By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the normal course of NBA business, a player’s mid-September ankle injury is not something that should register more than one skip in the heartbeat of a fan base.
But when that ankle belongs to Nets star point guard Deron Williams, you’ll have to excuse me for reacting with language slightly stronger than “Uh-oh.”
Williams, who is hosting a charity dodgeball tournament at Basketball City this week, is in a walking boot after he incurred a sprained right ankle and bone bruise during a recent workout in Utah. The Nets’ report that Williams will be ready to go when training camp opens at Duke on October 1 has barely registered in my head.
That’s because it took All Star-break platelet injections in both ankles for the real Williams to arrive in Brooklyn last season—I know, it wasn’t an understudy wearing number eight during the first 50 games, it was just that Williams was in so much pain from injuring the ankles while winning Olympic gold in the 2012 Summer Games that his game was unrecognizable.
He had no lift or explosion before the treatments. He was headed for a career-worst shooting efficiency. Fortunately, his resurgence during the final third of the season alleviated concerns that his nearly $100 million long-term contract signed a year ago was not a total bust.
Still, no matter how minor this injury turns out to be, you needn’t be John Wooden to understand that basketball players first and foremost have to take care of their feet. It only takes a few of these instances before people start throwing around the word “chronic.”
And this is where things get dicey for Nets fans. For Williams is the Nets’ sole indispensable player.
For all the plaudits thrown in Brooklyn’s direction for their various dealings this offseason to attempt to vault into the NBA’s elite stratosphere, from the blockbuster trade that landed future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the quieter yet very effective free agent signings of role players like Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson and Shaun Livingston, this thing doesn’t work the way owner Mikhail Prokhorov planned without Williams playing at his peak level.
With rookie coach Jason Kidd leading from the sideline, Williams was set up to be the proverbial coach on the floor. Williams will be in charge of establishing the tempo and then getting his teammates set up before delivering one of them the ball in prime scoring position. Unless he decides to call his own number.
In addition to doling out eight assists per game, Williams averaged 22.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point distance after the treatments last season. Where will the Nets get that kind of production if he’s out of the lineup?
The Nets bulked up in the frontcourt in the offseason to compensate for their forwards’ subpar performances last season, hedging their bets on Garnett’s and Pierce’s advanced ages through new contracts to quality reserves Andray Blatche, Anderson and Kirilenko. Not to mention holdovers Reggie Evans and Mirza Teletovic, who can respectively provide rebounding and perimeter shooting in certain situations.
But $189 million (which includes Prokhorov’s projected luxury tax payments) only gets you so far in the salary cap era. The Nets do not have that kind of depth at point guard.
Livingston is a nice backup, a player with good size and court vision who has had to adjust his game following a devastating knee injury in 2007. Unfortunately, he is a dreadful long-range shooter. He made as many three-point field goals last season (zero) as the bricklaying Evans.
That’s not what the Nets need when they play against opponents who will surely pack the paint to combat the Nets’ inside prowess, whether it’s off post-ups for center Brook Lopez or isolations for Pierce or guard Joe Johnson. C.J. Watson, who signed a free agent deal with Indiana over the summer, was very effective coming off the bench to spell (and sometimes play with) Williams last season thanks to 41.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Earlier in his career, Jason Terry, who tagged along with Garnett and Pierce in the trade with Boston, could be counted on to match that rate. But at age 36, Terry doesn’t have the same spring in his legs. Besides, while the Nets could get away with Terry running the point for short periods, he is better suited off the ball, where he can hang out on the weak-side corner to take the open threes that were so often clanked last season by the departed Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans.
The Nets also return Tyshawn Taylor for his sophomore year. Taylor was a one-hit wonder last season, coming off the bench one night in February to spark an overtime win in Indiana. He did little else outside of garbage time. From the few games I saw in the Summer League (not that that’s a true tell-all of a player’s worth), Taylor’s game has not grown to the point where he can be thrown into the fire against top competition.
No, despite all the other stars wearing Brooklyn Black this year, Williams is the one player the Nets need to stay in good health. The Nets have already arranged for Garnett to take games off and don’t need to load veterans like Pierce and Johnson with major minutes. They’re even set up in case Lopez’ feet act up, as Blatche averaged 17.6 points and 8.9 rebounds in the seven games Lopez missed last December and have added first-round draft pick Mason Plumlee as an extra body.
But there’s no similar plan for another Williams disappearance.
So I’m crossing my fingers that this latest tweak is just a fluke. Hopefully Williams doesn’t feel the need to rush back to work until he’s fully healed. For the Nets to make that leap this season, this is one situation they will have to dodge.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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