From disastrous to dominant, the Brooklyn Nets have become the one thing hoop heads swore the Eastern Conference didn't have: a shadow championship contender.
The Nets sit fifth in the conference standings with a deceptively modest 43-35 mark on the season. Admittedly, a .590 winning percentage isn't dropping any jaws. But what about winning at a .702 clip? That gets the mandible moving a bit, doesn't it?
Well, that's precisely what Brooklyn's finest have done since the calendar turn. Between an involuntary switch to a small-ball system, ageless scoring outbursts from the 36-years-young Paul Pierce and prayers answered by the man dubbed "Joe Jesus," the Nets have quietly emerged as the team no Eastern Conference heavyweight wants to see come playoff time.
Yet this regular-season success is essentially meaningless in the big picture.
Sure, it kept owner Mikhail Prokhorov's investment from going up in nine-figure flames. And it let the Nets break into the history books as the first team to score a four-game season series sweep over a LeBron James-led team.
That's something, right? Wrong.
Postseason success requires a different kind of effort, a gear the surging Nets have yet to reach. Even if the engine seems like it can handle the extra stress, Brooklyn needs some reassurance that its driver, Deron Williams, can still operate at full throttle.
The Nets' $100 million man has rubbed elbows with the NBA's elites. It wasn't that long ago that he was one himself.
Before irreparably burning his bridge with former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, Williams was a game-changer. The last time anyone paused before crowning Chris Paul as the game's top point guard, D-Will was the reason for the hesitation.
With size, speed, yo-yo handles and a three-point stroke that seemed to be there when he needed it, he was an All-Star fixture and highlight machine.
He's not that player anymore. He hasn't been for a while now.
"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," Bleacher Report's Michael Pina wrote.
Williams rebounded from a brutal start to the 2012-13 campaign to finish the season with a respectable stat line: 18.9 points on .440/.378/.859 shooting, 7.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds. Those numbers are down nearly across the board this season: 14.3 points on .449/.362/.802 shooting, 6.2 dimes and 2.7 boards.
Plagued by the same ankle issues that bothered him last season, he just doesn't look right. Even when he's on the floor, he seems like he's tapped out his energy tanks:
That fatigue could be as much mental as it is physical, if not more so.
The Nets have battled ups and downs all season—although it's been more of a single valley and peak as opposed to the roller coaster path NBA teams typically take—and Williams himself has seen both extremes.
He played a spectacular stretch of basketball from mid-December to early January (16.6 points on .514/.440 shooting, 7.5 assists over 13 games) but crash-landed on the same bad wheels that betrayed him last season. Another round of cortisone shots and platelet-rich plasma injections addressed the physical pain, but he put his mental anguish on uncomfortably public display.
"(My confidence) is not at my highest,” Williams said in early February, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “It’s been tough being in and out of the lineups, missing two weeks here and there, I feel like I get my legs back in shape, get back in shape and then just do it all again.”
Personal struggles aside, this team is significantly better with Williams on the floor.
Since the All-Star break, Williams has the Nets' the highest on-off differential by a significant margin. His floor presence has meant the difference of a staggering 11.3 points per 100 possessions. Pierce has the next highest mark at 6.5.
His confidence has started to return, even if his individual numbers have been a little slower to catch up.
"I'm feeling better,” Williams said, via Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. “Definitely feeling better confidence-wise, health-wise."
With that confidence, he's also rediscovered some of his superstar form. He doesn't show it consistently, but he's broken it out in spurts.
That's been good enough for now, but the Nets can't settle for good enough come playoff time.
Health is obviously paramount to his success, but so too is adapting to his new role. He's still the "star" of the team, but he's not the only one like when he first joined the franchise in 2011.
There are more mouths to feed now and less touches to go around. Both Johnson and Pierce are dynamic isolation finishers, and Williams' backcourt mate Shaun Livingston is more like a secondary point guard. Williams' offensive chances are coming fewer and farther between than ever before.
He can still take his defender off the dribble (0.93 points per possession, 41st overall, and 47.6 percent shooting on isolation plays), but he's just as likely to do damage as a spot-up shooter (1.21, 19th overall, on 44.4 percent shooting), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Williams' role isn't likely to change—having so many hands in the pot is part of what makes Brooklyn such a tough team to defend—but his stat sheets need to. He's too good to be having these battles with inconsistency (10.9 points on 34.6 percent shooting over his last seven games).
If this is still a health issue, coach Jason Kidd's hands are almost tied. He might plan on buying his players some extra rest over this final week, but there's only so much of it available.
"It’ll be good to get a couple games here and there,” Williams said, via Bondy. “There’s only four games left so we probably won’t get too much rest.”
And if these struggles aren't injury related? Well, that's an even greater concern.
Amid Williams' ups and downs, the Nets have still punched their playoff ticket. For this team to avoid another premature departure, though, they'll need him at his best. They'll need the Deron Williams of old, not the old-looking Deron Williams.
He's also seemed like someone capable of powering a championship-caliber engine. Now that he seems to have one at his fingertips, it's up to him to take it down the path to the podium.