That’s according to Nick Wright, who believes LeBron James’ legacy will be affected if the Lakers miss out on the playoffs altogether or meet the Golden State Warriors in the first round and get eliminated.
Los Angeles were cruising to the post-season earlier this year and sat in the No 4 spot in December before LeBron got hurt on Christmas Day in a win at Golden State.
LeBron’s injury kept him out for 17 games and even since his return the Lakers have a losing record, going 2-5 since he returned against the LA Clippers and 8-14 overall since Christmas Day.
The Lakers have just 26 games between now and the end of the season and have slipped to 10th in the West on a 28-28 record, which puts them 2.5 games back on the Clippers in eighth – albeit having played one game less. The Sacramento Kings are also sandwiched between the two L.A. teams.
In their final game before the week-long All-Star break, the Lakers take on the Hawks (18-38) at State Farm Arena on Tuesday night (4.30pm PST/Wednesday 12.30am UK time).
And Wright thinks the importance of that game is huge for the franchise and for LeBron – who has not missed the playoffs in any of his last 14 seasons in the league.
“Can they get into the playoffs even if they don’t play great? The answer’s yes,” Wright told First Things First on Fox Sports.
“Sacramento are about to hit a rough stretch. We know the Clippers just don’t want to make the playoffs. They beat Boston and they’re probably upset about it. Here’s why, they want to keep their picks. It goes to Boston if the Clippers make the playoffs.
“Can the Lakers, if they just play okay, a couple games over .500 get to the eight line? Yes.
“But can they get to the seven seed? Which would mean not only jumping the Kings and the Clippers but getting ahead of the Spurs or someone else falling off.
“I’ve said for however long I’ve been in media that one of the knocks on Kobe [Bryant] was that he missed the playoffs in his prime. Then the next two years they got bounced in the first round in the playoffs in his prime.
“He wasn’t in year 16 but I can’t simultaneously say that LeBron has extended his prime as long as anybody and then if they miss the playoffs, say ‘This one don’t count!’
“It is important that they make the playoffs. But I don’t think Denver is equipped to deal with a playoff LeBron James. If they get to the seven line and Denver is at the two, I will pick the Lakers to win that series assuming LeBron doesn’t get injured in game 82.
“They got 10 losses maximum they can play with. The team they’re chasing San Antonio – remember third game of the year, LeBron hits the three to put it into overtime against San Antonio and then misses those two free throws, Patty Mills comes down and hits the game-winner.
“That’s the reason San Antonio won the season series 3-1. The same record as San Antonio, San Antonio gets the seed ahead of you. Everything matters.
“And they now play at Atlanta on Tuesday. That’s a must-win game if you’re talking about the Lakers winning a playoff series.
“I think LeBron is going to play great post-All-Star break and I think they’re going to make the playoffs. But if they lose at Atlanta, last game before the All-Star break and you lose to the damn Hawks, all of a sudden you’re below .500 at the break.
“Then them missing the playoffs becomes a real conversation no matter the Kings’ schedule, no matter the Clippers trying to tank.”