LeBron James and the Lakers are struggling mightly and looking like they could miss the postseason in a crowded Western Conference. What would be the fallout if LeBron, Magic Johnson and Co. fail to make good on big expectations? The Open Floor podcast considers this and much more, with Andrew Sharp and The Washington Post's Ben Golliver weighing in potential consequences for LeBron's legacy, Luke Walton's employment and the Lakers' roster at large.
(Listen to the latest Open Floor podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Andrew Sharp: I believe I said I don't see LeBron being on an above average defense for the rest of his career, just because of the way he's wired at these days in the regular season, and I think we're seeing that come to fruition. He's not the only problem because you can look at that roster and be like, 'They're not going to guard very well. They're going to have some issues.' But LeBron is no longer the guy who can help solve those problems on defense. And I think that's just a factor of aging and his mortality, and I think that's what we're seeing this season.
Ben Golliver: He can play better defense than he's playing right now. That's my point. We've seen it in recent postseason runs, and I think he's got to just start realizing it's going to be a disaster for him and the Lakers if they miss the playoffs. They've got to at least make it, even if they get run off the court by the Golden State Warriors, which would definitely happen. That would be a sweep with an average margin of victory probably somewhere between 18 and 68 points (Laughs). Somewhere in there. But they need to make the playoffs. There's no doubt about it.
Sharp: Well, let me ask you something because I'm curious: At what point do we see Lakers fans begin to turn on LeBron and we see a Kobe fan uprising? Because I think he's gotten the benefit of the doubt from the majority of Lakers fan throughout this season, and it speaks to the thirst that that fan base has had for any kind of relevance, and they were willing to overlook a lot of shortcomings with LeBron, or at least potential downsides that came with this era. Even back in the preseason LeBron came out and said I don't have to prove anything to these guys. I'm LeBron James.
I wonder how long that is going to last because at some point people are going to turn around, and I think it started this weekend, where he questioned whether basketball was the first priority in the lives of guys like Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram and the rest of that team. Which goes without saying you can ask the same about LeBron. So that's what I'm watching for over the next two months. I don't really see this Lakers team making the playoffs, but I'm more curious about how that plays around L.A.
Golliver: Like I said, it's going to play like a disaster if they miss the playoffs. There's no way to spin it. They're going to try to use the excuse of, 'Oh, he was injured. They were playing great before the injury.' That's not going to stick when you're talking about a franchise that came in expected potentially to make a run at the conference finals or at least the second round of the postseason. I think, for sure, it would cost Luke Walton his job if they miss the playoffs. There's no question about that. I think it would lead to some major roster shakeup this summer around LeBron.
I've said this before—and you think it's silly because you don't think these guys really care—the stuff about being the best all-around player in the world. That's a title LeBron has grown accustomed to for about the last decade. That's gone if they miss the playoffs, and I think that's a bigger deal than you're willing to let on. Because if he's not able to sort of lord over the rest of the league and have that super duper respect factor that he has enjoyed here for the last six, seven, eight years, that's going to change his perception whether it's attracting free agents—we've already seen him struggle in that regard the last couple years—but I think it's also going to shift perception of him within his own locker room. If you can be the savior and drag this team into the playoffs then you can get away with some of the nonsense in terms of the comments that you just mentioned or taking plays of on defense or taking games or weeks off on defense.
But at some point people start to see the same kind of bargains that were going on with Kobe in the last couple years, and LeBron would be fast-tracked toward that conversation, and that's now where he expected to be when he signed that four-year deal with the Lakers. He thought he was going to have three solid, I'm a goat, on top of the world type years with the Lakers. And it's trending the wrong way quickly. If they don't make the playoffs this year and they don't get a superstar this summer, then what? Are we forecasting them to make the playoffs next year?