for Kobe, the Lakers, both or neither?

Coon: The Lakers were playing better before Kobe's return, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't have been a much better team once he was back in shape and they had all acclimated to each other. It was a given that he was coming back, so I'd call this setback a net negative.

McMenamin: Both. The Lakers and Bryant were living with the shared mindset that Bryant would be able to return to the All-NBA-level player he's always been in short order, and the team, in turn, would be able to become a championship contender once again with Bryant leading the way. This injury is a wake-up call that those plans were much easier said than done. Both player and coach may want to rethink their approach for these next 2½ seasons. Maybe Plan B will be better.

Strauss: There is no upside for either party. Kobe's return wasn't helping the Lakers win, but at least it may have been helping them toward a better draft pick. Now they'll run coach Mike D'Antoni's system and be just good enough to miss out on the top lottery talent. Meanwhile, it's hard to see how an injury will help a 35-year-old player.

Thorpe: It can be a blessing, without a doubt. There must be a time for the Lakers without Kobe, so getting an extended look at that is good. If they can resurrect even one of the careers of their young players who have not "made it" yet, then yes, it ends up being a positive for the franchise.

Wallace: Neither. There's nothing to gain from Kobe's limbs falling apart. Yes, the Lakers were playing better before he returned, but we're fooling ourselves if we thought they would be a serious threat to make any noise out West. If there's any benefit for anyone, perhaps it opens the door for the Lakers to reconsider trading Pau Gasol.

5. How does the future look for Kobe?

Coon: Lately I've been comparing the Kobe situation to a car you've held onto for too long. I've had great cars in the past that reached that certain age where things started going wrong at an increasing rate. Eventually it came down to a choice between spending lots of money every month to keep it running, or not.

McMenamin: Uncertain. It's too early to assume that Bryant's left leg will just be a bastion of hurt waiting for the next domino to fall for the rest of his career, but it's also foolish to ignore all of the players before him who had injuries tear them apart in the end.

Strauss: It looks like the beginning of the end -- the end of a brilliant career, I might add. I look forward to finding out whether Kobe can make the transition to role-player status. If he wants to keep playing, that has to happen eventually. Can Kobe accept a Derek Fisher role? Sad as I am to see the end of his superstar reign, I'm fascinated by whether he can transform into something else.

Thorpe: The combination of his will and his age have the potential to make things far harder for him than they have to be. I'd like to see him accept a sixth-man option at some point this season or next. If he does that, his injury chances go down and his value could actually go up.

Wallace: Expect more rants, photos or unbelievable videos during the next six weeks from Kobe's social-media accounts. But also, this could be the end of his days as a bona fide catalyst capable of leading his team into title contention. That may have been the case already. But Kobe's wheels are bad. He needs help. Time to recruit Carmelo.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Michael Wallace writes for ESPN.com. Larry Coon and David Thorpe write for ESPN Insider. Dave McMenamin writes for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes for TrueHoop.
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