Deron Williams and The Eastern Conference


Steven Kyritz is a new writer here at

Deron Williams, Dwyane Wade

Upon hearing the totally unsuspecting news that the Nets had traded for Deron Williams, my first thought was of the past. Well technically, my first thought was, “thank God they didn’t give up that package for Carmelo.” But my next thought was of the past: summer 2001, when the Nets acquired another stud PG in (duh) Jason Kidd.

That trade was the key to turning around the Nets franchise, taking them from afterthought to back-to-back Finals appearances in ’02 and ’03. Okay, so you probably knew that. It was still worth repeating, if only to set up the inevitable question: can trading for Deron Williams have the same effect on the Nets?

Short answer? Probably not. It’s a huge step in the right direction (assuming D-Will re-signs; if not, the Kidd trade comparisons stop and the Dr. J trade comparisons start) and could end with a title or appearance in the Finals, but that’s not likely with the roster they have now.

It’s not entirely the Nets’ fault. Through no fault of their own, the newly Kidd’d Nets of 2001 found themselves in an advantageous position, in a mediocre Eastern Conference. The year before, the East’s sacrificial lamb against the powerhouse Lakers had pretty much been one guy who could score (Allen Iverson) and a bunch of other guys who could do everything but (Mutombo, Ratliff, Tyrone Hill, Snow, McKie, et al).

In 2002, the East was probably even less impressive. I was trying to figure out a fun and interesting way to quantify this, but I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves: the Nets were the #1 seed with 52 wins, and Detroit at 50-32 was the only other 50 win team (the West had four teams win at least 57 games). Four of the Eastern Conference All-Star starters were good-but-not-quite-greats Mutombo, Antoine Walker, Vince Carter, and of course the Wizards’ Michael Jordan, not to be confused with, you know, Michael Jordan. (The fifth starter was Allen Iverson.) The West had Steve Nash, Gary Payton, Chris Webber, Karl Malone, and Dirk Nowitzki…on the bench behind starters Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and contest-winner (not really) Steve Francis.

The next season was more of the same. The Nets won 49 games, just one game behind the conference-leading Pistons and good for an Atlantic Division title. In the West, it would have earned them the #7 seed. I bring this up not to cheapen what the Nets accomplished (I’ll let their play in the Finals do that. Zing! Seriously though, that series almost turned me off the NBA forever), just to demonstrate that Jason Kidd walked into an East ripe for the picking.

Now contrast that with the landscape facing the Nets next year. While it’s way too early to anticipate how teams will look next year, the Bulls, Heat, Celtics, Magic and Hawks all enter the offseason as contenders, while the Pacers and Sixers both boast young and talented rosters.

On a more individual level, you could make a strong argument that Jason Kidd was the best player in the Eastern Conference and a legit MVP candidate in his first full season with the Nets. Could Deron Williams do the same next season? Of course, provided he out-plays Messrs. James, Wade, Rose, Howard, Pierce, Stoudemire, Anthony, et al.

Speaking of players (they are fairly important, after all), it’s worth looking at how exactly the Nets team that Jason Kidd joined compares with what currently surrounds D-Will. As with the conference, Kidd walked into a roster that was tailor-made for instant success. The 2000-01 Nets were not without talent, but pretty much none of it stayed healthy.

(How bad was it, you ask? Evan Eschmeyer started 51 games.)

Kenyon Martin, Stephon Marbury, and Keith Van Horn missed 14, 15, and 33 games respectively. Kerry Kittles sat the entire season following knee surgery. The three who remained were healthy in 2001-02. Add in a rookie Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin (a rookie in 2000-01) having a year’s experience under his belt, and you have a team that was perfectly positioned for a huge leap forward. Kidd was the perfect match to light the Nets’ fuse.

And what about this Nets team? On the one hand, it is definitely a roster that is primed for improvement, particularly if Comrade Prokhorov can add the right bold name. Brook Lopez has legit star potential and there are a lot of interesting pieces (assuming everyone is re-signed) in Anthony Morrow, Kris Humphries, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, and Brandan Wright.

There are two main differences between this team and the one Kidd took over, though. Among the players who remain, there’s no reason to expect a huge one-season jump. No one’s really coming back from any major injuries, and no major contributors were rookies last season. It pains me to say this, but pending offseason acquisitions, this team just isn’t as good. I’ll call Kidd and Williams a push, and Lopez is definitely an improvement over Todd MacCulloch, but I just don’t see the equal of the Martin/Van Horn/Kittles/Jefferson quartet on this roster.

All in all, Jason Kidd came into a perfect situation for an immediate Finals run and that it will be much, much, more difficult for Deron Williams to lift these Nets anywhere near those heights. That said, the opportunity is there for a big step forward, and the Finals are only really being mentioned because of what Kidd accomplished in 2001-02. Forty-plus wins and a playoff berth are not out of the question, and would be an impressive achievement for Williams and the Nets.