The Nets are where they are today because of Deron Williams. And that means that to get to where they want and need to be, it is up to Deron Williams.
On a fateful day in 2010, Mikhail Prokhorov make a decision with tremendous repercussive effects. The Nets were loaded with youth and assets, but the Knicks had just restored themselves as relevant by signing Amare Stoudemire, and the Nets had to make an imprint in Brooklyn immediately in order to themselves become relevant, develop a fanbase (the Nets have many devoted die hards like many of my readers and myself, but a fanbase requires fairweather fans for stability as well), and become a local and national attraction. That was a move that I supported – you cannot move to Brooklyn, go 29-53 in year one, and simultaneously earn a market share and transform into a credible franchise and destination.
The result: the Nets decided that despite their ample youth, they were not going to take their army of picks and draft young talent around Brook Lopez. They were going to make sure they got veteran readymade talent, and got it now. So the organization aggressively courted LeBron James and 2010’s signature free agents, and worked to sell Carmelo Anthony on Brooklyn – the Nets were 12-70 and Brooklyn was nothing more than an idea so these efforts understandably went nowhere. That did not deter Prokhorov — he still said the Nets would get their star and that he would be king of the world.
That “king” became Deron Williams after he forced himself out of Utah. And it must be noted that the move brought excitement for good reason. After the Jazz went 26-56 in 2005, they went 41-41 in Deron’s first season. Then over four full years, Deron’s Jazz won between 48-54 games, and made every playoffs and only lost in the first round once, even reaching a conference final. Deron was the straw that stirred that Utah drink, averaging 21-10 in the playoffs (slight improvements over his regular year numbers).
Simply put: In Utah, Deron was elite consistently. The Nets decided to build around him, instead of whatever fruit the draft could bear, and thus need him to play elite consistently for them. While he has in flashes, he has not done so consistently. Many Nets fans may disagree on why he has not been elite, if he can be elite, and what must happen for him to be consistently elite. Under most all views the bottom line is clear: we need that player.
The trade for Deron mortgaged two top five picks for his services, without a commitment that he would stay for the move to Brooklyn. This was huge sacrifice number one.
February – April 2011: Wrist Fragments
When Deron first got here, he shot just 35% from the field and missed half of our closing schedule with a wrist injury. This led to excuse number one: it was not his fault he could not shoot. He was dealt from a very good team to a bad one, with all eyes on him. Facing more doubleteams, and being injured, of course he could not shoot straight. The Nets ultimately had Deron sit for surgery to remove fragments in the wrist.
November 2011 – March 2012: Catering to Every Deron Whim in Chasing Dwight
I will not dwell on this for long: the Nets were desperate to get Deron’s commitment, and he said he’d give it if we got Dwight. As a result, the Nets kept their books and roster flexible, so that if a trade materialized they could get it done. Many players that could be helping today’s team were free agents that offseason: Marc Gasol, Nene, David West, Tyson Chandler, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Green, and Aaron Afflalo to name a few.
But the Nets did not chase them because Deron Williams told them they had to chase Dwight. This was enormous sacrifice number two this organization made for Deron. Instead, the Nets strung along a bunch of one year placeholders and chose to forfeit the 2011-2012 season.
2011-2012 Struggles: Sightlines, and a weak supporting case
Deron struggled throughout the lockout shortened 2011-2012, as the Nets meandered to a 22-44 season. Excuses were plentiful – and I did not mind because it’s not as though we expected a winner that year. Brook was Deron’s only real weapon because of the one year deal approach, and without him, this simply was a lottery team. Deron made excuse number two, complaining often about the lack of talent on the roster, and stating that he was keeping his options open until the Nets beefed the roster up with players. Again, not many people cared: the Nets were going to move to Brooklyn and get him talent, we could judge him then.
Also, somewhat hilariously, Deron made excuse number three for his struggles shooting the ball in 2011-2012. He cited the arena’s poor sitelines and depth perception as reasons for his struggles — nevermind that many of his fans in the tri state area play much of their basketball on park rims that do not have nets, with the sun blaring in their eyes and possibly a heavy jacket on to block out the cold. But again, nobody cared: Barclays Center, after all, would have better “sightlines.”
March 2012-July 2012: Sacrifices abound, all for Deron
The 2012 trade deadline brought enormous sacrifice number three to keep Deron happy, and get his contract signature. The Nets figured to pick in the top 5-10 in the draft as a result of their meandering 22-44 season — the season that occurred because the Nets strung one year deals along on the orders of Deron Williams. But Deron did not believe in trusting the draft to build a team around him. Even Anthony Davis was not enough for Deron – with the way Davis looks, I truly fear for the team who hires Deron as it’s GM (as opposed to de facto player-GM) upon his retirement. Deron wanted proven players that could help him today. So the Nets traded their 2012 lottery pick for Gerald Wallace. Given the pick was only top 3 protected but the Nets did not have a bottom 3 record, the trade made it likely the Nets would lose the pick, and indeed they did. And while nobody could have suspected the sixth pick in a prospectively weak draft to become today’s Damian Lillard, it still made no sense on paper to deal a lottery pick for a player like Wallace on the downside of his career. Alas, the deal was done for Deron – who did not even commit upon it’s being made.
Enormous Sacrifice Number 4: The deal for Joe Johnson
Joe Johnson is a good player, good person, and likeable guy: he’s still extremely overpaid, and appeared to be past his peak in the 2012 playoffs. Signaling an enormous organizational shift in Atlanta made complete with poaching Mike Budenholzer from the Spurs, the Hawks were looking to start anew and dump Joe Johnson. The Nets were looking to get Deron to stay: and mortgaged the flexibility they worked to accrue for years on Joe’s contract, sacrificing picks and providing pick swap options in the process.
With Deron’s commitment, Joe and Gerald on the books, and Brook not dealt for Dwight: the Nets entered Brooklyn as Deron’s team.
Year 1 in Brooklyn: More excuses
It must be noted that Deron clearly showed up in Brooklyn overweight, and that there is no excuse for that. After all the sacrifices made for him, after the Nets gave him everything he wanted, he should have arrived in Brooklyn excited about leading. Instead, he came to camp out of shape. While the Nets did not admit it at the time, Deron admitted this preseason that he was out of shape last year. Deron dealt with ankle problems in the first half of the season: excuse number four for his struggles. Brook Lopez played great ball, the Nets were deep, and stayed afloat as Deron fought ankle injuries. Of major concern, Deron was not getting to the rim, settling for more jumpers and threes than ever in his career.
Then in the second half of the year, we got Elite Deron, as this piece expertly shows. The guy we waited for had finally arrived, as the Nets looked like a legit 50-55 win team to close 2012-2013. He got into the middle of defenses. He scored, got to the rim. When teams doubled too much, he hit the open man. And he did everything instinctually. He created offense, he knew when to shoot, when and where to pass. He played like the elite point guard the Nets traded for. In the final 20 games of the year the Nets posted a 110.7 offensive rating – a figure that would have topped the league over the course of the season. It all happened because of the way Deron piloted the offense. And while he was not quite as good in the playoffs, the Bulls also capitalized on the lack of shooting around him.
Sacrifice Five: The Big 2013 offseason
As has been stated, the Nets went into future debt to acquire Wallace and Johnson, doing so to prevent Deron from leaving. Because of those deals, the Nets were capped out through 2016 – their only ability to improve the roster would be to mortgage the remaining draft picks they had. To help Deron further the Nets did so in acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
What’s happened this season need not be elaborated on. The start has been a nightmare, and Lopez has gone down for the year. The major problem, however: Deron Williams.
The Nets promised Deron they’d get him a roster that could contend, and responded with the most expensive roster in history, replete with top 10 players at their positions and incredible depth. It’s now incumbent on him to respond, by leading the troops, and making sure the team defends. Simply put, he has not.
For all the talent we have, an NBA offense’s success is predicated around the ability to break a defense down. An NBA defense is like a chess defense. The hoop is the King. Five guys guard that hoop and your goal is to get an open lane to it. To do it, someone has to make the defense move and shift by attacking it. That creates looks for them, or for their teammates. At this stage in their careers, Pierce and Joe are not the guys you want piloting your offense, and Brook has always been more of a #2 offensively for me and is not healthy for the year now.
Translation: Deron HAS to be that guy. He has to come out regularly and carry this offense. He has talent around him, but has to be that lynchpin. He has to be the guy to break defenses down, and get shots for himself and others. He does not need to force shots and take 20 a night–it does not matter who takes the efficient looks he needs to create. What he needs to do is create them, be it for himself or a teammate.
Early this season, we did not get that from Deron. Instead we got excuse number five as Deron struggled: he was dealing with ankle injuries, after all.
But then, something happened. We got elite Deron, for a second flash of time. After he returned from his injury, the Nets had a 4-1 stretch, during which Deron carried the team offensively and made everyone better. The Nets played league leading offense during Deron’s first seven games back (they were great offensively against Washington and Philadelphia, really losing due to the defense). And yes, I will admit that Indiana’s defense is sensational, but that does not excuse Deron’s performance against them. He simply did nothing to attack their D. Elite Deron disappeared, out of nowhere.
So How do we solve the Problems with the Nets
Deron has showed that elite Deron still exists. The player we saw to close 2012-2013 was sensational, and the Deron who returned from injury against Boston was sensational. But that only represents about a half season. We need elite Deron, and we need him all the time.
It is true that Deron has dealt with all sorts of ankle ailments. Alas, that is where pain tolerance comes into play. When Deron is healthy, and feels like dominating, he becomes cerebral out there. He just knows when to drive, when to dish, when to pull up, where to hit guys, how to orchestrate the Nets symphony. It leads to our playing elite offense, as a unit. Something happens when Deron is hurting. He cannot do some of the same things athletically…that’s understandable. But of more concern, is his decisionmaking. Healthy and elite Deron is an incredibly smart player, always making the right decisions and engendering fan trust with the ball in his hands. But then, when Deron feels pain, he plays with astonishing unintelligence, and the turnovers pile up. As do the passed up shots, and the passes to teammates not in position to do much of anything. It turns him from an elite point guard into frankly, an ordinary player.
The other concern is the defense. After the loss in Philadelphia, Pierce stated the Nets could not coast the way the great teams do … implying that they have. Given the fact that the Nets posted an above average defensive rating against Indiana, and their defense early against Chicago looks good, it seems the results on that end are effort related. And while Deron cannot be blamed entirely for the porous defense, some of that is clearly on him. Today’s NBA offenses are about stopping penetration and the pick and roll … stopping guards from wreaking havoc. Far too often Deron gets beat on the perimeter. Once he gets beat, the Nets are forced to scramble…and once forced to scramble there are open looks all over the court. Deron flat out must defend better, and as the team’s leader must let everyone know that they cannot coast. Not while they’re sitting at 9-18 without Brook Lopez. Not when they went all in on a limited window because that’s what Deron asked for.
I still believe in Deron. I believe in him more than most. I believe he can be our engine, and get us to play elite offense and above average to good defense this year. But I am no longer satisfied with seeing mere flashes of Elite Deron. I need to see him more often.
The team he asked for depends on it.