LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers battled the Golden State Warriors to the very end in last night's play-in game, coming away with a 103-100 victory. The Lakers are now officially the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket and will play the Phoenix Suns in the first round. It is the lowest seed a LeBron James team has entered the postseason since the 2007-08 Cavaliers finished fourth in the Eastern Conference.
It will require a Herculean effort from every corner of the roster for the Lakers to mount a title defense. Rarely before has a defending champ faced a more difficult path to get back to the Finals, much less win it all again. That was extremely evident last night when Los Angeles needed a Hail Mary three from LeBron to pull away from the 39-33 Warriors. The King himself was clearly not at 100 percent and that was before he got poked in the eye by Draymond Green. Anthony Davis did not play well at all. Dennis Schroder looked like a player who would be lucky to make $10 million total in his next contract, not the $100 million he's reportedly searching for.
It is worth considering, however, what happens if they do pull it off. Specifically in context of LeBron's basketball legacy and, of course, how it measures up to the one and only Michael Jordan. For Charles Barkley's money, he thinks a title would change the GOAT conversation quite a bit.
The first step is Phoenix, and we are not accustomed to seeing LeBron lose to a team like the Suns. They're filled with quality players and have two legitimate stars, but have essentially no postseason experience outside of Chris Paul. My guess is the ESPN panel tasked with selecting who will come out on top in the series will largely favor the Lakers because who would pick Devin Booker in his first playoff series over LeBron freaking James?
But the Lakers had very little margin for error against Golden State last night. They'll have even less against a Phoenix team that won 51 games this year. It will be on LeBron and AD to get through the first round. After that will likely come the Nuggets, boasting the likely league MVP, or the Trail Blazers, featuring the most dangerous playoff performer the last few years. Then they'll have either the Clippers, featuring the best wing duo in the NBA and the only man to put the clamps on prime LeBron, or the Jazz, the best team in basketball all season long. And then they'll see the Nets with more scoring power than ever before seen on one team or a Sixers squad with their own MVP candidate paired with one of the best overall defenders in the league.
So, yeah. It's going to be hard! Especially since LeBron is still getting healthy and getting back into playing shape and Davis' three-point shot has all but abandoned him this year. But if the Lakers do it. If LeBron goes Zero Dark Thirty on everyone as he promises every year and averages a triple-double en route to a fifth championship. If he actually, truly defies all the odds and defends the bubble title. The question will be asked (whether we like it or not): what will this mean for his legacy? How would it change the GOAT debate hammered into the ground by everyone's favorite sports analyst?
The answer doesn't really matter all that much because I don't think this debate will ever stop. Just listen to Stephen A. Smith explain why winning a title as a seven-seed wouldn't be that impressive, actually. People can and will do that for every single one of LeBron's past and potential future rings. The man could win double-digit championships and a very large segment of the sports fan population would still argue most should not count in the grand scheme of legacy.
It is interesting to me that this process of deconstructing the quality of championships has not applied to Michael Jordan yet. It's easier to do so right now with LeBron because it's all happening in front of us, but one would think the pendulum would eventually swing the other way, right? How long will it take until LeBron truthers start to argue that Jordan got lucky when he saw the Jazz in the Finals because their best players couldn't guard MJ? Or that "The Shot" was actually the luckiest in NBA history and he shouldn't be lauded for it? There is an online segment that does that already and notes that Jordan was dropping big numbers against dudes who wouldn't see the floor in today's NBA, but it hasn't reached the extent we're seeing right now with LeBron.
Regardless, I'm with Barkley here, as discussed in a March episode of the Kyle Koster Podcast after LeBron got hurt. To win a championship as a low seed is one thing. To do it after missing the last two months of the season due to an ankle injury is another. To do it all at 36-years-old after the shortest offseason in basketball history? Two championships in a nine-month span, never before seen? I don't see how that wouldn't be considered the greatest title run of all time. LeBron already matches Jordan in most statistical measures and has him beat in a few. To have all that and then to architect the most difficult championship stretch ever is a game-changer for the silly conversation of greatest of all time.
It probably won't happen. LeBron made the big shot of the game last night, but was not the world-destroying force he must be in order to get through three rounds of tight playoff games and then the Finials. It feels as though we're still somehow underestimating the toll it took on these players to win a title in October and then get back on the court in December. But man, it'll be fun to see him try.