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.

Marcus Smart’s potential game-winner sits on rim, rolls off, gives Kings win

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Boston came in on a 10-game winning streak where they had played well on both ends of the court, but they also got some lucky rolls of the basketball.

Not Sunday.

With Boston down one, Marcus Smart put up a floater as time expired in Sacramento, it looked like the shot would fall, and…

Give the Kings credit, at a rough start they have gone 5-2 in November, and that despite injuries to Marvin Bagley Jr. and De'Aaron Fox. Buddy Hield had 35 points to lead the Kings, including going 7-of-12 from three.

The Celtics had a balanced attack with six players in double figures, but their offense was not as sharp as it has been. This was the first game it looked like they missed Gordon Hayward, who is out with a fractured hand.

Report: Last summer the Lakers, among others, were hoping Suns would buy out Aron Baynes

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Aron Baynes has been critical to the Suns racing out to a 7-4 start with the fourth-best net rating in the NBA. When Deandre Ayton was suspended for 25 games (after testing positive for a diuretic, a banned substance), Baynes has stepped up and been exactly what the Suns needed. He is scoring 15 points per game, shooting 46.5 percent from three (which is opening up the floor for guys like Devin Booker), and providing a big body defensive presence in the paint.

You can see why the Lakers and other teams were hoping Baynes would hit the market this summer. From Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Suns center Aron Baynes has emerged as a cornerstone piece for Phoenix early this season, supplying defense, leadership and, yes, shot-making. Phoenix acquired Baynes on draft night, and in the weeks to come contenders such as the Lakers hoped Baynes would reach a buyout with the Suns to hit the open market, sources said. Suns general manager James Jones and new head coach Monty Williams wanted Baynes — and are now receiving the rewards for the offseason move. Through 11 games, Baynes is averaging 15 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 46.8 percent 3-point shooting (two 3s made per game). Baynes will enter free agency next July, and as one team executive said, “He is positioning himself for well over $10 million per year.”

Smart move by Phoenix’s management to hold on to Baynes as an Ayton insurance policy (one they ended up needing). Plus, when trying to change a team’s culture (as Jones and Williams are working to do in Phoenix), you can’t have enough hardworking professionals in the locker room. Baynes brings that.

The Lakers thought they would have DeMarcus Cousins in the paint, but he tore his ACL over the summer. The tag team of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee has worked surprisingly well for Los Angeles to start the season.

In what will be a down free-agent market next summer, Baynes is going to be in demand. His payday is coming.

Dion Waiters on suspension: ‘It’s a minor setback. It happens. It’s life.’

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Dion Waiters has yet to set foot on the court for the Miami Heat this season and is currently sitting out a 10-game suspension by the team for “conduct detrimental to the team.” He is not suspended for the gummy bears incident, but rather a series of team infractions (remember he was suspended for opening night, too, after a run-in with coach Erik Spoelstra). However, the fact this suspension came after that well-publicized disruption to the Heat is not a coincidence.

With his time off, Waiters went back to Syracuse, where he played in college, to talk to his old coach Jim Boeheim, someone Waiters sees as a father figure.

While there, Waiters talked about his suspension publicly for the first time,  speaking with Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com.

“I just wanted to come up and talk to Coach,” Waiters said. “I know that’s a person who will always be there for me if I ever need anything. It’s a chance for me to come up, be around, talk to the coaches, things like that. And that’s important….

“I’m not going to lie to you, I’m in a great place,” he said. “I can only control what I can control at the end of the day, so some things you just can’t allow to take your head the other way, some things happen for a reason. If you stay locked in, if you believe and trust in yourself, trust in the work you put in, you know, it’s a minor setback. It happens. It’s life. You learn from it. The only thing I can do is move forward. Stay focused. Stay even-keeled. Let everything else take care of itself.”

Some will want to read that as Waiters being dismissive, but in reality this is the attitude Miami wants Waiters to have — that he can move on, get past whatever issues are going on between him and the team, and come back to bolster the Miami rotation.

That said, thanks to the impressive play from rookies Kendrick Nunna Heat-style player right out of central casting — and Tyler Herro, Miami hasn’t been hurting for quality guard play. Waiters, when he returns, is going to have to earn his spot in the rotation.

How did Paul George score 70 points in 44 minutes? ‘I got new shoulders’

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Paul George is back.

Not that he really went all that far away, the man did finish third in MVP voting last season, but he faded at the end of that campaign due to shoulder pain, which led to both shoulders being operated on during the offseason. That delayed his entry into the 2019-20 NBA season by a few weeks.

He has come back looking smooth: He scored 37 points in 20 minutes against Atlanta, the most points scored in fewer than 21 minutes played in NBA history. PG13 has scored 70 points in 44 minutes across the two games with an 80.9 true shooting percentage, hitting 56.3 percent from three, and he scored the most points in a Clippers home debut (37).

How is he doing it?

“I got new shoulder. I can’t say nothing else to that, I got new shoulders. And they haven’t been this healthy in a long time.”

George has looked fluid on the court, playing great defense and clearly just having fun out there.

The Clippers have yet to play George and Kawhi Leonard at the same time because pain in Leonard’s knee has kept him in street clothes the past two games.

The Clippers have George on a minutes limit right now and are letting Leonard have all the time off he wants (George will ultimately get some load management nights, too). While that’s led to pushback from some fans — and LeBron James, trying to score some PR points on the other team in town — the Clippers shrug it off. They don’t have their sites set on November wins, they are targeting April, May, and they hope June.

George already looks in peak playoff form.