There was a time, not too long ago, when Williams could turn a 48-minute game of basketball into a marionette. Defenses had to game plan against him and him alone. He could score when he wanted, had the ball in his hands throughout crunch time and was the golden centerpiece of a multi-million dollar franchise.
Nearly all of this success came in the middle of Williams' career, when he ran off three straight All-Star appearances from 2009 to 2012. Even before that with the Utah Jazz, his assist rate regularly hung inside the top five, and few point guards in the world were more menacing with the ball.
Today, things are a little different. Instead of sustaining that coveted status, Williams has transformed into one of the NBA’s rarest birds: a one-time superstar who’s seen noticeable and substantial decline before his 30th birthday.
Does this mean he can’t take over a playoff game? Does it mean defenses should worry more about stopping Joe Johnson or Paul Pierce in crunch time? Williams’ scoring is down, but are recurring injuries the main reason why? According to The Brooklyn Game, the answer is obvious.
Williams has famously struggled with ankle issues in the last few years, twice undergoing platelet-rich plasma therapy treatment in both ankles to speed up the healing process.
"I had two ankle sprains on each ankle," Williams added. "It's kind of hard to play basketball with two sprained ankles."
That quote came immediately following a 28-point near masterpiece against the Phoenix Suns on March 17. Williams dazzled in that one, then dropped 25 on the Charlotte Bobcats two days later. Both performances were indicative of an aggressive All-Star point guard baptizing the competition.
Nets head coach Jason Kidd agrees:
"[Williams] is a very talented player. I thought he did a good job of finding guys, guys setting screens for them. The looks that he had, they were all great looks. They weren't forced and he was getting to the basket."
Williams logged at least 40 minutes in three straight games early the following week, scoring 15, 29 and 23 points. This late-season outburst is more meaningful for the time Williams spent on the court than the point totals.
Williams' health is what's really important here, but there are other explanations for his statistical dip. He's no longer on Utah, with Carlos Boozer as the main offensive partner. Brooklyn has a multi-pronged attack: Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce are both scoring efficiently with a relatively high volume, and both have higher usage rates than Williams.
This team doesn't need their lead ball-handler to light it up like he once did. That doesn't leave him off the hook to dice up perimeter defenders and suck them inward on drives to the rim, but he's doing that. He's also spreading the floor, distributing the ball, controlling the game's tempo and, yes, scoring when his teammates aren't able to.
He's a point guard after all. Williams has Brooklyn's offense humming when he's on the floor, despite averaging the fewest shots since his rookie season. Since the All-Star break, the Nets are outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the court and being outscored by 4.1 when he sits.
They're a sensational 8.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively, too.
According to mySynergySports, Williams is still hyper efficient in important offensive situations. He's 27th in isolation—shooting a surprising 48 percent—and 16th as a spot-up shooter. Combined they make up nearly a third of his offensive output. He's still bigger and bulkier than most of his defenders, and does a fantastic job maintaining enough balance to get a quality shot off after making contact.
He's shooting 52.3 percent on 5.5 drives per game. Numbers that run parallel with Chris Paul, John Wall and James Harden. His aggressiveness is there, and so is his outside shot. Williams shot 40.7 percent from the three-point line in March, on a robust five attempts per game. He may not be what he once was, but losing track of him on the court remains a fatal mistake.
The words "Deron Williams" and "healthy" in the same sentence are a nightmare for whichever team plays Brooklyn in the first round. His potential for annihilation is still there when the Nets need him to activate it.
A possible matchup against the Toronto Raptors or Chicago Bulls would pit Williams against one of the NBA's better team defenses, with personal headaches in the form of Kyle Lowry or Kirk Hinrich. Williams' stats against both teams are fine but unspectacular this season—cobbled together in a small sample size at different spots in the year when he wasn't in peak physical condition.
He's playing well enough now to overcome either team in a seven-game series.
But playoff games are so hard to win in part due to their borderline hostile level of intensity; how long Williams's ankles hold up throughout are certainly a worry. Still, season-long statistics hold little relevance in this instance.
If Williams somehow sustains 36-40 minutes of what he's played like these past few weeks per game, Brooklyn will have the All-Star point guard they paid for. And Brooklyn won't exit quietly.