Since LeBron James moved to sunny LA, it’s been written on every sports blog and talked about on every radio show and podcast that the Western Conference as a whole would make his life tougher.
But as we get closer and April and the NBA Playoffs is looming, the postseason seems to be poised to be a threat to LeBron”s on-court legacy.
Almost every LeBron fan will tell you that his Finals record should not be held against him.
“Why punish someone for making it to the Finals, but not punish another player for missing the Finals all together?” they will ask. And while this is a valid argument, fans may soon have to shift away from that narrative altogether. As of right now, the Lakers are on the outside looking in of the playoffs.
Already you can hear the Twitter fingers tapping away. “LeBron was hurt for most of the season.” Many will cite the groin injury James’ suffered on December 25th.
In fact, he’s played in 66% of the Lakers’ games. “Well, his supporting cast is bad,” fans will say when talking about the Lakers core, which includes two top lottery picks in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram and another first-round pick in Kyle Kuzma to go along with up and comer Josh Hart. Not to mention former champions JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, and Tyson Chandler.
The roster around LeBron is fine.
Sure, there have been some injuries, but overall it’s a real stretch to consider this team worse the worst LeBron has played with. The only difference is that LeBron is “older,” but if you look at his MPG and usage rate, both are down this season in comparison to the last few years. And, consider the younger lineup, it would actually make more sense if Luke Walton took the ball out of his hands.
But everyone knows that won’t happen. Not with LeBron. Not the way he’s played the past five years. And this could lead to the biggest knock on his legacy.
If LeBron misses the playoffs this season, there will be serious retractors from his “GOAT” camp.
Not since Jordan retired the first time have we seen a top twenty player all-time in their prime not make the postseason. The only exception to that might be Kobe Bryant’s ’04-’05 season where his second best players were Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. They went 34-48.
In hindsight, we might say LeBron’s prime didn’t stretch into the “Laker Years” but at the moment it feels like the Lakers missing the playoffs this season would be the biggest legacy blow since the 2011 Finals.
The Ohio native is in the middle of year 16, one more year than Jordan and three years fewer than the amount that Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan played. While the latter didn’t play the same position as James, nobody in the history of the league has.
No player has been able to blend force and finesse, outside and inside game, and off ball and on ball movement quite like LeBron has. The reason the trio is comparable to LeBron though is the beating they’ve taken down low.
While Jordan and Kobe attacked the basket from the perimeter, Malone, Shaq, and Duncan all made their mark down low similar to LeBron. The blows at up, which is why in year 16 we are finally starting to see the chinks in the armor of a player who has in 70+ games in 13 of the 16 seasons and made the NBA Finals the past eight years.
When you break down the stats from Jordan, Bryant, Duncan, O’Neal and Malone’s it really can be spilled up into two categories. The players who had a big impact in their last season and those who didn’t. Jordan, Bryant, and Malone all had big impacts, even if they weren’t on a championship contending teams.
Jordan’s final year at 39 he averaged 20ppg- 3.8 apg- 6.1rpg. Kobe went out big with a 60 point final game and averaging 17.6-2.8-3.7 at age 37. Malone, always delivering, chipped in 13.2-3.9-8.7 at age 40. Two players who did not have much of an impact in their final season on the court would be Shaq and Duncan. Shaq’s body at 38 was already failing him and he was able to give the Celtics 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in very limited action while Duncan, whose team won 67 games, gave the Spurs 8.6 points and 7.3 assists at age 39.
So what does this all mean? Well, LeBron is 34 right now and already dealing with a little bit of an injury bug, and far be it from me to wish or write LeBron off, but the reality is that we have two years of LeBron left. If history shows us anything, at age 36 is when star players begin to break down. When LeBron signed with the Lakers in July, many on Twitter speculated that LeBron may have one, maybe two, contracts left in him. All signs point to the Lakers being his last stop.
Which brings us back to this season. If the Lakers don’t either A. Find a way to make an Anthony Davis deal work or B. Find a way to get star players to come to play with LeBron we might have the worst possible thing happen to LeBron’s legacy. If the Lakers miss the playoffs this season and don’t get a Klay Thompson/Kawhi Lenord/Jimmy Butler/Boogie Cousins type player to come to play next to LeBron, what makes you think that an aging LeBron and the current core will make the playoffs NEXT season?
If LeBron misses the playoffs in the West, all the cards fall down on the house he has been building since he first put on an NBA jersey. “Sure, you made the Finals for eight straight years in the East, but you couldn’t even make the playoffs in the West.” fans will say. If that happens, that’s the end of the G.O.A.T debate and LeBron will be left out in the cold.