As the Brooklyn Nets embark on their prospective journey through the Eastern Conference playoffs, one enormous question looms above the team.
Which Deron Williams is going to show up?
D-Will’s 2013-14 campaign has been a huge disappointment. He put up the worst regular-season scoring and assist numbers since his rookie season and failed to be the superstar he’s proven to be for the last eight years.
But the frustrating part about it—at least for the Nets—is that Williams has shown glimpses of that former three-time All-Star, the guy who was once talked about as the league’s top point guard.
At 29 years old, he’s not losing his game. It’s just not showing up on a nightly basis.
But if the Nets are to make a serious postseason run through the East, Williams—the star, not the observer—needs to be leading the way for Brooklyn.
The first way for Williams to reclaim stardom is to actually be on the court.
A pair of rickety ankles caused No. 8 to sit out 16 games this season, and he struggled to get into a rhythm as a result of missing long stretches at a time.
I just want to get healthy again, man. If I get healthy, I know what can happen. It’s been a frustrating two years for me injury-wise. It’s something I can’t really control. Hopefully I can figure it out this summer and then go from there.
Shaun Livingston dutifully stepped into the role of primary ball-handler in his absence, but according to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Williams wasn’t too happy about playing off the rock upon his return:
That question doesn’t appear as poignant as it was a few months ago when, according to team sources, [Williams] had to be talked to separately by [Kevin Garnett], [Paul Pierce] and [Joe Johnson] due to his unwillingness to play off the ball and concede point guard responsibilities on occasion to Livingston. That matter appears to have been resolved.
After being sidelined for a 10-day stretch in early January with his second ankle sprain of the year, head coach Jason Kidd brought Williams off the bench for BKN’s next six games.
The Nets went 4-1 in his absence, and then 4-2 when D-Will didn’t start. While he was playing about 31 minutes a game, it seemed as though the team could get by without him.
But against the Toronto Raptors—champions of the Atlantic Division for the second time in team history—in the first round of the playoffs, the Nets won’t be able to squeak by without a healthy Williams.
Far too often this season, Williams has been a spectator.
The 2013-14 Nets are different than the previous teams D-Will has been a part of. Having always been the main event, taking the court alongside storied players like Pierce and Garnett may have changed the dynamic for No. 8.
But he’s still Deron Williams—a three-time All-Star with career averages of about 17 points and nine assists.
D-Will’s shot attempts per game dropped below his career average this season, largely due to nights of falling back offensively and letting the action unfold in front of him.
During the 2014 regular season, Williams posted single-digit shot attempts on 21 different occasions. Last season? Only eight.
Remember when Williams rivaled Chris Paul as the league’s top point guard? Today, there’s no debate—CP3 is a far superior player. As relayed by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, Jeff Van Gundy talked about that comparison:
Sometimes you don’t know how good you have it. Williams, in Utah, with (coach) Jerry Sloan, with the combination of the other players they had, were right on the cusp. They were very, very good. He was viewed as that point - some people thought Chris Paul was the best point guard, some people thought Deron Williams was the best guard. But they were both guys who were looked upon as surefire Hall of Famers. ... This guy was an absolute stud, a handful on both ends of the floor. You don’t realize how big and strong and powerful he is. He wasn’t really good then. He was great. It’s not like he hasn’t played well with the Nets, and at times very well. It’s just that he hasn’t been consistently great like he was in Utah like he was every night.
Williams doesn’t have to be Chris, Cliff or any other Paul in order for Brooklyn to thrive. He just has to be the pit bull of a point guard that he’s already shown he can be.
On April 19, Game 1 of the Toronto series, Williams gave Brooklyn the type of performance it’ll need from him going forward.
Though he missed 12 shots, D-Will came out of the gate firing. He was assertive with the ball and led Brooklyn with 24 points, committing just one turnover in nearly 40 minutes of action.
With Williams at his best, how far can the Nets go?
And when it came time to close the show, Williams let Pierce do what he does best. The Truth scored nine points in the game’s final 2:58, willing Brooklyn to its first victory of the series, 94-87.
While Pierce’s clutch play was the headline, it was Williams and Johnson who carried the Nets. The duo totaled 48 points, including a perfect 14-of-14 from the free-throw stripe.
The scrappy Lowry scored 22 points, dished out eight assists and snagged seven rebounds, but Williams held him in check during some of the game’s biggest moments.
Going forward, if Brooklyn gets the same D-Will that it got in Game 1 against the Raptors, the Nets will have a legitimate chance of making it out of the Eastern Conference gauntlet.
All stats and information are accurate as of April 20 and courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.