Deron Williams used to be a superstar.
Then, suddenly, he wasn't. And he still isn't. He's clinging to regular star ranks, and even that can be construed as an ambitious designation. Rest assured, the Brooklyn Nets' second-round dance with the Miami Heat will let us know for sure.
Either Williams (finally) starts meeting expectations and emerges as a fallen superstar with the means to gradually return, or he'll continue to disappoint, confirming what has long been suspected: He's no star of any kind anymore.
Rise, Then Fall
Is it fair to rope much of Williams' NBA standing to one series?
Of course not.
This, however, isn't about one series. Williams has been on a steady decline since re-signing with the Nets in 2012. The lockout-truncated season saw him miss only 11 games and put up numbers that were similar to his Utah Jazz days (21 points and 8.7 assists), and he was still mentioned in the same breath as Chris Paul.
But then the Nets gave him $98 million and committed large sums of money to Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson (via trade) with him in mind. He wanted to see improvement, he wanted to see that the Nets were committed to winning. They gave him everything he wanted, and he offered them the bare minimum in return.
Last season, he missed only four games, but he spent half the year at the mercy of his ankles. His numbers suffered considerably, and it took a late-season surge for him to maintain some of his superstar pull.
“I’m going to push him. I want the best for him,” Kidd said in August, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. “When we sit down and talk about goals, team goals and also individual goals, I’m going to push him and I want to get him back to double-digit assists.”
That never happened. Or even came close to happening.
Hampered by ankle issues once again—he suffered three left-ankle sprains by January—Williams missed 18 games and averaged 14.3 points and 6.1 assists a night, his lowest marks since 2005-06, when he was a rookie.
The disparity between the Williams the Nets have and the Williams they thought they traded for and subsequently invested nearly nine figures in remains staggering. His production has been on a steady decline over the last three years and his health bill has reached liability status.
Although Williams' numbers fall short of terrible, they're not $98 million worth of superstardom. They're disappointing.
And he hasn't fared any better during the playoffs.
Against the Toronto Raptors, Williams had two solid outings. That was it. He averaged 16.9 points and 5.6 assists on 41.3 percent shooting—29.4 percent from deep—through seven games. In a series-deciding Game 7, he registered 13 points and 4 assists on 3-of-8 shooting as the Nets watched their season come down to one final possession.
That brings us to Round 2.
General manager Billy King assembled this Nets roster with upending the Heat in mind. Even after a Game 1 romping, their 4-0 regular-season record against Miami suggests they have some fight left.
The hope—in Brooklyn, at least—is that the Nets can be the first Eastern Conference team to grind out four wins in a best-of-seven clash against the Big Three-piloted Heat. Stealing another four victories from Miami remains a long shot after a 107-86 disaster Tuesday night, but it becomes more likely if the Nets can get more out of Garnett and Pierce, who were both pivotal to their regular-season success against Miami, as Bleacher Report's Josh Martin explained:
But if the Nets are to make a series of their matchup with the Heat—much less justify their roster's $200-million-plus price tag—they'll need more out of their Boston ex-pats, exhaustion be damned.
Garnett and Pierce were both pivotal to Brooklyn's success against Miami in 2013-14. Garnett turned in a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) to go along with three assists and a block in nudging the Nets to a double-overtime win in January. Pierce torched the Heat for 21.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 55.3 percent from the field and 45 percent from three.
Know who else the Nets need (plenty) more from?
Brooklyn's point man was once again passive in Game 1. He shot 7-of-10 from the floor for 17 points but finished with just three assists. Nothing about that stat line is going to cut it. Not for Williams, not for the Nets.
Under no circumstances should he attempt just 10 shots. Not during a playoff game. Not against the Heat.
Garnett and Pierce are often called upon to do more in these situations, as is Joe "Jesus" Johnson. But not one of those players was brought to Brooklyn to be the guy, to be a superstar. That's supposed to be Williams, who has so often taken a backseat to the late-game exploits of Johnson and Pierce.
A series against the Heat isn't going to be won that way, with Williams relegating himself to second, third or fourth fiddle. This is the time of year when he needs to take over. It's the time of year when the Williams of old would take over.
Through four playoff campaigns with the Jazz, he averaged 21.1 points and 9.6 assists on 45.8 percent shooting. A trace of that Williams was visible last spring too, when he posted 20.6 points and 8.4 assists in Brooklyn's seven games against the Chicago Bulls.
Where is that Williams now?
Bigger Than the Heat
There is more to this series for the Nets than simply facing the Heat.
The Nets placed everything in this season, mortgaging the future for a chance to win now. If they don't win, they fail on a variety of levels.
Pierce will become a free agent this offseason. There's no guarantee he'll return. Garnett has little, if not nothing, left in his tank. There's a strong possibility he retires. Brook Lopez's healthy return is far from certain as well. And the Nets still find themselves without a draft pick and devoid of financial flexibility moving forward.
But they'll still have Williams.
They just don't know if that's a good thing.
Think of how far Williams' stock has plummeted. He's gone from recurring All-Star and rival of Paul to an injury-prone question mark whose availability could give way to fragile ankles at any time.
Deron Williams said he had two injections into his ankle before Game 7: cortisone and an anti-inflammatory.— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) May 6, 2014
Back in February, ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk reported that the Houston Rockets tried to pry Williams from Brooklyn by dangling Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. That's the foundation of a deal the Nets should have been able to laugh at.
Yet it wasn't. It still isn't.
Months later, here the Nets sit, expecting more from glorified role players like Garnett and Pierce in time to recover against the reigning champs. That shouldn't sit well with anyone.
For better or worse, Brooklyn's future—fate against the Heat and all—is tied to Williams, a now-unsettling reality that Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley reminds us won't change anytime soon:
Unlike a lot of his teammates, D-Will's assignment came with more than a one-year grading scale. He has at least two more seasons in Brooklyn—although his ankles say there's no way he'll opt out of the $22.3 million he'll be owed in 2016-17.
He shares the win-now doctrine with his teammates, but also faces the added task of helping this team avoid a rebuild. Lopez sits as the franchise's centerpiece for the future, but D-Will is supposed to be the bridge for the championship runs expected to happen now and later.
Whatever star clout Williams had before is on life support. Or completely gone. The only way he regains some of his exhausted reputation is by showing up when the Nets need him most.
Which is right now.
I used to think Deron Williams would be a superstar. He's merely an above-average NBA player.— jeffpearlman (@jeffpearlman) May 5, 2014
The Nets went undefeated against the Heat during the regular season despite Williams averaging 7.3 points on 33.3 percent shooting in three appearances. For Williams' sake, they cannot win like that again. They cannot lose in similar fashion, with him hurting and struggling to produce.
Will Deron Williams ever be an NBA superstar again?
No matter how the Nets fare, Williams must be at the center of it all, putting forth an effort reminiscent of the player he used to be, generating results previously considered a formality.
“I know that’s what my team needed me to do,” Williams said after dropping 23 points on the Raptors in Game 6, per Bondy. “So I wanted to come out here and establish that and hopefully continue to do that. Hopefully, it doesn’t have to be a switch. Hopefully I can consistently do it.”
Since then, in Brooklyn's Game 7 victory over Toronto and its Game 1 loss to Miami, Williams has done nothing but consistently disappear. And should he fail to reverse course against the Heat, whatever is left of his once-pristine reputation will vanish, too.