How much would missing the 2023 NBA playoffs hurt LeBron James’ legacy?

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers have something of a mountain to climb when the NBA’s regular season resumes on Thursday.

They are 27-32 and 13th in the Western Conference. They’re two games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are in 10th place, and 3.5 games behind the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks.

Making the playoffs is a doable task for the Lakers, especially given their new additions. At the same time, it will be a difficult task.

LeBron James put the onus on himself during All-Star weekend when he said he wants to play in all of the Lakers’ remaining 23 regular-season games while calling them “23 of the most important games of my career.”

ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith said James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers missing the playoffs would be embarrassing.

It’s hard to disagree with Smith’s take. But if L.A. were to miss the postseason, the big question is how would it affect James’ legacy?

The answer speaks to how polarizing James is

Years ago, James was almost universally loved by NBA fans. For multiple reasons, he has become polarizing since joining the Lakers in 2018.

In his four seasons with the Purple and Gold, he led the team to one world championship (2020). He has missed the playoffs twice and lost in the first round of the postseason once (2021).

Last season was a huge embarrassment. The Lakers boasted James, Davis and Russell Westbrook yet failed to qualify for the play-in tournament.

If they were to miss the playoffs this year, that would make it three out of five years James didn’t participate in the NBA’s “second season” as a member of the Lakers.

His legion of unapologetic fans would likely place the blame on anyone other than James. They would likely blame the team’s imperfect roster construction prior to the trade deadline, Davis’ injury woes, rookie head coach Darvin Ham and perhaps the referees for some crucial non-calls in three or four close losses.

James’ haters, however, would use missing the playoffs again as evidence that the four-time MVP is, according to them, overhyped and not a high-level competitor who relishes challenges. Such observers already refuse to give him credit for his 2020 title since it came inside of the Walt Disney World Resort bubble instead of under normal circumstances.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Perhaps an objective view would be that it wouldn’t hurt James’ ranking among the greatest players ever, but it would be yet another meek exit in years his team didn’t win it all and a sad chapter in the latter portion of his career.

Perhaps his legacy would resemble that of Wilt Chamberlain, who won two NBA titles, but lost four times in the NBA Finals and dropped five Game 7s in either the conference finals or the championship series. Chamberlain is seen as a statistical behemoth and perhaps the most dominant player ever, but those who covered his career allege he choked in big games or simply didn’t give it all he had during some of his postseason losses.

James and the Lakers have no excuses now

Unless they suffer a significant injury, the Lakers seem to have everything they need to, at the very least, reach and win the play-in tournament.

In D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba, they have acquired four players who should greatly balance the roster and address the need for improved 3-point shooting and defense.

James is once again having one of the best statistical seasons of his career, and Davis has been absolutely dominant for a good chunk of this season.

According to Fox Sports 1 personality Nick Wright, a noted James apologist, L.A. only needs to go 14-9 the rest of the way to reach the play-in tournament (h/t The Cold Wire).

The team has many games coming up against teams it needs to leapfrog to reach either the play-in tournament or the playoffs via a top-six finish, giving it a great opportunity to gain ground quickly in the standings.

The time is now for James. This is a prime opportunity for him to shine brightly, and if he pulls it off while also leading the Lakers to, say, the Western Conference finals, it would ultimately stand as one of his more underrated accomplishments.

Story originally appeared on LeBron Wire