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