Once neck and neck with Chris Paul for the title of best point guard in the league, Williams is in the midst of easily his worst season in eight years.
Limited to just 33 games thus far this season, the three-time All-Star has averaged just 13.3 points and 6.7 assists per game—his lowest outputs since he was a rookie. Williams also came off the bench for seven games upon returning from a sprained ankle, something he also hadn't done since his first year in the league.
It was my idea, he said afterward. Just because we had been playing so well with that lineup, why shake things up? It doesn’t matter if I come off the bench, start, whatever. The way [Joe Johnson] has been playing in first quarters, first halves, I don’t want to disrupt that.
On one hand, that's some admirable self-awareness from a player of Williams' caliber. Not every star would accept his limitations enough to play with the second unit as he works his way back into strength.
Then again, not every maligned star gets in his own head the way the cornerstone Brooklyn Nets point guard does, as Tim Bontemps reported in the New York Post. Faced with nagging left ankle pain and instability, Williams has not been able to approach his time on the floor with confidence.
It’s not my highest, he said with a sheepish smile. It’s been tough … just being in and out of the lineups, missing two weeks here and there.
I feel like I get my legs back, get my legs in shape, and then I go out again. Then I’ve got to just do it all over again. It’s just been a struggle.
Given his track record, you have to believe him. He does have his bad nights, like the 3-of-12 performance in his first game starting again. But he also looks like his extraordinary self enough to make you forget he's even playing at less than 100 percent.
That's Williams crossing up Matthew Dellavedova, creating space to shoot while barely even moving before nailing the long two and drawing a foul in the process. Between his killer handle and his deadeye accuracy on one of basketball's least efficient shots, Williams makes the play look effortless, which only makes him seem like more of a star.
He put up 21 points and six assists as Brooklyn went on to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 89-82 that night, January 4. Immediately thereafter, Williams had to sit out five games to receive platelet-rich plasma therapy and cortisone shots, leaving him somewhat shaken and inconsistent upon his most recent return.
It's not that Williams has no hope of regaining his top form after repeated ankle injuries; it's a matter of sustaining that form, and that's much less certain for him.
As Bontemps chronicles, both of Williams' ankles have given him trouble since he re-signed with Brooklyn in the summer of 2012.
Though treatment allowed Williams to break out after the All-Star break last season, he averaged just 16.7 points and 7.6 assists in 50 games prior. The injuries are only affecting him more now, as his numbers have dipped further and he has missed more time.
There is one bright spot for Williams and Brooklyn this season: He is shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc, which is ironically his best rate since his rookie year. When he has room to get his shot off, he is as sure a shooter as he has ever been.
Unfortunately, his mobility is essential for him to create shots.
If Williams isn't healthy enough to always keep defenders as off-kilter as Dellavedova was on that one lovely play, then an elite offensive scorer is reduced to spot-up shooting duty. Williams has the skill set to produce well in that role, but it is considerably less than the Nets expect from their max-salaried franchise player.
He would still be able to run the point well in that scenario, leaning on his court vision and precise passing to make plays rather than bending the defense with his penetration to create openings for other men. But that basically makes him a slightly shorter, better shooting version of Shaun Livingston, another Net point guard with a star career undone by injury.
Williams' decline hasn't been anywhere near as catastrophic as his teammate's was. Nonetheless the increasing impact of his recurring injuries indicates that his gradual reduction from the elite ranks to the level of a handsomely paid role player isn't an aberration.
It's not like he can just chalk this up to the grueling NBA schedule and assume a full offseason's rest will make things better. He had that after he successfully recovered in-season in 2012-13, only to succumb to sprains early in 2013-14. There's no proof his body is up to the rigors of consistent major minutes anymore.
That's a disappointing thing to say about a 29-year-old player, especially one who not so long ago seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. But Williams isn't the same anymore and while he will show flashes of his former self, he likely won't be the same again.