All-Star Weekend is over, which means we’re heading into the final stretch of the regular season. It is during this time that the playoff seedings are finalized. Contending teams usually use the last two months of the regular season to position themselves better in the standings, with the goal of earning home-court advantage. For teams looking from the outside, this is the opportunity to make that strong push that will catapult them into the postseason.
But for the Los Angeles Lakers, the next couple of months will be a chance for them to turn their season around. It will also be an opportunity to help protect LeBron James’ legacy from some serious backlash if they fail to make the playoffs after he took his talents to Hollywood with so much hype.
LeBron and the Lakers were humming along smoothly when they were the fourth-best team in the West back in December, and if the Christmas Day game against the Golden State Warriors was an indication, it seemed that they were gunning for a top seed in the conference.
Then LeBron got hurt.
The Lakers superstar suffered a groin injury in the third quarter of that game, and although Los Angeles was able to beat the Dubs 127-101, it also marked the beginning of the team’s slow, painful downfall to where it is at now.
The Lakers were 20-14 before LeBron’s injury, but they’ve only won eight games since and are three games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The ninth-place Sacramento Kings are also ahead of the Lakers with a 30-27 record.
James’ lengthy absence isn’t the only reason for the Lakers’ recent struggles. Veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, undoubtedly the team’s second-best playmaker, also suffered an injury that caused him to miss a month for the second time this season. The Lakers’ young core has shown flashes, but they weren’t able to hold down the fort with LeBron and Rondo sidelined, and Lonzo Ball remains sidelined with an ankle injury. The rest of the roster, including quirky veterans like Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley (now traded), is flawed.
Then there were the Anthony Davis trade talks. The Lakers went after disgruntled New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis, and they were willing to offer almost their entire roster to acquire him. This naturally caused some stress and tension in the locker room, and Los Angeles suffered a 42-point beatdown at the hands of the Indiana Pacers a day before the trade deadline.
LeBron James played in that game.
The Lakers were also recently blown out by the Philadelphia 76ers with LeBron in the lineup, and they went into the break with an ugly loss to the lowly Atlanta Hawks. There have been rumblings about how Los Angeles is “privately concerned” about James, not to mention constant rumors about Luke Walton’s job security, which some will pin on LeBron. While the Lakers’ roster is flawed and injuries have been a major problem, the superstar is still in line to take a lot of blame if things continue to go south.
Let’s say the Lakers miss the playoffs. It would be the sixth straight year of that. Would that hurt the franchise overall? Not really. Would it hurt the fans? For sure.
Would that hurt LeBron’s legacy?
The standards for LeBron James have always been different, considering how great he has been throughout his 16-year career. Every single accomplishment brings him closer to Michael Jordan’s status, and every blemish pushes him away.
LeBron’s six losses in the NBA Finals are one of the major reasons why he is still not considered the GOAT, and even if he wins three more championships, that narrative about him might no longer change.
Still, LeBron has been able to close the gap between him and MJ because of how phenomenal he has been in the playoffs over the past eight years. So, if he is be able to will the Lakers into the postseason, that will speak volumes about his mentality to win, one aspect of his game that has been severely criticized by a lot of people.
Yes, we all know that it is possible that LeBron’s move to the Lakers is more about business than basketball, but that’s not an excuse for him to take a break this season. He just turned 34 years old a few months ago, and the player he is currently being compared to won his sixth title and second three-peat at the same age.
But enough of Jordan. LeBron’s in Lakerland, which means his direct competition right now is Kobe Bryant, the player who helped bring five titles to Los Angeles.
Five years ago, Bryant was banged up, but still found a way to lead the Lakers into the playoffs. He paid dearly for it, though, as he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury that led to some of the most awful years of his career.
Of course, no one wants LeBron to end up like Kobe. But we also know that he spends millions of dollars just to make sure he’s in tip-top shape. If Bryant, who was already hampered by injuries, was still able to find a way to push the Lakers into the playoffs, there’s no excuse for James to not be able to do that at 100 percent.
Statistically, there’s no better all-around player than LeBron. In fact, if the discussion is all about numbers, then he has nothing left to prove. But that is also the reason why statistics were never brought up here, because his legacy is defined by more than just statistics. His legacy is also defined by his character, leadership, and will to win.
If the Lakers don’t make the playoffs, much of the blame will fall on his shoulders.