James hasn't missed the playoffs since George W. Bush was president. It seems crazy that we are even discussing the fact that he might not be playing in late April. But if the past week has taught us anything, it's that the NBA is a crazy place right now.
The Lakers (27-25) are just one game out of the No. 8 spot in the stacked Western Conference, but there are three reasons to legitimately doubt their ability to pull this off.
1. Three other teams are fighting for that final spot.
The Lakers aren't playing in a vacuum, and they don't control their destiny. The Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings are still in this hunt. If one of those squads rattles off a 20-10 run, the Lakers are in trouble.
One upside for L.A.? Only the Wolves are above .500 since Christmas.
The Clippers represent the biggest threat, not only because of their slim lead in the standings but also because of whom they play. ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) has the Clips with the 13th-hardest schedule the rest of the way. The Kings are at seventh, and the Wolves are fifth. (It's tough out West.)
By net rating, all four teams have been about average or worse over the past 15 games. LeBron's return would seemingly give the Lakers the edge going forward, but things aren't that simple.
2. This Lakers schedule is brutal.
Check out their next five games: at Golden State, at Indiana, at Boston, at Philadelphia and at Atlanta. If the Lakers go 1-4 on this pivotal swing, they'll be under .500 and even more desperate for every win after the All-Star break. Those wins won't come easily.
The Lakers have the third-hardest remaining schedule in the league, according to BPI. After the break, they play the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks twice, and they travel to Toronto, Utah and Oklahoma City. Yikes.
3. There's no guarantee LeBron will stay healthy.
The 2003 NBA draft was a long time ago. It's telling that LeBron is one of the last men standing from that class. Father Time is undefeated, and LeBron's groin injury didn't just deal a major blow to the Lakers' playoff chances. It also demonstrated that at 34, even this dude is mortal. He won't play in Saturday's game against Golden State (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC/WatchESPN) due to load management.
LeBron might not be close to retirement, but he isn't an indestructible iron man. With no room for error, it's imperative that James is healthy. A few more missed games could completely derail the Lakers' hopes. With James, this is a playoff-caliber squad. Without him, the Lakers are headed for the lottery.
After beating the Warriors on Christmas, the Lakers looked legit. FiveThirtyEight had their playoff probability at a comforting 67 percent. Then James missed 17 games in which the Lakers went 6-11, and that model dropped their postseason odds to 25 percent heading into Saturday's game with Golden State.
Welcome to the unforgiving West, LeBron, where there are more good teams than there are playoff spots.
Check this out: At the time James went down, the Lakers were No. 4 in the conference standings, just 2.5 games back of the Nuggets and Warriors for No. 1. Now they're No. 9, 9.5 games back of Golden State and Denver. While James was out, teams such as the Spurs, Jazz, Rockets and Blazers improved on the court and in the standings, while the Nuggets, Thunder and Warriors kept humming along.
The statistical models might be pessimistic -- and L.A. is mostly hamstrung in trade talks unless the Pelicans want to deal Anthony Davis -- but there is one big reason for optimism. His name is LeBron James, and he is the most important parameter of any NBA model this century. If anyone can turn a team around and power through a tough schedule, it's James. Need proof? Just look at the Lakers' key indicators before his injury.
In the 24-game stretch between the acquisition of Tyson Chandler on Nov. 6 and the Christmas Day win against the Warriors, the Lakers went 16-8 and ranked third in the NBA in net rating. Their offense ranked a respectable 12th in that window, and their defense was top-three. Those indicators scream "playoff team."
Can the Lakers rediscover that level of play? Thursday was a big start, as they beat their primary playoff challengers in a dramatic overtime win. These next five games will tell us a lot. If the Lakers can go 3-2, they might take the lead in this race.