It's a double-edged sword, though. By shipping out the three-time All-Star, the Nets would be admitting their attempt to build a championship contender around Williams wound up setting this franchise back for years: past, present and future.
So much has changed since the Nets' 2011 swing-for-the-fences acquisition of Williams, it's hard to remember how well the trade was universally received. NBC Sports' Kurt Helin dubbed it "a brilliant move" for the Nets. CBS Sports' Matt Moore gave the franchise an "A+" grade for the deal.
Nets general manager Billy King beamed like he'd just won the lottery.
"I feel Deron Williams is the best point guard in the NBA," King said, via ESPN New York.
The responses were all spot-on, or in King's case, at least within reason. The price was steep (budding big man Derrick Favors, former All-Star point guard Devin Harris and two first-round draft picks), but that Deron Williams was worth it.
He was the only legitimate threat to Chris Paul's point guard throne. During Williams' final three full seasons with the Utah Jazz, he averaged 19.0 points on 48.3 percent shooting and 10.6 assists. Since the 1990-91 season, only two players have seen that type of quantity-plus-quality production in a single season (Paul twice and Kevin Johnson once).
The problem is, Nets fans are still waiting for that Deron Williams to arrive.
This Deron Williams put up 21.0 points and 8.7 assists during his first full season with the franchise (2011-12), but his stat sheet also included career worsts in field-goal percentage (40.7 percent) and turnovers (4.0). He bumped his shooting percentage to 44.0 percent and trimmed his turnovers down to 2.8 the following year, but he lost some quantity from both his scoring (18.9 points) and distributing (7.7 assists) columns.
In 2013-14, his points (14.3), assists (6.1) and rebounds (2.6) all dropped to their lowest levels since his rookie year. His 17.6 player efficiency rating stayed a tick ahead of the league average 15.0 benchmark, via Basketball-Reference.com, but it was his personal worst since his sophomore season.
The Nets bet the farm on Williams being great. They've been counting their losses ever since.
"He has been a fine player for the Nets each of the last two seasons, but they didn't give him a max contract two summers ago and make him the centerpiece of a $190 million-plus roster — the most expensive in NBA history — in order for him to be just fine," Tim Bontemps of the New York Post wrote.
That's why Brooklyn now finds itself at an unexpected crossroads with its franchise face. If this is the Williams who will be leading its roster, then this group is going nowhere fast.
So, it comes as little surprise that sources told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck that trading Williams is something the Nets "will not rule out."
Unfortunately, that process is far easier said than done.
This wouldn't be a case of simply trimming the fat. Williams' fingerprints are seen all across the franchise, from Brooklyn's historically expensive, aging roster to its nearly barren supply shelves.
The Nets' initial gamble on Williams became a series of costly bets that all followed the same format: future assets leaving Brooklyn and win-now (or, as it now seems, win-yesterday) pieces taking their place.
Amid a brutal 22-44 2011-12 season, the Nets gave up a top-three protected draft pick to acquire the then-29-year-old Gerald Wallace. Wallace averaged 9.1 points on 40.3 percent shooting in 85 games for the Nets before being dealt to the Boston Celtics last summer. The Blazers later cashed in that pick on Damian Lillard, the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year and an All-Star this season.
The Nets parted with another first-round pick (the Houston Rockets' in 2013) plus a slew of expiring contracts to get former Atlanta Hawks gunner Joe Johnson in July 2012. In that exchange, Brooklyn also allowed Atlanta the option of swapping first-round picks in both 2014 and 2015. All of that was done to acquire a player widely seen as having the hardest contract to trade in the NBA:
Johnson was insurance to keep Williams, then a free agent, inside the Empire State. Williams agreed to a five-year, $98 million contract with the Nets shortly thereafter. He credited Johnson's arrival as the deciding factor in his decision to re-sign, via ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo.
The Nets sent three more first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018) to the Celtics, along with the right to swap selections in 2017, in exchange for aging veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last summer.
"Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets," owner Mikhail Prokhorov exclaimed after the trade was announced, via Mazzeo.
Brooklyn's payroll swelled to nearly $200 million after luxury-tax hits this past season. The team finished the year a forgettable 44-38, unceremoniously bowing out of the conference semifinals by way of a 4-1 series beating at the hands of the Miami Heat.
Dating back to the original deal to acquire Williams, the Nets sacrificed seven first-round selections—plus the right to swap for two more—to manufacture a contender around its floor general.
That contender never materialized. And that floor general is about to have surgery on both of his problematic ankles, per Beck:
Health issues have plagued Williams almost from the moment he arrived in Brooklyn.
Devin Kharpertian of TheBrooklynGame.com broke down Williams' injury woes. Among the bigger items he's encountered have been surgery on his right wrist and "at least" eight ankle injections over a four-month span last season, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.
Physically, there are ways to ease his pain. Still, it's impossible to recover the time his body has cost him:
What's worse is that these injuries, coupled with his on-court struggles, appear to have a taken a toll on his psyche as well:
The Nets are left with a franchise face who no longer knows if he's even suited for such a role. It's the one he has to play—coach Jason Kidd pumped Williams up as an MVP candidate last fall for a reason—but that doesn't make the act any easier.
The Nets invested far too much in Williams to move away from him now. If the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel still exists in Brooklyn, he will have to be the one who discovers it.
"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," Beck wrote.
Besides, even if the Nets wanted to deal him, how would a deal even get done? Who would offer up anything of substance for a player with this type of baggage?
Williams might not be a superstar anymore, but he's still getting paid like one. He'll rake in more than $40 million over the next two seasons, via ShamSports.com, plus another $22.3 million in 2016-17 provided he doesn't opt out a year early. (At this point, why would he?)
As bad as his deal looks on Brooklyn's books, it would be even worse elsewhere. As Kharpertian noted, Williams' contract includes a trade kicker that would make him even more expensive:
If Johnson's deal could get moved, anyone's could. That's why Brooklyn has to at least gauge the market's temperature.
Still, the potential return package might be insultingly low. The Houston Rockets reportedly tried to nab Williams around the trade deadline, a league source told ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk, but an offer centered around Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin never gained any traction.
With Williams headed under the knife, could his value be even lower now? It's definitely not going up.
He'll turn 30 in June, a potentially problematic age for any guard dependent on athleticism, agility and quickness. He may have to salvage what he can from Father Time's tightening grip, leaving his All-Star days of the past as a possibly unobtainable goal.
Williams is the Nets' problem to solve, one they've sacrificed almost every draft pick to have.
Finding a solution won't be easy, but it's better than any alternative.
Maybe Brook Lopez can put his foot problems behind him, and Kidd can blend the big man's talent with the small-ball style that spurred Brooklyn's midseason turnaround. Perhaps Pierce doesn't go searching for greener grass in free agency, and Garnett delays his retirement to take one last shot at the title.
The Brooklyn skies still hold a smattering of championship dreams, all of which start and stop with Williams rediscovering his old superstar form. If he can climb to anywhere near his old elite level, maybe he can still justify a future that was mortgaged for him.
This blueprint doesn't have to fall apart, but the real D-Will is the only one who can bring it together.
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