Thanks to a bloated payroll and a title-or-bust mandate from an impatient billionaire owner, there's plenty of pressure to go around on the Brooklyn Nets.
But Deron Williams is facing more than most.
Part of the reason behind D-Will's extra helping of scrutiny has to do with his role on the team. He pointed out in comments to Roderick Boone of Newsday that as the Nets' point guard, he's pretty much the guy who functions as the offensive hub:
I know I can't do it by myself. There's no way. I'm not LeBron James. I'm not a 6-8 dominant force. I'm a point guard who, if I have shooters with me and I have a good big man, I can get the ball, I can facilitate and I can score when I'm needed. And so, that's how I've played, that's how I like to play, and now I can get back to playing like that...This team is kind of built for me.
Whether he wants the responsibility or not, any chemistry hiccups or scoring swoons are going to fall at Williams' feet.
It's clear that Williams is integral to what the Nets are trying to do this year. He's not the team's best player; that title belongs to Brook Lopez. He's not its vocal leader; Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce share that role. He probably shouldn't even be the guy taking big shots with the game on the line; Joe Johnson can handle those duties, thank you very much.
But Williams is the guy on the hook for $81 million over the next four years, making him the most expensive investment on a team that has more than its fair share of gaudy contracts. He's also the guy who, by coming over in a blockbuster trade, signaled that owner Mikhail Prokhorov's ambitious reconstruction effort was for real.
Notably, Williams is going out of his way to deflect pressure by waxing humble to the media. In his quote to Boone, he emphasized his limitations and did his best to paint himself as something much less than the Nets' most important player.
While it's fine for him to feign disinterest in being an alpha dog, the fact is that he's always acted like a guy who believes he's precisely that.
Williams has spent a career conducting himself with the defiant, brusque confidence of a man who views himself as a superstar. When things haven't gone his way, he's made a habit of complaining and sulking. On two separate occasions—once in Utah with Jerry Sloan and then in Brooklyn with Avery Johnson—his discontent resulted in coaches getting canned.
Because D-Will has always acted like a spoiled star, he deserves the pressure that comes along with that role.
It's also problematic that Williams has only managed to stay healthy for a couple of months over the past year or so. He was awful in the first half of 2012-13, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting just 41 percent in 50 games before the All-Star break. Magical injections healed his balky ankles, but now, he's dealing with a minutes restriction because of—you guessed it—a bad wheel.
Williams said he was informed on Monday that he’d be held to 20 minutes, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be limited going forward. His rust was evident in the first half, when he scored two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
But the 29-year-old started to assert himself in the third quarter, just before he was removed for the remainder of the game. He finished with seven points in 22 minutes.
Because of his importance to the team, his frustrating health situation and a reputation that could use some rehab, Williams is the guy who'll shoulder much of the blame if the Nets don't deliver on expectations early.
There are others within the Nets organization who are under pressure as well.
Jason Kidd is in his coaching infancy, but his inexperience might not save him if Brooklyn starts out slowly. The Nets boast a roster that is entirely too expensive and unwieldy to retool on the fly, and it's one of professional sports' greatest truisms that it's far easier to swap out a coach than it is to exchange all the components of an underperforming roster.
There are (and should be) questions about Kidd's ability to succeed as a head coach. Playing experience certainly helps, but ask Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas how much their Hall of Fame careers mattered during their ill-fated coaching stints.
Frankly, it's unfair to heap pressure on Kidd, who is in place largely as a figurehead. But nothing about the NBA is fair, and if the Nets stumble, he could wind up on the hot seat—recently retired jersey or no.
In addition, Prokhorov should be feeling the pressure if his high-priced roster doesn't produce. Obviously, he's not going to fire himself, but he's the one who made the bold title-in-five-years promise when he bought the Nets (that was three-and-a-half years ago, by the way), and he's the one who insists on keeping expectations sky-high at all times.
So even though the only real stakes for Prokhorov involve him looking a little foolish for making big promises and tossing around money like it's confetti, he should still be a bit concerned. For a guy who clearly thinks the world of himself, the threat of looking like a failure should serve as a significant source of pressure.
The Burden of Expectations
Maybe it's wrong to heap pressure on D-Will if Brooklyn doesn't impress out of the gates. He clearly doesn't want to be viewed as "the man," and there are legitimate questions as to whether he's still reliable enough on the court to deserve that role.
But because of his symbolic position as the Nets' lead dog, and because of his status as the offensive engine, he's going to feel most of the wrath from fans and his owner if things go poorly.
Keep in mind that Williams' contract and injury history make him virtually untradeable, so it's not as if his future with the Nets is at stake. But for a guy with an already questionable legacy, a slow start could do real damage.
Brooklyn is 0-1 after dropping its season opener to the Cleveland Cavaliers. That's hardly an insurmountable disadvantage, but it's not the best sign in the world either. The fact that Williams couldn't help his team down the stretch of that game is also cause for mild concern.
Ultimately, there's almost no way the Nets won't finish among the East's top four. But that won't be enough for an owner whose mandate goes something like "WIN EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME RIGHT NOW."
A couple more slip-ups like the one on opening night, and a season that started with immense pressure—especially for Williams—could quickly explode.