Net Zero: The Curious Case of Deron Williams

So many changes are forthcoming for the New Jersey Nets. A move to a familiar city. The change in ownership and in the front office. Players have continually changed, and that has stayed the same for the Nets (one of the few things that has stayed the same for New Jersey). Even losing is a familiar change in the past decade for the team, after having earned a place of respectability in the 2000s.

And then there’s Deron Williams.

For reasons unknown to many, the Dwightmare (the now-fitting name of the NBA’s latest version of the Cuban Missile Crisis) came and went with the March 15 trade deadline. The speculation that Orlando Magic superstar Dwight Howard would force his way out of the city to align with Williams in New Jersey or in Brooklyn at the start of the 2012-2013 season roared with a fury that many assumed would come to an apex of league realignment and new dynasty talk. After all, with Superman 2.0 and D-Will on a basketball team, who could possibly beat that?!

It could still be, sure. But what does Howard’s un-arrival mean to the Nets? Remember who is being discussed. Neither Howard or Williams have proven much of anything as team leaders (though, the New Man of Steel did go to the NBA Finals in 2009), so what makes anyone think that together they will become more than what the Chicago Bulls are? What the Miami Heat are? What the Oklahoma City Thunder are? What the Dallas Mavericks are? What does Howard mean to Williams, tangibly? Don’t the Nets have to prove that they are better than those teams to be anything worth drooling at the mouth over?

I ask these questions not to be a detractor or a pain in the rear of the Nets faithful – it’s to properly give value to what Williams actually is.

For greater context, I’ve followed the All-Star point guard since he was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, so that’s nine years. I grew to appreciate his game as he ascended under Jerry Sloan’s guidance, becoming an elite player in the league. It’s clear that Williams is in the top 10% of players in the NBA today and one of the most talented players at point guard that has ever been seen. However, here is what we know about our hero:

  • Williams is not an alpha-dog star talent, in the sense that his singular abilities alone will not propel a team to do any more than what the sum of its parts suggest. His talent is dynamic, but not in the making of someone like, say, LeBron James or Derrick Rose. He doesn’t affect the game that way.
  • He has said himself that he doesn’t want to be The Man, but rather a compliment to someone who is more comfortable and more ably suited to that kind of leadership role (i.e. taking the last shot, taking the heat of losses, etc.).
  • Williams, while generally liked, isn’t known as the kind of player who other players speak glowingly about when it comes to this new era of “Superfriends” team-ups (a la Miami Heat and to a lesser extent, the New York Knicks). Save for Jason Kidd’s very candid support of playing behind him, the only hubbub about Williams being paired with anyone has been from Howard, and it remains to be seen just how much he really cares about Williams being there as opposed to the opportunity to become Brooklyn’s newest shining star. This has limited the interest in any potential star player wanting to come to the Nets; Williams doesn’t have the rep for being a transformative talent that can make a team a title contender… yet.
  • Williams didn’t want to come to the Nets. He was traded from the Utah Jazz, spared from becoming a villain in Salt Lake City after ushering Jerry Sloan into a place of retired contempt (though Sloan was not innocent in his part of the tension between him and his former All-Star point guard). Williams’ wife loves the metropolitan glamour of NYC as the new surroundings treat his family well, but No. 8, ever so mercurial and silent, can liberate himself fully, and he has gone on record stating that he intends to exercise his free agency.
  • As talented as Williams is, being a talented scoring point guard is no longer such a mysteriously special package. The league as we know it is cultivating the liberation of point guards who can score, to the degree that as the rules continue to mold the professional game, every team will soon have a multitalented scoring point guard with a ball in his hands (not to be confused with “combo guard”). One big reason Williams, as talented and hard-working as he is, isn’t necessarily as marquee a name in the present is because of the emergence of point guards like Rose, Russell Westbrook, and even the erratic, but talented Rajon Rondo, all of whom can be anything that you want and need them to be at any given time. Other players who are less than in talent but have similar capacities on the court, like Rodney Stuckey (who we’re beginning to realize is really just a 2-guard) and Tyreke Evans (who does the same thing he always does no matter what position he plays), are on the rosters of teams who winning percentages have them going to the lottery again this year. Simply put, Williams, being unique for his size and skill alike, isn’t really that big a deal on the whole anymore; Don’t get me wrong, no championship team would pass on him, but his value for what he is has been tempered a bit by league trends.
  • Lastly, the former Fighting Illini shooting guard wants to be known as a winner. Coming from the same draft class as his rival Chris Paul, the new captain of Lob City for the Los Angeles Clippers, Williams has taken the backseat in pretty much all of the comparisons that he’s been placed in. Whether it’s been in “point guarding” or being evaluated by who has the best array of skills, he has been viewed by many in the leagues as the lesser man. The last thing that Williams wants to do sign with a team that loses and then continually places him in a position to be lesser than, by comparison to all other players of equal or lesser talent. What New Jersey has underestimated is that Williams isn’t looking to solely get paid – he wants to win and be respected as such.

Taking all of the aforementioned into consideration, it makes the Nets look…exactly like the Nets.

Going back to the Dwightmare, with the intricate knowledge that most experts have on what Williams is and isn’t as a player, if Howard wasn’t coming, then why exactly hang on to Williams with a possibility of his leaving for another team without being recompensed?

Former Boston Celtics head coach and current ESPN columnist/scout John Carroll said it best:

The real problem in New Jersey was not that Howard chose to stay in Orlando, but rather the Nets’ unpreparedness for when Howard finally made his decision. They have had months to develop a real contingency plan in case Howard chose to stay in Orlando. Had they done so, once they knew Howard was staying, they should have already had a deal in place for Williams. The ramifications for not having a plan are far-reaching for a franchise that would like nothing more than to start in a new arena with an elite team.

Certainly the Nets and general manager Billy King should be given credit for trading for Williams last year and attempting to lure Howard. And for the past year it looked that plan might work.

The fact is, the Nets surrendered a lot of talent a year ago to get Williams, and that, ultimately, might have been the real problem. They were held hostage by their own move from a year ago and allowed themselves no real recourse if Howard didn’t come to New Jersey. It also was obvious that Williams would only stay because of Howard. There isn’t anyone on the Nets’ roster that would compel Williams to stay in New Jersey. Otherwise he would have signed a long-term extension last summer.

In their panic to try to keep Williams, they traded for Portland forward (Gerald) Wallace. In doing so, they also gave up a crucial 2012 first-round draft pick. It is protected, but only for the top three picks. Realistically, that pick will be more in the Nos. 6-10 range. And with the deepest draft in recent memory looming, that pick will bring a very good player to Portland. Not New Jersey.

Further, Wallace ate up valuable cap space as well as the money needed to re-sign Lopez. Had they been able to pry away (Andrew) Bynum from the Lakers, or Rajon Rondo from the (Boston) Celtics, not only would they have a talented player under contract, they’d still have their first-round pick and some cap space. If they had acquired Bynum and one of the Lakers’ two draft picks, they would created even more options for themselves, perhaps trading Lopez for yet another talented player. Instead, chances are they will watch Williams leave in July … for nothing.

No one in the NBA has chosen to stay on a losing team, for Gerald Wallace’s sake. It’s not a knock on Wallace, but he not going to be the missing piece for the Nets, nor for any of the 30 teams looking for a superstar talent to change the winds of the championship seas. He toiled in obscurity and became an All-Star in spite of being undersized for his position, underskilled, and playing for the losing Charlotte Bobcats. As unique a player as he is, Wallace in and of himself isn’t the compass for whether Williams stays or goes, nor is Wallace that kind of compass for any other top-tier NBA talent. It’s unrealistic for the Nets to believe otherwise.

It is clear that Williams is on the beta side of top-tier league talent, and there’s nothing wrong with it – and he may even know it himself. The Nets, though, have coveted another “name player” to package with its state-of-the-art arena and with its own name player (for the time being) in Williams, but what kind of name is for a player whose best days on the court can be seen as relatively mediocre in his context as a top player for a winning team (the Jazz), and had his greatest success only when paired with an All-Star frontcourt (Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer) and a Hall of Fame coach only (Sloan) for about a solid two seasons? It’s too much for the Nets to expect of themselves that they bring in world-beater players when their best player isn’t known a world beater, necessarily (at least outside of Team USA). Most teams can’t do that successfully within a year, let alone months, which is why I wonder why the team didn’t explore trading Williams for someone whose deal is locked in by contract and has equal-level talent.

From this, we can only assume that Williams — as great of a Boy Scout as he has been with the Nets — will go, and it’s not his fault if he leaves and the Nets get nothing in return. It’s the Nets’ fault. His future presence as a part of the organization is contingent upon having a star player (or several) and having a team that can easily compete for a championship from a talent perspective, and New Jersey lacks both options.

We all know what happened with Shaquille O’Neal when he left Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers and we certainly know what happened with James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. We also know what occurred when the Nets and Kidd were on rocky road, and he spooked the team by almost signing with the San Antonio Spurs outright; when it became clear that Kidd was likely to go elsewhere, they did what the Nets should’ve done when Howard didn’t come to New Jersey, and Williams was left sans superstar. The Nets became proactive and traded for eventual All-Star point guard Devin Harris, sending Kidd to the Mavericks; that move allowed the Nets to eventually acquire Williams to restart the organization’s future.

If the Nets lose Williams with nothing to show, the team will be harshly criticized in the media, and it won’t stop there. Who will fill up the new arena in Brooklyn after it no longer glitters and glistens? What will happen if Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov doesn’t get a winning team? What would be the fate of the Nets, not only as a basketball team, but as a partner of the NBA? Could they fold? Would they fold? Would another organization move to Brooklyn to occupy the Nets’ space? What is the absolute worst that could happen in the trade deadline aftermath?

Simply put, you don’t build on a pebble, you build on a rock. A star player with a crap team is not much more than a shiny stone among rubble, and Williams isn’t a rock without complimentary talent to expand his gifts. As it stands, he’ll likely go where he can become a part of a mountain – not a mole hill.

Let’s see how the Nets might answer to that.