Charles Barkley called a sweep after the Trail Blazers pulled off a Game 1 upset against the Lakers. I'm calling a stretch. In fact, I'm still picking the Lakers to advance to the second round of the playoffs. But many are switching sides.
Judging solely on their bubble performance, the Lakers are the worst offensive team among 22, with their starting lineup being the worst five-man unit in Orlando. So far, the Lakers have shown no signs of getting out of the slump, and them advancing past Portland is nothing but a blind fate in LeBron James. 'The guy is going to activate playoff mode and lead his team to another deep playoff run, just as he's done for the past decade' - that's a thought process of the Lakers shippers.
But what if he doesn't? What if the Lakers do end up getting bounced by Portland in the first round? How will that affect LeBron's legacy? Paul Pierce has the answer.
“LeBron's not getting any younger. This is gonna be a big hit on his legacy, and I've already said he's not a top 5 player of all time. If the Lakers don't win a championship, let alone lose in the first round - I don't wanna hear none of this GOAT talk anymore.”
Paul Pierce, ESPN
Let's step away from the subjective, and focus on the objective. Losing in the first round would without the doubt hurt LeBron's legacy. Being on the wrong side of a 1-8 upset - there's no coming back from that. Especially with having a guy like Anthony Davis on your team. Now, the Blazers aren't your typical eighth seed. Purely talent-wise, they are a team fighting for home-court advantage in the postseason. It's a series of unfortunate events that had them fighting for the final playoff spot instead, so we shouldn't look at them as your regular first-round matchup.
That being said - the Lakers have to take them down. They have two out of three best players in the series, and that in and of itself should be enough. If they fail, fairly or unfairly, it'll be on LeBron. The guy has never lost a first-round playoff series. Losing one as the No.1 seed would irrefutably diminish James' legacy.
The same goes for not winning a championship. One thing - for the first time in the last three seasons, the NBA seems to have a level playing field. There's no clear-cut favorite to win a title, and when people are putting you in the GOAT conversation, that adds to the pressure of going all the way. No one held it against LeBron when he lost to the KD'sWarriors. It was a no-pressure situation for James, something that can't be said for today's landscape of the NBA. Now there are expectations on LeBron to deliver a championship, and there are no excuses if he fails to do so. Especially since this is James' first postseason run in the Western Conference. If he doesn't match his runs in the East, the talk about LeBron's weaker conference generated success will only intensify.
So the way I see it, the only way LeBron can win is by winning the championship. Going out in the first round is something, not even his biggest advocates will be able to justify. Not winning a title wouldn't be the same tier of failure, but people would perceive it as such.
That's the burden of being in the GOAT conversation -people expect greatness, and LeBron's only option is to deliver on the expectations. Otherwise, you're out. And that's the risk James has to take.