51 Q: Can Brooklyn tread water, make playoffs again?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Can the Brooklyn Nets tread water and make the playoffs again?

The Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs last season.

Barely.

They won just 38 games, in the East that — plus coming out on top of a tie-breaker Indiana —earned them the right to face Atlanta in the first round (and lose 4-2). It wasn’t exactly an impressive season, but they got an invite to the dance.

Then this summer the Nets’ bills came due — or rather, bills came due, and they scrambled to avoid paying them.

The repeater luxury tax bill was about to land on the doorstep of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch who had ordered a reckless, crazy spending spree a few years back. He did so in an effort to put together a contender that would open the Barclays Center and grab the attention of New York. (Well, they did open the Barclays Center, so that’s one out of three goals accomplished.)

This summer the goal was to try to avoid the tax, and GM Billy King did it — and in doing so the Nets got worse in the short-term. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do. They avoided paying the tax for a mediocre team, more importantly they freed up cap space and gave themselves the flexibility to chase free agents next summer (which they need to because of a dearth of draft picks). But make no mistake, this coming year the Nets are going to be worse.

Not quite bad enough for Williamsburg hipsters to think they’re cool, but bad enough to miss the playoffs.

It all comes back to the almighty dollar. Or ruble, if you prefer. Brooklyn dodged the luxury tax this summer by getting Deron Williams to agree to a buyout for just $27.5 million of the $43 million he was owed the next two seasons (he agreed to that just to get out of town). It was a great deal for Brooklyn. Using the stretch provision on the remaining sum, Williams now only hits the Nets cap for $5.5 million (for five years).

That allowed Brooklyn to re-sign Brook Lopez to a max deal (three-years, $60 million), keeping the big man as their anchor while not paying the tax. Keeping Lopez allowed the Nets to trade Mason Plumlee rather than pay him in a couple of years (they got rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson). They also re-signed Thaddeus Young (four-years, $50 million). Then the Nets made a lot of interesting gambles looking for rotation players, bringing in Dahntay Jones, Andrea Bargnani, Shane Larkin, and Thomas Robinson.

Why are they going to be worse? Because as much as he dragged the locker room down — fellow Nets players were not sad to see the morose D-Will head to Dallas — Williams was a solid to good NBA point guard who averaged 13 points and 6.6 assists per game, plus could hit the three. He knew how to run a team on the court.

They did not land a replacement. The Nets have one of the worst point guard situations in the NBA (Philly may win that argument right now, however). Jarrett Jack is a streaky, score-first point guard who works well coming off the bench but now will be entrusted with running the entire show. Behind him are the gambles — Shane Larkin and Ryan Boatright. It could be ugly.

While the point guard slot is the most glaring issues, a lot of other things need to go right if the Nets are going to hang around .500 and make the playoffs again. They need to find some defensive stoppers and become committed on that end (they were bottom 10 on defense last season). They need Joe Johnson to stay healthy and return to vintage form (in the last year of his contract). They need Lopez to stay healthy. They need Bojan Bogdanovic to have a breakout season — he didn’t impress at EuroBasket, where he battled a concussion and an ankle injury, and shot just 4-for-24 from three.

The more likely result is the Nets don’t tread water, they sink a little, down to 33 wins or so, and that’s not going to be enough to make the playoffs again. Even in the East.

There are reasons to spin this as the summer the Nets started to do things right. By stretching Williams and knowing Johnson’s $24 million salary comes off the books next summer, the Nets could have around $44 million to chase big name free agents in 2016. They will head into next summer with options.

But if they win in the mid-30s in games (and not controlling their own first round draft pick until 2019), can they sell Brooklyn as a “win now” destination? Will name free agents want to come there? Probably not, it’s going to be a rebuilding process.

That may be the ultimate tax bill from the Barclays Center spending spree. They gave away the assets and flexibility needed to build a contender in this NBA, under this CBA. They are working to get some of that back, but it’s going to be a long road, not a quick fix.

And it’s going to mean missing the playoffs a few times.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.

Watch Jerry West’s emotional memories of trading for/his relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Jerry West has never understood why people thought he was brilliant for recognizing the talent of a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant coming out of high school. To him it was obvious.

If it had been obvious (and if that era had not frowned on the development that came with drafting high school players), Kobe wouldn’t have been a Laker, and NBA history might be very different.

For West, Kobe was not just another player, he was like a son. West talked about it on the well done TNT special commemorating Kobe Tuesday night.

What those neatly packaged TNT clip does not show is just how difficult and emotional it was for West to talk about Kobe.

West has had a life of incredible highs, but also more lows and pain than many — abused by his father and battling depression his entire life — and this is another emotional tax on the NBA legend.

Joel Embiid returns to Philadelphia rotation after nine-game absence

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When you saw the image of Joel Embiid‘s dislocated ring finger facing a direction no finger should face, you knew he was going to miss some time (even though he had it taped up and returned to that game). Embiid had surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament on the ring finger of his left hand. Ultimately he missed nine games while he recovered.

Tuesday night against the Warriors, Embiid will be back.

He will have a soft wrap on his left hand that has been cleared by the league.

Philadelphia went 6-3 while Embiid was out.

Ben Simmons stepped up — in his last five games (before Tuesday) he averaged 24 points a game on 70.6 percent shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. Without Embiid in the paint or taking up touches, Simmons took over the offense and looked much more comfortable in his role.

However, the Sixers’ offensive rating in those nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA (even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league). Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not.

When Simmons and Embiid share the court this season, their offensive rating is 106.7 — not great, but better than without Embiid playing.

Victor Oladipo returns to Pacers Wednesday, likely off bench with minutes limit

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Indiana has gone 30-17 this season and sits as the five seed in the Eastern Conference — and Wednesday they get their best player back.

Victor Oladipo — the former Most Improved Player and All-NBA team member who has been out for most of a year with a right quad tendon rupture — practiced with the Pacers on Tuesday and, as expected, will make his return to the court Wednesday night against the Bulls.

Coach Nate McMillan would not say how he planned to use Oladipo but, considering the minutes limit, off the bench seems the most likely move. McMillan said the team would revisit the minutes and role after the All-Star break.

While Milwaukee has separated itself atop the East, the next five teams — Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Indiana — are all within 2.5 games of each other and could end up in any order. If Oladipo can return close to the All-NBA form he was in prior to his injury, the Pacers become a big threat to break out of that group. If nothing else, they become a much tougher out in the postseason.