The Case for Keeping Deron Williams

In life, there are easy decisions, and there are difficult decisions.  A man confesses to the police that he shot another man in cold blood.  Should he go to prison? This is an easy question, with an easy solution.  Another man is buying a house.  Should he buy a more expensive house, increasing his money down his mortgage, because the market is good?  Or will he pay too much on the mortgage, compromise his cash flow too much?  So then he should buy a cheaper house, right?  That way he can make the bigger purchase down the road when he has more income, right?  But what if the market is good right now and he foregoes an opportunity at buying the dream house while it’s at its lowest price.


That is no easy decision.  That’s not as easy as “should a man who kills another man in cold blood go to prison.”


The man who does not know what house to buy: that’s Billy King, with a Deron Williams dilemma.


The name “Deron Williams” creates a firestorm, when used among the Nets fanbase.  The reactions to him could not be more different.  Some believe he is guaranteed to return to superstar form, so long as he rehabilitates his ankles.  Some believe he was never that good in the first place, and is way beyond redemption.  Some believe he’s simply average.  Some believe his statistics are deceiving, as advanced statistics are kinder to his performance than traditional ones.  The bottom line: Deron is something of a lightning rod, his mere mention guaranteed to generate dozens (or hundreds!) of opinions, and what the Nets should and will do with him is really an open question.


And now: I make the case for why the Nets should keep him. A case that is in no way the absolute truth, or in no way the answer: this is, after all, a difficult issue.


The Facts We Can All Accept As True


I think any discussion around Deron has the same problem: nobody can agree on the most basic of facts (or opinions) concerning him, and it leads to a lot of, really, hot air.  The facts themselves are pretty simple, and are as follows.


Deron was brought to the Nets because Prokhorov and Billy King believed they needed to acquire a star to build the team around. At the time of the trade, Deron was near universally regarded as a top 10 player, and so acquiring him fit the bill. You could pull up any website, magazine, newspaper, or other player ranking from the time period, and derive the same result.  As bigger players with good jump shots tend to age well on the aggregate, the belief was that Deron would age well compared to Chris Paul and other elite guards (note: this article is written by Jonathan Tjarks, whose extremely well regarded).  So the Nets dealt for the 26 year old, did what they felt they needed to do to keep him in adding Johnson and Wallace, and then tried to help him more by adding Paul and Kevin.


However, by any objective measure, Deron has not been the player the Nets dealt for: they dealt for a top 10 player to lead the franchise, or at worst to devolve, by this point, perhaps into a mere top 15 player boosted by supporting parts.  Deron has not been that player, and has played well short of those standards.  Sure, it is true that advanced statistics are kinder to him than traditional ones: his on court—off court numbers were favorable, and the offense was more efficient when he was on the floor.  But all that indicates is that he’s been an above average player in Brooklyn: yea, not a mediocre one, but not even a good one, and nowhere near the great one his credentials indicated.  So, really, if anyone wants to wonder why the Nets did not meet expectations this season, they should look no further than that.


So basically, while many may disagree about Deron, a disagreement I believe is fair, there is one thing that everyone should agree on: he has not played to the level he needs to play at for the Brooklyn Nets.


Question 1: Why? Why Has He Underperformed


The answer to this question is as plain as day, but for whatever reason generates a whirlwind of responses on a regular basis: Deron has underperformed because of his troubling ankle injuries.


Deron has had fourteen – FOURTEEN – ankle injections since signing in Brooklyn.  While it is unclear when he got his first injection, he signed 22 months ago, and it is believed he got his first injection in October of 2012 (opening a 19 month window).  That’s a ton of injections.  At least once per game, it appears Deron tumbles to the ground, and simply cannot get up without help, and without a face looking like he got hit by a bus.  While it’s attributed to unluckiness, it’s routine to bump bodies during an NBA game.  Deron seems to come out of many of those bumps with ankle pain resulting from stepping on another foot, or a foot stepping on his, or pain for some reason.  A player who used to just blur by defenders, bully through people, can’t turn the corner.  Can’t elevate over bigs to finish layups.  Can’t dunk, when he used to just tomahawk on guys.


Maybe it’s because he has not suffered one significant, catastrophic moment of injury, which showed people that he really got hurt.  Maybe it’s because he is a malcontent, constantly surly with media, short with people, and seemingly always looking like the basketball court is the last place he wants to be.  But for whatever reason, it appears that nobody has accepted that Deron’s had chronic ankle injuries, and that those injuries have prevented him from playing elite basketball.


You tend to hear other reasons for why Deron is struggling so much in Brooklyn, playing so poorly, but they simply do not add up when scrutinized.


He can’t take the pressure?  Wasn’t there pressure in Utah when he was leading teams to the playoffs as the top dog: that pressure is still there.  And if it were just pressure, wouldn’t his struggles largely be confined to critical moments in games: kind of like how Chris Paul’s were in the playoffs?  Paul was excellent this postseason, but struggled mightily late in close games.  Perhaps that’s a guy dealing with pressure issues?  Deron? Whether it was game 4 against Miami on national television, or a random Tuesday in Sacramento in November, he was mightily struggling.  Pressure simply does not account for Deron struggling all the time, no matter how insignificant the moment this season.


He does not want it enough, dislikes being in Brooklyn, or does not want to be the man?  I think that was true in 2011-2012 (in New Jersey).  In Deron’s final season in New Jersey, he had no desire for being there, which was clear.  He provided no leadership.  He played no defense.  He largely floated through games.  But guess what?  Deron still dropped 21 and 9 in that season, and made a huge impact on games on the offensive end.  That Nets team was brutal: just look at the roster and remember that Brook missed all but 5 games (the Nets went 3-2 in those 5 games, by the way).  They only won games, going 22-44 and not totally wreaking because Deron was a really good offensive player.  As I said, he certainly had his flaws: he totally mailed the season in from a defense, effort, and leadership perspective.  But he was able to do his thing offensively, really on talent alone.  If Deron’s issues in Brooklyn were related to those issues, one would theoretically expect his play to mirror his 2011-2012 play, or something close to it.  Why hasn’t it?  Because, that tomahawk jam link above was a highlight from 2011-2012: Deron had healthy ankles that season.


Sure, Deron has flaws besides his ankles, and those flaws are all worth noting.  He’s had same late game goofs and lapses in concentration.  His defense was never a strong suit.  He can tend to coast through games, even when healthy.  Those problems explain in part why the Nets dealt for Paul and Kevin to provide leadership, for that matter.  But the thing is that were he healthy, he’d clearly be a much better player.  His other issues, while not ideal, would be things one could live with.


The moral of the story: it is clear that, by and large, Deron’s struggles in Brooklyn have been caused by his ankle issues.


Question 2: How Do the Nets FIX the Problem?


Here is where things get tricky.  For any problem in this world, our goal as humans is simple: solve the problem.  To solve the problem, you gather facts, and you identify what is happening: we have done that.  But then the Nets have to ask themselves.  Deron is 30 years old in a month.  His play in Brooklyn has suffered due to ankle injuries.  What do they do?  There are essentially two choices: keep him, and hope he returns to form.  Or deal him, acquiring value.


And before I make the case for keeping him, I will say that the reasons for dealing him are compelling, are reasons the Nets must consider, and in all likelihood will consider.


First, if the Nets keep Deron, they are banking on a player struggling from ages 28-29, then returning to form for ages 30-32 (and beyond).  The list of players who were excellent early in their careers, struggled with injuries, and then failed to resurge, even if the injury did not immediately kill their careers, is plentiful.  Guys like Gilbert Arenas, Jermaine O’Neal, Steve Francis, Amare Stoudemire, Allan Houston, Baron Davis, Chris Webber, and Grant Hill come to mind.


The Nets would be gambling on Deron not being one of those pieces by keeping him.  In addition, if his ankles worsen, and his production worsens, they would be potentially passing up on the best return possible for him.


Still, I will make the case for keeping Deron Williams in Brooklyn.


The case is simple: as Daryl Morey says, you have to take risk.  Realistically, many of the trade offers being thrown around for Deron by the fanbase (and perhaps by our staff, including myself) are pipe dreams.  Under this new CBA, most teams have placed a premium on financial flexibility.  In addition, teams no the best path to contention is acquiring a star, and they are doing everything they can to make sure that their flexibility corresponds with the availability of franchise changing pieces … like Durant in 2016.  A team acquiring Deron eats into their Durant cap space trove (and you better believe teams are targeting that summer), takes on an awful contract, and has to hope Deron’s ankles become healthy.  Plus, they are dealing for essentially an above average player at this moment.


Translation: do not expect a rich return for Deron in a deal.  It’s simply going to get tough to extract value.  Teams are not going to want to pay for the 2011-2012 Deron, but for this current Deron.  Expect a mix of role players, and bad contracts.


Which goes to the point of risk.  The best case scenario in dealing Deron is acquiring perhaps two solid role players to add to the roster.  In no way does Deron get dealt for a star.  Even if he gets dealt for a good player, that player is likely to have an atrocious contract which hampers the team going forward: what does that accomplish?  That’s, really, the best reward out there for Deron on the market.


Keeping him? Sure, there is risk in him declining even further.  But at the same time, prior to 2012-2013, Deron was expected to get surgery after the 2012-2013 season to deal with ankle issues.  He did not.  He averaged 22 and 8 in the second half of the season, and looked like who he was.  He thought ankle issues were over.  He thought wrong.


But here is the thing.  The reward in dealing Deron is truly minimal.  The Nets would essentially acquire role players.  It’s painful to admit, but a Nets team built around Joe and Brook, with a bunch of role players, is not a contender.  If you deal Deron you cement yourself into two years of that.


The reward of keeping Deron?  What if he gets surgery, and that surgery is exactly what his ankles need.  PRP treatment worked in 2012-2013 when they hit the right spot: perhaps at this point surgery is the answer.  Then you truly may have a contender on your hands.  Is it definite he resurges to form?  No way!  Is it probable?  I even doubt that.  But it is a material possibility.  He’s not even 30 years old yet.  He’s built, given his style and jump shooting ability, as a player whose skills should age well if healthy.   The chance Deron returns to form if his body allows him to actually play, is a real one.


Remember, for all teams, the easiest path to a roster rebuild is a star.  There is no way the Nets get a star in a Deron trade.  Keeping him.  Now, there IS a chance at a star, if he gets his health back.  That is a chance the Nets should not forfeit by trading him for the Jeremy Lin’s of the world – and I say this as one of Lin’s biggest fans and most aggressive defenders.


Maybe trading Deron feels satisfying, because of his surly attitude, his seeming inability to warm up to Brooklyn given his emotions.  But at the end of the day, the NBA should never be reactionary: it should simply be about what is best for the franchise.  “I’m tired of him,” “he pisses me off,” “I don’t care if it makes us worse”: who cares what emotion we get to let out if he is traded.  At the end of the day, all that matters is the win-loss record on the court.  With no cap space on the horizon as I outline here, the Nets cannot replace any of their players, for the most part, on the free agent market.  From now until 2016 when their window reopens to spend, they are locked into their current core, or what those players can be traded for.  And what Deron can be traded for, given the receiving team has to assume his deal and will look to charge the Nets in assets, or be cheap in what they provide, accordingly, is not enough to justify what he may be able to provide.


Essentially, the Nets’ ceiling is higher with Deron than without him simply because the hope that he can reverse the course of his bad ankle injuries is a very real one, and with the goal being a championship despite the limits on their ability to improve, the Nets should not get rid of Deron in a ceiling compromising deal.


If the Nets do not deal Deron, and miss out on a couple of decent rotation players, we’ll wonder how far those role players could have lifted the Joe Johnson led Brooklyn Nets, as compared to an above average point guard.  Considering how far from the championship this year’s Nets were, I doubt the answer is promising.


If the Nets do deal Deron, and surgery invigorates his ankles?  They’ll regret it forever.


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