9:42 am Dec. 19, 2012
For the better part of two years, the question was whether Deron Williams needed the Brooklyn Nets, not the other way around.
When the Nets acquired Williams in February 2011, they still played in Newark, with the Barclays Center an unfinished dream. Williams declined to sign a contract extension, preferring to reach free agency in the summer of 2012 instead.
What followed was an extended period of the Nets trying to sell Williams on a future very different than his circumstances in Newark. And while Williams' production declined, it was chalked up universally to his terrible surrounding cast, something Williams was all too happy to reinforce with his body language on the court. It appeared quite important to Williams to make it known on every failed possession that he wasn't responsible.
Now, in Brooklyn, Williams is struggling as he never did before, with the latest setback a 92-90 loss to the Utah Jazz. Williams, instead of taking responsibility for his role in the recent slide that saw the Nets fall from 11-4 to 13-11, is casting blame elsewhere, despite a offensive supporting cast that would be the envy of most point guards.
For the first time, Deron Williams is starting to look like a problem for the Nets, and not a solution.
Consider that at the time the Nets acquired Williams, he was 26 years old. His shooting percentage over the previous three seasons was a robust 48.3 percent, and a respectable 35.8 percent from three-point range. Combine that was an absurd 45.1 assist percentage, and impressive 17.1 turnover percentage, and it is hard to say there was a better point guard in basketball over that time.
Williams' numbers slipped badly in 12 games for the Nets after the trade, then only modestly recovered in 2011-12. He shot 40.7 percent last year, 33.6 percent from three, though his assist percentage was impressive as ever, 46.6 percent, and he was even stingier with turnovers, at 16.7 percent. And all this on a Nets team missing even the rudiments of a useful offense, once Brook Lopez was lost for the season.
Conventional wisdom held that with other offensive options, Williams would return to the level of play he displayed with the Jazz. But that hasn't happened.
This season, his shooting percentage is just 38.9 percent, 29.2 percent from three. His assist percentage is down to 38.9 percent still fine, but much lower than last season, despite people like Joe Johnson and Lopez around to convert his passes into scores. He's been perfectly adequate, but the Nets aren't paying him just under $99 million over the next five years to be adequate. He's in Brooklyn to be the star of the team.
And instead of simply taking ownership of his poor play, or even acknowledging that ankle and wrist injuries could play a part, Williams decided to criticize his coach, Avery Johnson, for failing to run a system as suited to his talents as the one run in Utah.
It's a strange criticism for several reasons. For one thing, Johnson has adapted much of the Utah offense into his own playbook, entirely for Williams' benefit. For another, the isolation plays that deviate from that Utah system, when called for Williams, should allow him the freedom to drive to the basket at will. And yet it is a dramatic decline in the number of his shot attempts at the rim that is driving down his overall shooting percentage.
It's also bad form to put the blame on a coach who has changed to accomodate his star, and unflinchingly supported him throughout his tenure with the Nets.
Even if the tension between Williams and Johnson lead to a coaching change (surely you didn't think that leads to the star getting traded, did you?), it's not obvious what the next coach could do to make things better. Williams has chosen his team, his team has built a roster to suit him and a veteran coach has adjusted his playbook for him.
The Nets had better hope Williams' poor play is an aberration, maybe due to fatigue or some hidden injury. Because the combination of Williams' deal, the max deal signed by Brook Lopez, and the contract the Nets took on with Joe Johnson means this is their team, for better or worse, for a long time to come.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
Frank Francisco had a bone spur removed from his elbow Tuesday. He should be ready for spring training, according to the Mets.
The team acquired Collin Cowgill, a right-handed outfielder without much major league success. He immediately becomes the best option to start against lefties at all three outfield positions.
Carmelo Anthony will be a game-time decision on Wednesday against the Nets.
Amar'e Stoudemire should be back soon, ready to help the Knicks as starter or off the bench.
The Red Bulls will open the season on March 3 in Portland. Their home opener will come March 16 against D.C. United.