Deron Williams is ailing, and though the Brooklyn Nets are seated fourth in the East, they could slide in the standings. Williams underwent his third round of cortisone treatments for his ankles, neither of which are good.
Williams told ESPN his left ankle is more injured than his right, but his gimpy ankles have all but robbed him of his explosion. Mike Mazzeo of ESPN noted that Williams has attempted just one dunk this season—and he missed it. For a guy who is every bit of his listed 6'3", that's just not a good sign.
Williams refuted notions that he was out of shape and poor conditioning was a cause of the injuries. In reference to Jerry Colangelo's comments about him being "a little overweight" Williams said he is in great shape now "and then too. You can ask anybody."
Williams has never been a player to rely on great speed, but his first step coming out of his patented crossover is crucial. Without that explosiveness, Williams is unable to penetrate. That further limits the diversification of his offense, which makes him more predictable.
What has been the result of Deron Williams' loss of explosiveness?
The result is tougher shots and a lower shooting percentage; Williams is hitting just 41.5 percent from the floor in the 2012-13 season. He hasn't shot above 45 percent since his last season in Utah in 2010-11.
Williams is averaging his lowest per game scoring average since his sophomore season in the Association in 06-07, when he averaged 16.2. This season his 16.9 points per game are accompanied by his lowest assist average since his rookie season.
Williams is still averaging a respectable 7.6 per game, but this a guy who averaged 10-plus for four consecutive seasons.
How have the Nets remained competitive with an ailing Williams?
Life has been hard for Deron Williams since coming to New Jersey/Brooklyn. The main reason the Nets have been able to compile a 33-22 record is because Brook Lopez has been the player the Nets hoped he would be, finally.
The Nets drew mass criticism for that signing, but thus far, Lopez has been a top-five center. At a position with so few great players, that's an indication he is worth the money he received.
Lopez has become a good rebounder again, averaging 7.3 boards per game this season. It's a marked improvement over the six he averaged in 2010-11, but still a notch lower than the production he showed on the glass in his first two seasons in the league. Still, Lopez is averaging 18.8 points per game and shooting 51 percent from the floor on 14.5 shots a night.
That efficiency has helped him post a Player Efficiency Rating of 24.3, the highest of his five-year NBA career. His win-shares are also at an all-time high, at 17.7 percent. Lopez' impact is clear statistically, and it's been clear on the court.
Perhaps most amazingly, Lopez is doing it on limited minutes. He's averaging the fewest minutes of his career, at just 30.3 minutes per contest. That means he'll be fresh for the playoffs to help the Nets make a deep run in an Eastern Conference which may be more open due to the injuries: Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose's ACL injury in last year's playoffs and Rajon Rondo's recent ACL tear.
The Nets are not a team without their problems: They lack depth, and are in the bottom-third of the league in a number of key statistical categories, including but not limited to shot-blocking, steals, opponent's shooting percentage and fourth quarter offense.
Ideally, Lopez helps the Nets fill those needs internally, but he can't do it all. The Nets should strongly consider adding a shot-blocker and another game changing defensive player this offseason.
But Lopez hasn't been doing it alone. Joe Johnson has stepped it up late in games and hit some heroic shots. P.J. Carlisimo has the Nets playing a faster tempo offense, which is opening things up and helping ball movement. And Reggie Evans has quietly been one of the best rebounders in the Association.
The Nets have a solid rotation of players, and they are knocking on the door of contention.
What should the Nets do this offseason, and what is Williams' long-term outlook?
That's why Mikhail Prokhorov's Nets were linked to Josh Smith at this year's trade deadline according to Kurt Helin of NBC Sports.
Smith would be a perfect fit in Brooklyn, as he can play both forward slots. He'd help the Nets create turnovers, which is something they've struggled with all season. If the Nets could find a way to work a sign-and-trade with the Hawks this summer for Smith, they would greatly enhance their title chances.
For now, the Nets hope that Lopez can continue to provide the scoring that Williams is not. Williams ideally returns to the 20-plus point per game scorer he was earlier in his career, but there's simply no guarantee of that. Ankle injuries can be funky and reoccurring.
One needs look no further than the Warriors' Stephen Curry to see how ankle injuries can rear their ugly head repeatedly and unpredictably.
If Williams faces similar instability, the Nets will live to regret the contract extension they signed him to last summer. Williams is due between $18 and $22 million through the 2016-17 season, so the Nets are tied in long-term to a guy whose body may not even endure that long. The situation is perpetuated further by the fact they are still on the books for Joe Johnson through 2015-16.
The Bottom Line
The Nets will not have cap flexibility any time soon, and it's unclear whether their current roster can ever develop into a true contender in a league with the likes of the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls—and so on.
Make no mistake, the Nets are a dark horse team in the East, but the reason they can't be more than that all lies in the ankles of Williams. His health has required more of Brook Lopez, and though the Nets are continuing to succeed in spite of Williams health, they can't be true contenders with a point guard who limps up and down the court.