Which Version of Deron Williams Will Brooklyn Nets Get Down the Stretch?

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Which Version of Deron Williams Will Brooklyn Nets Get Down the Stretch?
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Brooklyn Nets fans can rest easy knowing they can finally trust in Deron Williams.

For now. 

Recurring ankle injuries won't suddenly disappear and his contract is onerous as ever, but this is the time of year when he earns his paycheck.

Second halves of the season are something of a catharsis for Williams, who uses latter ends of the schedule to resurrect an individual crusade put on life support early on. That's been his M.O. while in Brooklyn. Second-half Deron Williams looks nothing like first-half Deron Williams.

While maddening, it can be advantageous. Playoff races are swung late in the season, which means Williams has impeccable timing.

With Brooklyn's postseason slot still far from secure, second-half Williams is on the prowl, pushing his Nets closer and closer to the playoff berth they need to avoid going completely bust.

First-Half Dud

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Doubt placed in Williams is both understandable and expected after how he began 2013-14.

Injuries once again limited his availability, threatening to ruin Brooklyn's already unremarkable season. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were brought in to be glorified role players, and with Brook Lopez down and Joe Johnson being Joe Johnson—clutch, but not All-Star worthy—Williams needed to be the guy. 

Leading into the All-Star break, that's exactly what he was: The Guy—the guy who made plenty wish the Nets never signed him to a five-year max contract in 2012.

Through Brooklyn's first 51 games, Williams appeared in only 35. His numbers in those 35 games, well, they weren't great. Or even good.

All right fine, Jeremy Lin was playing better.

D-Will Prior to All-Star break
MPG PTS FG% 3P% ASTS STLS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg.
D-Will's First 35 30.9 13.3 45.1 38.4 6.6 1.1 106.9 104.0

Via NBA.com.

Truthfully, those numbers aren't terrible. They're actually pretty good—for someone who isn't averaging roughly $20 million in annual salary through 2016-17.

Calls for Williams' roster spot began to take shape, one of which originated from the Houston Rockets, who according to ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk, attempted to broker a trade for the three-time All-Star.

It's not as ridiculous as it sounds. Williams was playing that bad. Yours truly even saw it as a potential escape route from the financial purgatory Brooklyn spent itself into:

Other teams and front offices try to sell fanbases on such hokum, repeating words like "hope," "future" and "patience" to the point of monotony. Not the Nets, though. They've been upfront from the start, admitting their title window spans one season.

Instead of verbal drivel running empty on meaning, "hope" has become a foreign concept. The Nets are all in on now, and losing now. They're all in on now, at expense of tomorrow.

At the time, trading Williams made sense. Knowing the Nets are still worlds away from their projected ceiling, it still could have made sense. But it was never an option for the Mikhail Prokhorov-owned Nets. Sink or swim, they were staying all in on this season.

If they were to swim, the Nets needed more from Williams. Much more. By and large, he looked no better at running Brooklyn's pedestrian offense than Shaun Livingston, who's earning around $17.5 million less than Williams.

Concern, for the most part, was high. Could the Nets make the playoffs with that version of Williams? Maybe (see: Eastern Conference being noxious-smelling mayonnaise sickly).

Could they do any damage in the playoffs with Williams earning roughly one-third of his salary? Good one.

Second-Half Revival

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Faith has been restored in Brooklyn's ability to do damage in the Eastern Conference.

Competing with the likes of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers remains a fantasy, but with the way Williams is now playing, making it out of the first round is beyond feasible. 

This side of the All-Star break, he's been balling. Playing like the Williams the Nets thought they bought and paid for. Just look at how his post-All-Star Game numbers stack up against the first part of this season:

Deron vs. Deron
MPG PTS FG% 3P% ASTS STLS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg.
First 35 30.9 13.3 45.1 38.4 6.6 1.1 106.9 104.0
Last 3 38.0 23.0 48.9 21.4 6.7 2.7 102.2 104.2

Via NBA.com.

Those numbers aren't glorious or, in some cases, even better, but they're an improvement overall.

The Nets aren't going to lose many games when Williams is healthy enough to log 35-plus minutes and playing like a 20-point, 10-assist giant, and that's what he's doing right now. And this is only the beginning.

Brooklyn is just 2-1 outside of the All-Star break, both of its wins coming against the tanking Los Angeles Lakers and surprisingly competitive Utah Jazz, victories that don't scream, "The Nets are back!" Not to mention three games is nothing in the span of 82, or even the 28 Brooklyn has remaining.

But again, this is just a start, something to build off and look forward to, because this isn't the first time Williams has come alive this late in the season. It's happened before, and early indications are it's going to happen again.

Sensing a Trend

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, it was the same story. Williams struggled out of the gate, only to close out 2012-13 guns blazing.

Through Brooklyn's first 53 games leading into the All-Star break last season, Williams was playing better than he did this year, but not much better. His greatest accomplishment, really, was recording only three absences.

Then, bam! The break was over and Williams was Williams again for the stretch run, during which he appeared in 28 of 29 games.

See for yourself:

Deron vs. Deron, The Prequel
2012-13 MPG PTS FG% 3P% ASTS STLS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg.
First 50 36.5 16.7 41.3 34.7 7.6 .9 104.6 106.0
Last 28 36.4 22.9 48.1 42.0 8.0 1.1 110.4 103.2

Via NBA.com

You know the rest. The Nets closed out the season 18-11, a mercifully impressive showing that was spearheaded by Williams himself. 

That could happen this season. We don't really know. If he continues to play the way he has recently, it's likely. And we know he's likely to continue late-season domination. So really, we do know.

Williams is built for the stretch run. Any chance the Nets have of creeping above .500 and making noise come playoff time is on him.

What version of Deron Williams with the Nets get for the remainder of this season?

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One month ago, or even two weeks ago, that would have hardly been an optimistic assertion. With Williams playing like he is now, though—i.e. close to out of his damn mind—Brooklyn has reason to believe this season will be about more than squandered potential and expensive pratfalls.

"I'm feeling better, definitely feeling better confidence-wise, health-wise," Williams said after torching the Lakers for 30 points, per Newsday's Roderick Boone, "and so hopefully I can continue."

For the first time all season, Williams staying the course is a good thing. A great thing. 

A likely thing.

It's just that time of year again, when the games mean more and Williams becomes Williams, passing and scoring his way to elite point guard play, with his teammates, Brooklyn's record and a well of hopes not far behind.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required), and salary information via Shamsports.

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