Whenever you have a franchise player on the roster, you do everything in your power to surround them with good talent so they can consistently compete for the playoffs and beyond. If you can do that, chances are they will be happy and want to stay with your team on a long-term basis. However, there are some instances when that doesn't make a difference and the star player has to go.
In Utah, Deron Williams established himself as one of the best point guards in the league. He had won a gold medal with the Men’s Olympic Team in 2008, had taken the Jazz to the playoffs every year since 2007 and was seen as the best PG in the NBA by general managers across the league. Deron consistently averaged around 17 points and eight assists a night while racking up highlights with his killer crossovers. With a young roster and Williams as their focal point, the Jazz looked to be set for the foreseeable future.
Things started to go sideways in 2011 after Jerry Sloan quit after 26 years with the organization. There were rumors that Williams was the reason Sloan left, but he flatly denied those accusations. After that was settled, everything appeared to be well in Utah.
Over in New Jersey, the Nets were star-crossed. The franchise had been in a funk ever since Jason Kidd left town in 2008 and were one season removed from their worst in franchise history. The 12–70 campaign was an incredibly rough one for Nets fans as the team was mocked locally and nationally for their ineptitude, but the hope of drafting John Wall with the first pick in the Draft and signing LeBron James in free agency) was within reach. Unfortunately for them, things didn't go as expected.
At the time, there was intense debate among fans as to whether they should take Kentucky big man DeMarcus Cousins or Georgia Tech big Derrick Favors with the third pick. They went with Favors on draft night.
Free agency didn't save the Nets. The 2010 class was the best since the summer of 1996 and while players like LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Carlos Boozer joined new teams, they didn't end up with the Nets. New Jersey only came away with Travis Outlaw, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow in free agency and later acquired Troy Murphy from Indiana in a four team trade.
With the failures of free agency behind them, the Nets went about incorporating their new players into Avery Johnson's system. Unfortunately, they weren't able to reach even the lowest expectations. The team struggled throughout the year and were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference at the end of February. The Outlaw signing was catastrophic as he was unable to fill the void at small forward that was there following Richard Jefferson's trade to the Bucks for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons in 2008. Like the previous year, the only thing keeping Nets fans sane was the dream of landing a superstar player.
After the free agency dust settled, there were reports that Carmelo Anthony wanted out of Denver. That set off a six month chase that featured secret meetings, false starts, endless comment threads, and eventually, a trade (along with Chauncey Billups) to the New York Knicks for Danilo Galinarri, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mosgov and draft picks. The Nets were in the mix the entire way, but Melo preferred the Knicks. Once again, the Nets were out in the cold.
And then, they shocked the world. The Nets pulled off their biggest move since the Vince Carter trade in late 2004 by acquiring Williams from Utah in exchange for Favors, Devin Harris and draft picks. Williams’ name hadn't even been brought up in trade rumors when it happened, so it caught everybody by complete surprise. In retrospect, maybe we should have seen the trade coming. Williams had only one season left on his contract and with the reported schism that led to Sloan’s exit and Anthony’s trade saga within the division, it made sense for the Jazz to move him when they did. The Nets were more than happy to solve Utah's problem and they gave up a rookie big man that wasn't playing much under Avery Johnson and was constantly being mentioned in trade rumors.
In Williams, New Jersey saw a player that was entering his prime and a cornerstone of their Brooklyn relocation.
The early portion of Williams’ run with the Nets was marred by injuries. He only appeared in 12 games after the trade before shutting down to undergo wrist surgery. He appeared in 55 games following the lockout (he also played in Turkey during the lockout even though he wasn't fully healthy) and had to carry a roster that was missing Brook Lopez. He did the best he could with that roster and was named to his fifth consecutive All-Star team along the way. Williams’ season ended early after he suffered a contusion on his right calf.
After the lockout shortened season in 2012, Williams entered free agency. The Dallas Mavericks made roster changes following their 2011 Championship in order to create enough room to sign him, but Williams decided to stay with the Nets, signing a five year, $100 million contract the day after the team acquired Joe Johnson from Atlanta. With Williams, Joe Johnson, the in-season acquisition of Gerald Wallace, and a healthy Brook Lopez, the Nets looked to be in good shape heading into Brooklyn. But the moves also brought a lot of pressure with them as well.
Williams came into the first year in Brooklyn dealing with an ankle injury he suffered in the Olympics that required an injection. Williams played through that injury as well as a wrist injury that had been nagging him since his days with Utah. He was criticized by Jerry Colangelo for being in poor shape at the Olympics, but Colangelo walked that back a bit. Everything was starting to pile up on Williams:
"I didn’t take any time off. After last season, I never stopped working out," he said according to the Post. "After the Olympics, the day I got back I worked out the next morning. I thought it was the best thing to do, and now looking back, it probably would have been smarter to take some time off and get a little bit of rest, especially on my legs, and my ankles in general.
"I took a lot of pounding over the last year because even though we had a shortened season, I was over in Istanbul, so I haven’t had a break since before then. I felt like I could handle it, and at the time I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn’t want to get out of shape. I wanted to just keep going."
Making matters worse was the firing of Avery Johnson. About a week before Johnson was fired, Williams mentioned that the offense he ran in Utah was better suited to his skills. When you look at his numbers from that time period, he's got a point. In the 27 games he played up to that point, he was shooting a career low 39.8 percent from the field, a ghastly 29.5 percent from three point range while taking close to six threes a night, and he took the fewest amount of free throws a night (4.7) since his second year in the league. For the team as a whole, they were near the bottom of the league in shots inside of the restricted area, which was a dramatic difference from his days in Utah. The Jazz under Sloan were in the top half of the league in those types of shots everyone, including Top Five finishes each year from 2006-2010.
Williams denied playing a part in Johnson's firing, but between this and Sloan's sudden exit from the Jazz, Williams was developing a reputation of being a coach killer. When the second half of the season began, he put a mediocre first half behind him and was fantastic. In 28 games, D-Will averaged almost 23 points a night to go along with eight assists on 48 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from three point range in 36 minutes a game. Williams helped the Nets hang on to the four seed and they earned home court advantage in Round One vs the Bulls. He got off to a great start in Game One
Ultimately, the Nets fell short in seven games. Williams didn't have a bad series on the whole, but there were moments in the series where Nate Robinson outplayed him and that managed to stick in the minds of everyone as the Nets went into the offseason. Even with the bad ending, everyone affiliated with the Nets was feeling good and looking forward to the following season. General Manager Billy King:
Deron will think all off-season on ways he can score with Brook or Joe or Gerald. Last summer, we didn't know who we were going to have. When we had this conversation (then), I didn't know who was going to be on the roster. Now I know who's coming back. It's not that I've got to add a lot of pieces. This will be the first off-season where really we can build on our core."
New look, same old problem
That summer, the Nets risked it all and traded for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry in exchange for Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, and a bushel of draft picks. Not to be undone, they acquired Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche, and D-Will's former teammate Andrei Kirilenko. And to top it off, they would be playing under new head coach Jason Kidd. Altogether, the Nets were feeling great and the new additions, along with a healthy Williams, had everyone dreaming about competing for a championship against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Did they live up to expectations? Nope. The team started off slow, Brook Lopez broke his foot, and the Nets were on the receiving end of an endless barrage of jokes from fans around the league. For Williams, he wasn't able to build on the success he had in the second half of the 2013 season. He talked about being more aggressive, but at times he seemed to defer more to Joe Johnson and Pierce than he should have. He hoped to erase a so-so year with a good showing against the Raptors in the playoffs. That didn't happen and...
Yeah. Even though it was just one random dude putting up a poster, it came to represent Williams' run as a Net. He played well to close out the Raptors series, but had his difficulties against the Heat. He even caught criticism from Kobe Bryant about his lack of assertiveness in Game Two. It was another poor ending to the season for Williams, and he ended up undergoing another surgery in the summer, this time on both of his ankles.
Going into the 2014-2015 season, you could make a case that it was the most important of his career. He entered training camp at full health, came back in great shape, and had a new coach that ran an offense he was familiar with from his experience in Utah.
Even with that, things still went off track for Deron. He started well in the early part of November, but by January, he was injured and missed most of the month due to a rib fracture. When he was on the court, you could see the decline in Williams' game. He wasn't getting to the rim much and when he did, he barely made his shots there. He was still the best distributor on the roster, but it looked as if everything was starting to fall apart.
When the playoffs started, he and the Nets were underdogs against the Atlanta Hawks. It was a close series for the most part and Williams had a spectacular Game Four, but it was another bad playoff series for D-Will. He missed a game tying shot in Game Two and at times looked like the worst point guard on the court. Joe Johnson and Lionel Hollins both reported that Williams was playing with severe knee tendinitis. Hollins came out with a particularly strong defense of his embattled point guard:
"I’m disappointed in how everybody is coming down on Deron and trying to treat him like he’s a pariah," Hollins said. "Deron is a good person, he’s a good player. Now, is he on the level you guys think he should be? That’s your fault for thinking that somebody should be something."
Was it all worth it?
The decision to bring him in and later re-sign him to a max contract were ones the Nets absolutely had to make. The franchise was in a rut and needed a player like Williams to reinvigorate the fanbase. They were becoming irrelevant and while the lure of Brooklyn was helpful, it didn't deliver any top tier free agents.
With what they traded to get him, the lack of depth behind him, and the team aiming to convert Knicks fans into Net fans as they brought professional sports back to Brooklyn, having Williams walk away would have been catastrophic. If Williams were to have left, Goran Dragic might have been the Nets back up choice to play point guard, and while he was certainly a point guard that was improving each year, he may not have fit well in the half court offense Johnson had in Jersey (which is something I didn't fully take into account in 2012).
That being said, Williams didn't live up to the expectations placed upon him. Injuries were the overarching theme of Williams’ time with the Nets. In Utah, Williams missed a combined 28 games in his five and a half seasons. As a Net, Williams missed 58 games in four and a half seasons. He just could never stay healthy and with the exception of the second half of the 2013 season, wasn't able to go on an extended streak of excellent play. He's a hated figure among Nets fans and management, but he tried his best to play through injuries and worked to get back on the court as soon as he was physically able to. I've seen a few allusions to Williams possibly not caring about Brooklyn, but it's hard to make that case when he pushed himself to be out on the floor even to his detriment and was active in the community. You can interpret him constantly playing through injury to be foolhardy, but whenever we discuss his tenure in New Jersey/Brooklyn, I feel that those should be brought up in his favor.
That said, he didn't help himself in certain situations. Playing internationally even though you're not 100 percent? REALLY BAD IDEA. Not undergoing necessary ankle surgery a year before it really became a problem? Bad idea. Complaining about sight lines? It comes off as petty. Letting one dude's sign sour him on the entire Nets fan base? That's unfair to Nets fans.
While the Nets made the right choice in getting and keeping Williams, the way they constructed the roster while he was here could have been better. While there weren't many criticisms (outside of the level of protections on the Draft pick) of the Gerald Wallace trade when it happened, we later found out that outside of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Thomas Robinson, they weren't all that intrigued with the 2012 Draft Class. The Nets made that trade to improve their chances of keeping Williams, and they ran into the classic problem of making a move that keeps the star happy in the short term vs the one that could benefit the club in the long term. The Nets are currently living with the consequences of their decision to trade with Boston in 2013. From the Williams trade on down, the strategy was simple:
Williams quickly signed with his hometown Mavs after leaving Brooklyn. In an interview with Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports, Williams reflected on his time with the Nets and said two things that are incredibly relevant as it relates to Brooklyn:
"I wish I wouldn’t have been hurt. I wish I would’ve played better and people didn’t feel like I was just stealing money. That’s the last thing I want people to feel like," Williams told Yahoo. "It didn’t work out the way anybody had hoped."
"I wanted to be somewhere where my coach was going to be there. It wasn’t going to be up in the air, year after year. You see here, he’s not going anywhere," Williams told Yahoo, nodding in the direction of Carlisle. "I’ve heard a lot of great things about him as a coach, and that was a big part of it. The system has definitely been great. Still learning but it’s definitely helped me, helped my confidence."
While Williams isn't completely blameless, I think he has a point. When you're constantly changing coaches and offensive systems, it's hard to get comfortable and acclimated to your role and where you're supposed to be/what you're supposed to do. That said, a counter argument can be made that if Williams played like everyone expected him to, the team wouldn't have had to constantly shake things up. Also, when Williams left the organization, he didn't acknowledge the fans or the team that made him the centerpiece of their plans, and it's understandable why team insiders would be annoyed by that.
On the day Williams makes his return to Brooklyn, he's been beset by another injury. I think we have to look at his four-and-a-half years with the team as a disappointment. Despite his best efforts, he could never put it all together and carry the Nets to the top of the Eastern Conference. If he were able to stay healthy and the Nets got a few breaks early in his tenure, who knows how things would've turned out? It's one of those questions that will keep fans up at night and wondering what could have been.