The level of stakes does not transform the principles of the poker world.
No matter how many chips are scattered across the table, the right read remains tied to knowing when a hand is worth holding or if it's one to discard.
The Brooklyn Nets bet the farm on Deron Williams successfully filling the role of franchise savior. Jokingly referred to as the team's "assistant GM" in April 2012, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, Williams has come a lot closer to holding that position than most realize.
Brooklyn's transaction log over these last few seasons reads like a comedy of errors, only no one is laughing.
A $190 million payroll in 2013-14, the largest in NBA history, should be the clearest sign of this team's audacious approach to roster management. In truth, it's merely a footnote to a harrowing tale of a mortgaged future and a mediocre present.
The Nets didn't destroy their financial books through exorbitant free-agent spending, their biggest bets were made on the trade market. While the sizable salaries quickly piled up, it was the assets sacrificed along the way that best capture Brooklyn's belief that Williams could make a reversal of fortune-type of impact.
Including the acquisition that originally brought Williams to the borough, the Nets parted ways with seven first-round picks in their attempt to manufacture a contender.
Two went to the Utah Jazz for Williams, another was given to the Portland Trail Blazers for Gerald Wallace (which was later used on All-Star point guard Damian Lillard), one was dealt to the Atlanta Hawks for Joe Johnson and three more were shipped to the Boston Celtics in the deal that brought Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn.
Williams has served as the justification for all that wheeling and dealing.
Back when he was battling Chris Paul for the league's point guard throne, he might have been worth the price. Now, though, Williams looks worlds removed from his franchise-centerpiece days. This season, his points (14.3), assists (6.1) and rebounds (2.6) all fell to their lowest levels since his rookie year.
And his confidence seems to be trapped in an even deeper decline than his stat sheet:
Deron said he'll feels he's let everyone down these past 2 seasons. Said he used to step on court believing he was the best player. Not now.— Rod Boone (@rodboone) May 15, 2014
"He's frustrated," a source told The Brooklyn Game's Devin Kharpertian. "He's not happy with himself. He's not up to his standards in the three years since we got him."
Williams hasn't lost trust of his talent, but rather of his body. In a league littered with physical specimens, the former might be preferable to the latter.
He had surgery on his right wrist in April 2011 and has since been plagued by a pair of bad wheels. Ankle injuries led him to undergo a series of cortisone shots and platelet-rich plasma injections last season, treatments that were repeated in January. He had more shots during Brooklyn's 12-game playoff run and surgery on both ankles after the season.
Even if his physical pain is alleviated, Williams could now be facing a lengthy mental recovery. As Nets general manager Billy King explained, via Tim Bontemps of the New York Post, he has been forced to rediscover who he is as a player:
I think it took a while where he got the spring back in his legs. You guys talked about him dunking … that’s something that he never had to think about. It just became natural [to be able to do it]. I think as a player when you lose that ability it messes with your ability because your mind says one thing and your body can’t do it, it’s frustrating.
No matter how many problems the surgery might correct, Williams has lost a sizable chunk of his peak performance years that he cannot get back:
You can’t just say Deron will “return to form” if he’s healthy. 3 years of his prime have passed him. He’s not the same player.— devin kharpertian (@uuords) May 22, 2014
He's no longer an offensive force, nor even anything close to it. He was the NBA's 168th-ranked player in terms of offensive efficiency (0.94 points per possession), via Synergy Sports (subscription required), sitting outside the top 50 on isolation (0.90 points per possession, 60th), pick-and-roll (0.84, 60th) and spot-up shooting (1.09, 71st) plays.
The Nets were disastrous in the clutch—final five minutes of a five-point game—during the postseason. Their minus-24.3 net rating during those situations was the worst of any team with a series victory and 13th overall, via NBA.com.
Those are the times when superstars are supposed to shine their brightest. Williams never once looked the part, as Bleacher Report's Howard Beck noted:
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.
Williams will turn 30 over the summer, so any hope of this surgery correcting his health problems is subdued by Father Time's ominous presence. Outside of his contract, he may never again bear the markings of a basketball star:
Third straight offseason Deron Williams has had surgical procedure on ankle(s). Three years, over $62M remaining on his contract. #Nets— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) May 28, 2014
This team now finds itself at a crossroads with no comfortable options on the horizon.
Pierce is headed to unrestricted free agency, and Garnett could be lost to retirement. Both Williams and center Brook Lopez (foot) will spend their offseasons rehabbing from surgery, leaving Brooklyn's championship stock for the 2014-15 campaign dangerously close to the red.
Hitting the reset button won't be easy, though.
The Nets have no avenues available to build through the draft—and will not have any for the foreseeable future—and the trade market could be equally barren. If Brooklyn can find a team willing to take back one of its cap-killing contracts, that trade partner would surely look to shed one of its own toxic salaries in the process.
It's hard to pretend a suitor will surface hoping to land the old Williams when Williams himself seems to wonder whether that player even exists anymore.
"I couldn't do what I wanted to, I can't finish the way I want to finish," Williams said, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "Confidence-wise, it's hard to get back to where I was."
And it will be just as hard for the Nets to ever get where they thought they were going with Williams as their primary puzzle piece.
This is the part of the process that gambling courses cannot teach. Neither holding onto their hand nor folding it seems like a high-percentage play.
For Brooklyn, the challenge is somehow finding a new trump card. Maybe that's Johnson's late-game heroics, Lopez's low-post execution or even one that's not a part of the current collection. Whatever it is, it's clearly no longer Williams. The Nets' nightmare won't end by pursuing the same championship that has not produced—and will not yield—a happy ending.
Unless otherwise specified, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.