The Brooklyn Nets have teetered between disappointment and disaster all season. They've spent more time with the latter than the former.
But a silver lining has emerged at the center of these broken dreams.
Behind the supersized price tag and uncomfortably stacked loss column, a good team still exists. Having a healthy Deron Williams at the wheel will only help the visibility of that good team.
The light at the end of the tunnel isn't the same one owner Mikhail Prokhorov thought he'd purchased this summer. But the fact that one still exists is a testament to the talent on this roster.
Expectations have obviously changed, but at least these ones come without a blaring alarm siren announcing their arrival.
The D-Will Effect
If he can ever get healthy, the 29-year-old can still be a difference-maker. He has that kind of talent. But his ankles are concerning. Like fingers-crossed, Stephen-Curry-a-few-seasons-ago kind of troubling.
He's tried putting on a tough face and battling through the injuries:
Deron Williams on his injury: "It's nothing I'm going to talk about. I'm playing. That's all that matters."— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) January 2, 2014
That hasn't worked.
Now, he's hoping to find the same magic that he discovered last season. Unfortunately, that's involved him donning a walking boot (again) and receiving cortisone shots and platelet-rich plasma injections (again) in both ankles, via an official team release on Nets.com.
Why all the fuss for a 29-year-old turning in his worst production (13.6 points, 6.9 assists) since his rookie season? Because the three-time All-Star is worth it.
Even though he hasn't looked quite right all season, the Nets have looked like a different team when he's on the floor.
|Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
On the surface, that table speaks volumes about Williams' impact. His floor presence represents a difference of 9.6 points per 100 possessions.
But his value grows the deeper you dig.
He is the only player on the roster with a positive net rating. Brooklyn's offensive rating when he's on the floor (105.6) would sit tied for No. 7 in the category. The 99.7 mark the Nets get without him would hold the No. 22 spot.
Brooklyn doesn't have the personnel to become a suffocating defense. Especially not with the team's lone interior presence, Brook Lopez, lost for the season with a broken foot.
If the Nets are going to achieve anything of significance, that success is going to come at the offensive end. And this offensive motor doesn't carry nearly the same punch without Williams.
Shaun Livingston can run the point, but he's a pass-first guard (3.2 assists, 5.7 field-goal attempts per game) to the extreme. With Lopez on the shelf, Williams (.476/.419/.791 slash) is the only consistent source of scoring. At this point in their careers, Joe Johnson (15.5 points, 43.4 percent shooting) and Paul Pierce (12.7, 39.5) are best used in complementary roles.
If he can just find his way out of this medical maze, Williams could be the answer for the league's most expensive question. Frankly, he needs to be. Brooklyn doesn't have any other choice.
Out of Options
When you field the highest-priced roster in league history, you've exhausted all possibility of further movements.
Even Prokhorov can't afford to keep making high-risk, low-reward investments.
That hasn't stopped Brooklyn from keeping alive the illusion of flexibility. Short of a good product to sell to the fans, the Nets at least need to lure in whomever they can on hope:
The NBA has approved a $5.25M Disabled Player Exception for the Brooklyn Nets, league source tells Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) January 8, 2014
On the surface, the move seems logical. The exception, via salary cap expert Larry Coon's website, would allow the Nets to sign a free agent for a one-year contract for up to $5.25 million or trade for player in the last year of his contract making no more than that figure.
A roster decimated by injury obviously has holes that need filling.
But remember, these are the 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets. Nothing is ever as it seems.
The cost to bring in said player is exponentially greater than it first seems:
Nets tonight granted $5.25 mil Disabled Player Exception after losing Brook Lopez. Using full amount triggers extra $20 mil in luxury tax— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 8, 2014
Cap hits aside, the team doesn't even have a roster spot available. Pierce and Livingston are the only two players who don't have money owed to them next season (assuming Andrei Kirilenko, Andray Blatche and Alan Anderson all exercise their player options), via ShamSports.com. The Nets couldn't bring anyone in to make up for the losses of either of those two players.
There are no draft sweeteners for the Nets to add to any potential trade package. They're already paying draft debts for the next five years.
There are no prospects to sell to other teams. Brooklyn has two players in its regular rotation under the age of 27 (Lopez and Mason Plumlee). It doesn't have youth to build with, let alone shop around.
For better or worse, this team is married to this group of players. That was supposed to be a good thing.
Maybe it still could be.
Finding Their Way
The Nets seem to be figuring things out.
They're riding a season-high four-game winning streak, a stretch that's seen them slay two giants from the West (the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors). They've held four straight opponents under the century mark, also a season first.
A team that's been surrounded by sorrow for two-plus months is finally having fun again:
Kevin Garnett is screaming with joy in the locker room. He has not stopped since we walked in about 5 minutes ago.— devin kharpertian (@uuords) January 9, 2014
So, just how much fun should this franchise expect in its future?
That depends on what kind of fun we're talking about.
Not enough to justify literally breaking the bank and mortgaging the future. Nothing short of a title was going to do that.
But there's still hope for respectability. For competitiveness. For the fight some thought this team would never have.
A hope that grows immensely with a healthy Williams at the helm.