Will Deron Williams' Ankle Strain Brooklyn Nets' Title Chances?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 14, 2013

Deron Williams' ankle sprain hasn't cost the Brooklyn Nets just yet, but if the franchise point guard can't get healthy, his team's championship chase might be over before it starts.

According to Mike Mazzeo of ESPN, Nets head coach Jason Kidd said of Williams' health:

This is going to be a question that we're probably going to have to deal with every day until he does get the green light to go. But we're not rushing him. So if we have to start the season with him still trying to get better, I think we all feel comfortable, but we would feel a little bit more comfortable if he was starting.

Williams sprained his right ankle while working out in Utah over the summer. During camp, he's been limited to light work and has spent a bit more time on the stationary bike than the Nets would prefer.

And while it's too early to start sounding the alarm bells, Williams' injury (and slow recovery) is worrying because we've already seen the timetable for his return pushed back once before.

In addition, this isn't the average ankle we're dealing with. Williams' injury issues—specifically with his ankles—date back to 2008, when he had to be carried off the floor after spraining his left ankle in a preseason game against the Chicago Bulls.

Granted, tweaked ankles are part of life in the NBA. Everyone deals with them.

But not every player in the league has to undergo a third set of cortisone injections and platelet-rich-plasma therapy during the All-Star break in order to rediscover his prime form.

Williams looked rejuvenated during the final three months of the 2012-13 season but only after he had extensive work done on both ankles. Now we're back to where we started: with Williams sidelined because of ankle troubles.

So, this is a bummer for Williams on an individual basis. But it's far more problematic for the Nets, who'll be lost without him. Say what you want about D-Will's penchant for coach killing and his tendency to dominate the ball, but he gives Brooklyn an offensive dimension it can't get anywhere else.

If Williams isn't fully healthy, the Nets' difficult road through the Eastern Conference could become almost impossible.


Constant Threat

You can't get much done against the best NBA defenses these days without applying pressure in a way that forces realignment, help rotations and, ideally, a little chaos. Good teams are too disciplined and too savvy to be bothered by ball movement alone, though, so to crack top defenses, penetration is a must.

Williams is the Nets' only accomplished off-the-dribble attacker, which is why he's so critical to the team's offensive success. Not only that, but he's also easily Brooklyn's most dangerous pick-and-roll operator. So in that sense, he's almost solely responsible for controlling the two ways in which the Nets apply pressure to some of the East's stingiest defensive outfits.

Defenses have to account for his ability to beat most opponents in one-on-one situations. That means help defenders have to either shade toward him early or dive in late to recover after he works his way into the lane. Either way, Williams' ability to penetrate creates opportunities for other players on the floor because defenders have to focus first on keeping him from scoring at the rim.

The same is true of his work on the pick-and-roll.

Because D-Will is so difficult to stop once he turns the corner, defenders have to work extremely hard— and coaches have to install disciplined schemes—to keep him from getting free access to the middle of the floor. There are lots of ways to do this—"downing" the play, which means sending Williams to the sideline at all costs, is a common one—but no matter what, Williams' ability to attack necessarily means there's less attention paid to the rest of the Nets' offensive players.

If Williams is healthy, Brook Lopez gets more room to roll, and whoever the Nets opt to station in the corner as a three-point threat gets better looks.

Brooklyn has a considerable amount of offensive firepower, but most of its weapons need to be properly set up before they can pull the trigger. Williams is responsible for creating shots for others, and if he's not fully healthy, the Nets will have a harder time getting maximum value out of their secondary scoring options.

Remember: There haven't been any reports yet that say Williams will miss a significant chunk of the season. But if he manages to make an opening-night return, there's still no guarantee that he'll be ready to perform like he did down the stretch last year.

And that's a serious problem because we know how punchless the Nets looked when Williams was playing in pain in 2012-13.

Before those magical injections in February, D-Will was a wreck. He couldn't hit a perimeter shot and had lost almost all of his explosiveness. Amazingly, he couldn't dunk the ball either.

After aggressive treatment, he was a star. Check out his pre- and post-All-Star splits below:

The Nets can't afford another half-season of mediocrity this year.


Other Options

If Williams is hobbled or altogether unavailable to start the season, Brooklyn's first attempt to replace his production will likely focus on options within the organization.

Lopez proved to be a dominant player in the post last year, and it's possible that the Nets would try to replicate some of the pressure Williams created by getting the ball onto the block more often. Per Synergy (subscription required), nearly 29 percent of Lopez's touches came in the post last season, and in those situations, he ranked very near the league's top 10 percent in points per possession.

A larger dose of Lopez on the block is a dangerous thing, though. The big man posted the third-lowest assist rate among qualifying centers last year, per ESPN, which means the rest of Brooklyn's perimeter options would basically be stuck standing around without a purpose once the ball went into the post.

Lopez doesn't turn the ball over much, but he has also never shown an ability to get anyone else involved. Brooklyn's offense would essentially grind to a halt if he played a larger role.

So if Lopez can't be an offensive hub in place of Williams, perhaps Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could handle expanded duties. After all, they ran things for the Boston Celtics last year after Rajon Rondo went down.

Remember, though, that the Celtics finished last year ranked 20th in offensive efficiency because they relied on a steady diet of jump shots and almost never managed to get to the rim. Garnett and Pierce are both highly intelligent, unselfish offensive players, but they can't give Brooklyn what Williams can. Plus, they're each a year older and are unlikely to be up to the challenge of taking on additional responsibilities.

They came to Brooklyn to join D-Will, not to replace him.

The Nets' last resort—at least in terms of internal stopgaps for Williams—would be to give more ball-handling duties to Jason Terry or Shaun Livingston. It's probably not necessary to belabor the point that neither player is cut out to handle an expanded role, so we'll keep this chunk of analysis brief.

For more than a decade, Terry has been a spark plug scorer who ends possessions with jumpers. He's not the kind of guard who can get into the lane, let alone finish or set up teammates. And Livingston is little more than an end-of-the-bench reserve. He's not the answer, either.

Perhaps that leaves a trade as the only real possibility to replace a potentially slowed Williams. Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson is highly expendable and is only guaranteed $2 million in 2014-15. The finances would be tricky, as Brooklyn lacks the kinds of expiring contracts and draft picks the Magic would want. But if desperation sets in, the Nets might be forced to get creative.


No Margin for Error

With a roster this talented, it might not seem like a huge problem if Williams has to sit out a few weeks or takes some time to round into form. The Nets are deep, experienced and hungry to win, so they could probably find a way to survive for a short time.

But Brooklyn isn't trying to merely "survive" this year; it's trying to chase a title. And with the East looking more dangerous than ever, the Nets may not be able to recover if they lose ground by playing at less than full strength.

The Miami Heat are still the favorites, the Indiana Pacers are vastly improved and the Chicago Bulls are back on everyone's championship short list. That puts the Nets, at best, in the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference.

But if they stumble, the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks or even the Detroit Pistons could hop right over them, snatching away home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It's going to be a brutal fight in the East this year, and every regular-season game is going to count.

Brooklyn can't afford to play at less than full strength for any extended length of time.


It's Early, But...

Until we get word that Williams is officially going to be wearing a suit instead of a jersey on opening night, it's too early to panic.

If fully healthy, the Nets are right on the cusp of belonging in the championship conversation. Even at 100 percent, they might not be quite as good as the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, but they're darn close.

At the same time, we know for sure that they're nowhere near elite unless all of their weapons are in working order.

Williams is the most important player on Brooklyn's roster. If he's not able to give the Nets a full season of his best work, the Nets are doomed to disappoint.



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