D'Angelo Russell

The NBA Finals are over and one thing is crystal clear: The gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots has never been greater. Sure, true parity has always been elusive in this league. Before the start of the season, you know who the championship contenders are. You don’t get many surprises; at least not like baseball or football.

From the moment Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, everyone knew how this movie would end. In 2018, barring a catastrophic injury to a superstar, it will be Golden State vs. Cleveland, Part IV.

That brings us to the Los Angeles Lakers. They used to be somebody. They were one of those teams you could count on to reach the NBA Finals. Boy, 2010 seems like eons ago. This is a critical time in the history of the league’s glamour franchise.

A revamped front office led by novices is in charge. Magic Johnson, the president of basketball operations, has absolutely zero qualifications for that job. Johnson, who has no front office experience, hired Rob Pelinka as his general manager. He’s a former agent who also has no experience.

These are the people with whom the Buss family has entrusted the future of their most valuable asset. That’s a lot of faith and it’s a huge gamble. According to Forbes, the Lakers are valued at $3 billion, making them one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world.

Johnson and Pelinka are going to be responsible for getting the Lakers back to relevancy. This is a pivotal time for a franchise in desperate need of star power – perhaps more than other NBA team. The Lakers are essentially a family business. They are not like other sports teams where the owners have other business means. Guys like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert have other, profitable ventures. For the Buss clan, the Lakers are it.

How do you save the family business? Johnson and Pelinka’s plan is obvious but not easy. First, they absolutely, positively must choose the right player in next week’s NBA Draft. Second, they absolutely, positively must lure a key free agent by the summer of 2018.

The Lakers’ roster is basically disposable. Johnson has already said that last year’s rookie Brandon Ingram is the lone untouchable. The current roster does not have a single player who rated among the top 70 in player efficiency ratings. Previous first-rounders like D’Angelo Russell (2015) and Julius Randle (2014) have a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) rating of 0.8, 0.1 respectively. An average player is -2.0. Based on what we’ve seen so far, Russell and Randle aren’t anything special. As for Ingram, his VORP is -1.1, but since he’s a rookie he gets a pass.

Ingram was the No. 2 overall pick last year. Russell was the No. 2 overall pick in 2015. L.A. owns the No. 2 overall pick yet again in this year’s draft. The bad news is that No. 2 overall picks haven’t fared well in recent drafts. The last No. 2 overall selection to make an NBA All-Star team is Kevin Durant in 2007. The Lakers cannot afford to potentially strike out on the No. 2 pick for the third straight year.

It seems fairly obvious that the Lakers will take UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball.

They need a point guard. Since high school, Ball has been hailed as the second-coming of Jason Kidd. And it would be a marketing home run for a team looking for a superstar to sell.

But there has been recent speculation that L.A. isn’t entirely sold on Ball. SB Nation reported that Ball showed up out of shape. And of course, the team that drafts Ball must deal with his loudmouth father. Could L.A. really pass on Ball to instead take Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox or Kansas’ Josh Jackson? That seems like a stretch.

Ball looks like the right guy to give the Lakers more juice on offense. With Ball, UCLA had the nation’s second-most efficient offense last season after being 51st in 2015-16. But perhaps L.A. thinks Fox is the better choice. The speedy Kentucky point guard did score 39 points on Ball in the NCAA tournament.

And what about Josh Jackson, who might be the safest pick in this draft? He’s a two-way player who might be even better on defense than on offense – and he has tremendous offensive ability. The one negative? The off-court stuff might make the Lakers shy away.

Do you go with Ball, Fox or Jackson? Magic Johnson can’t miss here. If the Lakers do get a promising young star and Ingram develops, then they’ll have something to work with. Young, spry players could help attract a top-flight free agent in the summer of 2018. There has been plenty of talk about Pacers star Paul George returning to his home state of California with the Lakers being his preferred destination.

If true, the Lakers should wait and not be tempted to trade valuable assets now to Indianapolis. Don’t do what the New York Knicks foolishly did when they gutted their roster in a trade with Denver for Carmelo Anthony in 2011 despite everybody knowing that Anthony wanted to go to New York.

George is the most attractive free agent who will definitely be in play. Virtually every team could use the NBA All-Star and some might push to trade for him this summer. The Lakers are far away from contention, but might be a little step closer in after next season.

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

If George falls through, what other free-agent options are out there? Well, if Russell Westbrook doesn’t agree to a supermax extension this summer, the league’s reigning MVP could go on the market in 2018. Westbrook earned plenty of goodwill for staying with the Thunder last year – but all he really did was postpone his possible free agency from this summer to 2018. Westbrook is a UCLA grad and a California native. Imagine the league’s most athletic player in LA?

However, is the Lakers’ roster any better than Oklahoma City’s? Other free agents for 2018 could include DeMarcus Cousins, Andrew Wiggins, and LaMarcus Aldridge. There’s even a somewhat preposterous rumor circulating about the ultimate 2018 free agent – LeBron James. James owns a home in Los Angeles.

Nah. Can’t see it.

There are a lot of moving parts in free agency. The one thing Johnson and Pelinka can control is who they draft. That’s Job No. 1. By getting the right player that would open up many possibilities. And with Pelinka’s player connections (he is most famous for being Kobe Bryant’s agent), perhaps Los Angeles will can get a big-name on its roster by 2018.

In a few years, the Lakers will try to go from being one of the Have-Nots to being one of the Haves once again. The harsh reality, however, is that it still might not be enough to beat Golden State.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.