The NBA's worst-kept secret is out: The Eastern Conference is bad and the Atlantic Division is worse. And the Brooklyn Nets—the superteam widely considered to be the division favorite—are currently languishing in the basement of the league's most putrid division.
Nearly every worst-case scenario has played out so far in Brooklyn: The old players are playing old, and the injury-prone players are getting injured.
In the November 20 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, one of those injury-prone Nets, point guard Deron Williams, added insult (and more injury) to injury when he re-aggravated an ankle injury in the second quarter.
Given the fact that the 29-year-old Williams should be the franchise's centerpiece, this seems like a crippling short-term loss, especially in light of Friday night's humiliating 111-81 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But the truly disturbing part of Williams' injury is that neither Williams nor the Nets as a whole were playing well with him on the court, and they are probably better off with him out of the lineup for the time being.
It's not that Shaun Livingston has been a good replacement for the injured Williams—though he was quite good before the Minnesota game—it's that Williams has been so bad this season that there's very little difference between the two at the moment. According to the per-game stats, Livingston has been giving the Nets about the same production as Williams.
Livingston's role has increased dramatically since he came in for Williams in Brooklyn's eighth game of the season, when Williams exited the game early in the first quarter with an injury. Considering that Brooklyn's best player this season, Brook Lopez, has missed four of those five games, Livingston has given the team enough production to justify sitting Williams.
|Nets with Williams on-court vs. with Livingston on-court|
|Period||GP||Nets O-Rating||Nets D-Rating||Net Rating|
|Williams||Oct. 30 - Nov. 13||7||99.7||102.0||-2.2|
|Livingston||Nov. 15 - Nov. 20||4||108.4||106.5||+1.9|
Ask yourself this, Nets fans: Would the hobbled Williams who has stunk up the court really have mattered in Friday's 30-point loss?
Williams' ankle has been a problem since the preseason, according to Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports, and it's showing no signs of healing itself anytime soon. Williams has been hurting the team when he's taken the court this season. His understudy isn't embarrassing the team. And the Nets are playing such bad basketball anyway that a hobbled Williams won't make the difference between victory and defeat. He might as well sit it out and take the proper time to heal.
This is the second debilitating ankle injury Williams has suffered in as many seasons. He also started slowly in 2012-13 due to an ankle injury suffered during the 2012 London Olympics—an injury USA Basketball executive Jerry Colangelo attributed to Williams' poor conditioning, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:
The Nets have maintained their injured point guard’s body is worn down because of nonstop playing over the last two summers — which led to PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections in both ankles this week — but Colangelo indicated Williams needed the work to lose weight.
“Deron Williams, for the Olympics, was not in the best shape,” Colangelo told The News on Friday. “He was a little overweight, and I told him that at the time."
The good news for Nets fans is that Williams rebounded from that 2012 injury to play at an all-NBA level the last few months of the NBA season. The bad news is that Williams doesn't have the excuse of summer Olympic basketball to excuse this season's injury, and no team wants to hear accusations of poor conditioning hurled at its franchise player.
The Nets need a healthy, productive Williams if they want to compete in the playoffs. If anything, their model for success should be the San Antonio Spurs, who have stayed in contention despite their aging stars by relying more and more on point guard Tony Parker. With Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett looking older by the second, they'll need Williams to perform at his highest level this season.
Unfortunately, Williams has not played at that level for an entire season since his time in Utah. As these ankle problems persist, and these subpar performances mount, so will the questions from both the fans and media.
Deron Williams is facing the brightest spotlight of his career, and both he and his team have wilted under the glare so far. Williams could use some time to collect himself and let that ankle heal. The Atlantic Division is ripe for the taking. But the Eastern Conference? The entire NBA? That's another matter entirely.