Aging Stars, Huge Payroll Mere Symptoms of Nets' Real Issue—Deron Williams

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Aging Stars, Huge Payroll Mere Symptoms of Nets' Real Issue—Deron Williams
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The number always overshadowed the names—$190 million worth of grand expectations, a lavish investment in instant gratification.

That was the price the Brooklyn Nets would pay, in salaries and luxury taxes, after acquiring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last summer in a bold play to become title contenders.

The dream died Wednesday night in Miami, in Game 5 of the second round, five weeks and 11 victories shy of a championship. Nets officials insist the investment is not yet a bust, that Pierce and Garnett could return next season, that Brook Lopez could return to health, that the championship window is still open, if only by a few inches.

None of that is certain.

Pierce could leave as a free agent, perhaps to join old friend Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. Garnett could retire, and just might if Pierce were to leave. If the two proud former Celtics walk away, then the Nets will have broken the payroll record—and given up three first-round draft picks—for nothing.

But the fixation on the price tag, and even on the trade itself, obscures the Nets' greatest problem—­a previous, equally costly investment that has gone bust:

You remember Deron Williams?

You could be forgiven if you didn't. Williams was a dud in the playoffs, particularly against the Heat. He scored zero points in Game 2, nine points in Game 3 and 13 points (on 5-of-14 shooting) in a Game 4 loss that pushed the Nets to the brink of elimination. Williams' postseason field-goal percentage: 39.5.

The Nets imported Pierce and Garnett for their wisdom and their fire, but no one expected the two aging vets to carry the offense. It is Williams who was acquired to be the face of the franchise, the engine of the Nets offense, and he has utterly failed in that role.

No matter how many tens of millions they spend, no matter how many flashy trades they make, the Nets will never be a serious contender unless Williams regains his All-Star form.

"Deron's the X-factor," said one Nets official. "More than anybody."

Since Williams' celebrated arrival in 2011, the Nets have made two trips to the playoffs, one ending in the first round and one in the second, for a postseason record of 8-11.

The Nets' debut season in Brooklyn ended with a humiliating Game 7 loss on their home court to a broken-down Chicago Bulls team. LeBron James ended their 2014 run, which would be easier to rationalize if not for the fact that the Nets lasted just five games, despite their gaudy payroll, their superior depth and a lineup stocked with decorated stars—Williams, Pierce, Garnett and Joe Johnson.

Losing Lopez to season-ending foot surgery in December surely put a crimp in the Nets offense, but it also forced coach Jason Kidd to adopt the small-ball lineup that turned the season around.

So much more was expected of this group.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Jason Kidd faces an offseason that could see him lose both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from his roster.

You can attribute those expectations to the arrival of Pierce and Garnett, but they were always going to be complementary players in Brooklyn because of their age and their mileage. The Nets' fate still rested primarily with their core trio of Johnson, Williams and Lopez, the same group that withered against the Bulls last spring.

The same frailties emerged in this latest run, with the Nets often buckling in pressure-packed fourth quarters and, most damningly, in the final minutes of fourth quarters.

The Nets trailed Miami by just two points with seven minutes to play in Game 2 but got blown out down the stretch. Game 4 was tied with 2:30 to play, but the Heat closed with an 8-2 run. And on Wednesday night, with their season on the line, the Nets blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead and then watched their dreams slip away amid a flurry of crunch-time miscues.

No one player can be blamed for the lousy late-game execution, but it is the job of the point guard (and franchise player) to maintain order and to put his teammates in the best position to succeed. Time and again, Williams has shown he is incapable of leading when the pressure is at its highest. When the Nets needed salvation this season, they turned to Johnson and Pierce.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press
Billy King and Deron Williams.

This is surely not what general manager Billy King envisioned three years ago, when he plucked Williams from Utah and made him the franchise centerpiece. That Williams was then considered the equal (or at least close rival) of Chris Paul is of little comfort now, with Williams perpetually battling ankle injuries and crises of confidence.

"I used to feel like I was the best player on the court, no matter who we were playing against," Williams told reporters Thursday, an implicit acknowledgment of his diminished status.

The Williams trade cost the Nets two first-round picks, plus promising forward Derrick Favors. (The picks turned into Enes Kanter and Gorgui Dieng.) But the real cost has been so much greater.

In 2012, the Nets sent an unprotected first-round pick to Portland for the aging Gerald Wallace—a move made to placate Williams, who was miserable on a losing team and was demanding veteran help. That draft pick turned into Damian Lillard, who has quickly blossomed into an elite point guard.

At the time, the Nets' entire mission was to keep Williams happy to ensure he re-signed with them before the franchise moved to Brooklyn. That mindset cost them again in July 2012, when the Nets—pressed to give Williams an All-Star running mate—acquired Johnson from Atlanta for a package that included another first-round pick (Houston's, in 2013). The Nets also gave the Hawks the right to swap first-round picks in 2014 and 2015.

Of course, that 2014 pick now belongs to Boston, along with first-round picks in 2016 and 2018—the price of acquiring Pierce and Garnett.

Steven Freeman/Getty Images
The addition of Joe Johnson convinced Deron Williams to stay with the Nets but limited the team's payroll flexibility.

With Johnson and Wallace in the fold, Williams did re-sign—for a maximum contract of $100 million over five years.

Whether the Nets have been bold and aggressive or merely impulsive and foolish is in the eye of the beholder. But this was the agenda set by owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who demanded star players, a big splash in Brooklyn and a championship within five years after purchasing the team in 2010.

The Nets have one year left to meet their owner's goal and, at most, one more year with Pierce and Garnett stabilizing the lineup. Getting Lopez back would help. The Nets surely could have used a 20-point scorer in the paint against Miami.

Team officials were encouraged by Mirza Teletovic and see promise in Mason Plumlee. The Nets also hold the rights to Bojan Bogdanovic, a European star who could either join the Nets next season or be used in a trade.

But Pierce will be 37 next fall, Garnett 38 and Johnson 33. This team has little upside unless Williams somehow rediscovers the swagger that made him a star in Utah.

There is an alternative, sources say, the Nets will not rule out: They could look to trade Williams this summer, retool around Johnson and Lopez, squeeze one more run out of Pierce and Garnett and hope for the best.

It's hard to say what the Nets might get for a 29-year-old former All-Star with bad ankles and $63 million left on his contract, but it's worth exploring. The Houston Rockets tried to acquire Williams last December, so it's not inconceivable that another team desperate for point-guard help might inquire.

The Nets' rise began with Williams' arrival. Their future hopes may depend on his departure.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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