The Los Angles Lakers have been in a free fall for over two months, and squandered opportunities to get back on track with winnable games this week. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the team a 1% chance of making the playoffs. If the Lakers can’t beat the Clippers tonight in the Staples Center, LeBron James may very well be sitting at home when the NBA playoffs roll around.

Though the process was never expected to be easy,  LeBron and the Lakers came into the season with realistic playoff expectations. In a best-case scenario, barring injuries, I think the Lakers were playing well enough in the early season to earn the 4th or 5th seed in the competitive Western Conference.

But injuries weren’t barred, and the Lakers suffered. Most importantly, LeBron James went down for a month after a Christmas Day groin injury, and point guard Lonzo Ball has been out since January. The Lakers struggled without James, but stayed in the playoff picture. With Ball out of the picture as well, and trade drama surrounding the team’s young core, the Lakers woes continued.

To put things in perspective, the Lakers were 20-14 after defeating the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, and were emerging as a legitimate Western Conference threat. In the absence of James, Los Angeles went 6-11. Even since James return to the court, the Lakers are only 4-8. Since Christmas, that combined record is an embarrassing 10-19.

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The Lakers are 5-11 in the absence of point guard Lonzo Ball. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

When James first returned, he did it in style with a near-triple double and an overtime victory against these same Clippers. Since then, LA’s “other” team traded starter Tobias Harris, but remains competitive, holding the 7th seed in the West.

Besides the need to win almost every night for the rest of the season, this game rings as particularly pivotal for that reason. The Lakers sit 4.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs and 5.0 games behind the Clippers. If the Lakers fall to 5.5/6.0 games behind these teams with 18 games to play, making the playoffs could become nearly impossible.

The Sacramento Kings also stand behind the Lakers and the postseason. At 31-31, they’re only three games behind the Spurs for the West’s final playoff spot. The Kings host the New York Knicks and will likely keep pace with a win tonight. The Spurs host the Denver Nuggets, a much tougher opponent.

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A young Sacramento Kings also aims to make the playoffs, and frankly, they may be more fun and exciting. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

There’s also a possibility the Utah Jazz slip out of the playoff standings, as they have the same amount of wins as the Clippers (36) but are firmly 5.0 games ahead of missing the postseason. Utah is also 7-3 over their past 10 games. With more games remaining than some other teams, the Jazz control their own destiny, and would like to rise in the standings, not just fight for a spot.

What will the NBA playoffs be like if LeBron James misses them for the first time since the 2004-2005 season? His departure from the Eastern Conference already laid the stage for a more competitively balanced postseason and a new representative in the NBA Finals. A LeBron-less playoffs would likely be bad for viewership and ratings. Even if it’s just a first round exit, LeBron and the Lakers hold the keys to the eyes of many fans.

Do the Lakers deserve to make the playoffs? Not the way they’ve been playing lately, unable to beat the lowly Phoenix Suns. They could easily be swept by the Warriors or Nuggets.

But if the Lakers can string together some team-building wins over the final month and a half of the regular season, and get Lonzo Ball healthy, they could still be an exciting team to watch in the playoffs.

Either way, tonight will likely set the tone for the rest of the season. The energy the team comes out with, their ability to close out the game defensively, and the way the team plays with their backs against the wall will all be telling. But at the end of the night, the Lakers desperately need a W, it’s a little too late in the season for moral victories.

LeBron James can add to his legacy tonight with more than a win: 40 points, an attainable mark, would edge him ahead of Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Will the Lakers make the playoffs? Should they sign Carmelo Anthony? Can they beat the Clippers tonight? For more, be sure to follow Sak Sports Blog on Twitter.

Featured Image: Getty Images via Sporting

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