They lauded the future on his arrival day. “This is a celebration for our franchise,” Avery Johnson stressed, defending his new star point guard from criticism before he’d even played a game yet.
Three different head coaches, two blockbuster trades, and two playoff exits later, the future isn’t now, it’s then. And the “win-now” approach, kicked off by the move to acquire Williams from the Utah Jazz for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, and two draft picks, has failed. But that doesn't mean they'll change course now.
The Nets are 122-133 since the Deron Williams trade, and 8-11 in the playoffs, with one electric series win over the Toronto Raptors. Conversely, the Jazz, who made the trade in an effort to start fresh, are 112-143 since the trade, nearly the same record, with one playoff appearance. The teams are headed in different directions, as the Nets have ended the last two seasons above .500 and the Jazz below it.
Williams has underperformed in three seasons in Brooklyn. He’s averaged fewer points per game in each of his three full seasons, without a significant increase in efficiency. His injury history in 40 months is longer than some full careers. He’s expressed significant frustration in his inability to play at the high level he’s accustomed to.
The frustration’s mounted in the last two seasons, with the Nets looking at championship expectations with their talent-laden roster and the Nets falling short. Every move they’ve made since February 2011 has been with the intention of winning now, not later.
They traded for Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace to win now. They re-signed Brook Lopez to a max deal to win now. They flipped major contracts for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry, once again, to fill their roster with veteran, championship-contending talent. They tried to build the Spurs roster with the Heat model, and it didn’t work.
But now they're stuck. They've got no cap room this offseason and no draft picks, and aren't projected to have much even if they do deal Williams away. They've built for the era of 2011-2016, and given how they've set up their roster, they'll hit the reset button then, not now.
So if they trade Williams for draft picks and rebuilding pieces, they’re not just trading Williams. They’re making a complete philosophical reverse from everything they’ve built towards in the last four years, and mortgaging their next potential step -- gearing for the 2016 free agent class, headlined by 2014 MVP Kevin Durant -- to build in a new way. Williams is the symbol of this team's era. He's not going now.
If they trade Williams, they'll also have to consider trading Johnson (who may not be easy to deal), who's the core of their win-now philosophy and won't want to be part of a rebuilding team. They'd have to scrap for draft picks from teams that won't want to give them up in a league that's increasingly valuing players restricted to rookie contracts.
This hardly deals with Williams the player, which adds a new wrinkle to their plans. The surgery Williams underwent at the end of May significantly changed his ankle structure, and may finally mean the end of his chronic (if not acute) ankle issues. With him there's Lopez, who missed all but 17 games this season with a broken right foot and his third foot surgery in three years. Lopez also underwent reconstructive surgery to lessen the impact on his foot and limit the potential of future injury. The Nets made it to the second round with Williams limited and frustrated this season; they can talk themselves into a solid team with a fully healed Lopez & Williams next season.
That's what they want. It's hard to remember sometimes that four years ago this Nets team ended a 12-70 team as the league's biggest laughingstock. Wins change the culture of a franchise, and the Nets are no longer the league's running joke in the swamp. The Nets were never serious contenders for LeBron James or any major free agent in the 2010 offseason, because players didn't want to relegate themselves to bad teams.
Back when the Nets traded for Joe Johnson, I wrote that Johnson "won't make them win championships. But he'll help them win games. And that's the start Brooklyn needs, not another 25-win season slobbering over thy neighbor's goods." I stand by that today. The Nets, presumably, will put together at least two more winning seasons, seasons that won't end in championships. Then, when everyone expires in 2016, they have a chance to start fresh again.
So the Nets won't trade Deron Williams, not for this season, but for an era. That era may end in two seasons. But it won't end now.