By Steve Lichtenstein
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Dallas Mavericks point guard Deron Williams will return to Barclays Center on Wednesday in what is being billed as his revenge game.
The former Net trashed his four-plus year tenure as the face of the franchise in an interview on Monday, telling Michael Lee of Yahoo.com, “It took a lot out of me. Made me question if I even wanted to play basketball when I was done with that contract.”
With D-Will’s new team a solid playoff contender at 15-12, while his old one is scuffling at 8-20 after Tuesday’s 105-102 upset win in Chicago, the story line is all too obvious.
I’m not running it.
Whether D-Will scores four points or 40 on Wednesday, it will make no difference to the Nets.
For neither occurrence will change my original opinion that the organization’s decision last summer to buy out the remaining two seasons of Williams’ five-year, nearly $100 million contract was a win-win-win.
Oh, I am well aware that the Nets wouldn’t be as lousy this season with D-Will running the show, but so what? With all their other problems, they were never going to accomplish anything more than another low playoff seed, if that.
In this case, I agree with Nets general manager Billy King that it was more important for Brooklyn to get out of luxury tax hell. The Nets do not own their own first-round draft pick until 2019, so they will need flexibility next summer to obtain better players in trades and free agency outside of the mini mid-level exceptions and veteran minimums. Buying out and “stretching” D-Will’s contract was a necessary step.
Williams got the change in scenery he coveted, playing now for his hometown team in a role where he is not listed at the top of the marquee. Williams enters Wednesday’s contest averaging 15.1 points and 5.8 assists per game for the Mavericks.
Which makes D-Will a very good value for Dallas owner Mark Cuban at a mere $5.5 million per year. At the $19.75 million Williams would have earned had Cuban traded for him? No way.
I also don’t believe it is fair to kill King for acquiring Williams at the 2011 trade deadline and then extending him when he became a free agent as the Nets were leaving New Jersey for Brooklyn. Maybe King could have done better due diligence to glean what really went down in Utah when coach Jerry Sloan abruptly quit, but it was universally understood at that time that D-Will was a deserving All-Star and Olympian, one of the best in the NBA at his position.
For many reasons it didn’t work out here. Injuries were the most-cited root cause. Sore ankles robbed Williams of his athleticism and wrist injuries hindered his shooting. The chaos from constant turnover of players and coaches probably wasn’t very helpful, either.
That’s not to absolve Williams of all blame. He admitted to crises in confidence which led to an inordinate number of poor performances in big moments and big games. There were reports that he was not well-liked in the locker room and that he often bickered with his coaches, including current head coach Lionel Hollins. Former Net Paul Pierce accused him of not being willing to handle the leadership responsibilities that came with the job.
I have to believe it was King’s intention all along to get rid of D-Will as part of his offseason plan, but when he couldn’t find a trade partner, the buyout was the only remaining option.
But I wish he would have gone further. Because do you want to know who else is not worthy of a max deal?
Nets center Brook Lopez.
This is not a rant about who is and isn’t overpaid in the NBA. Players get what the market will bear at the times they hit it, which often makes it inappropriate to evaluate and compare contracts.
This is about understanding what the NBA values in this era. Or more specifically, King’s lack of understanding.
No one is talking about the consequences of King making Lopez his next max man after jettisoning Williams.
Lopez had opted out of his contract after last season, but I’m guessing by 12:01 a.m. on July 1 he had reached an agreement to return to Brooklyn, eventually signing a three-year, $63 million deal.
I’m not denying that Lopez is worth more to the Nets than to other teams, which is probably why he wasn’t ever traded despite dozens of rumors over his seven previous seasons. But that says more about the sad state of the Nets’ organization than about Lopez’s true value.
This is my fourth season covering the Nets and over that time I have fully explored the depths of Lopez’s minuses (defense, mobility, passing, hustle) and his lone plus (scoring). So I won’t pile on here.
The real issue is what a current NBA team should expect from its max player.
Ideally, your star should not only produce big numbers on his own stat line, but also have the ability to enhance the players around him. You’re supposed to run your offense through the star in crunch time.
Yet a common complaint from many experts revolves around why the Nets haven’t gotten Lopez, their designated best player, more involved in the offense down the stretch of games.
The answer is that you can give most team’s stars — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, etc. — the ball 25 feet from the basket and have the right to expect that they will create a high-quality scoring chance for themselves or for one of their teammates.
You can’t do that with the 7-foot Lopez, who needs to receive the ball from others while he is already in or fairly close to scoring position to be effective. Opposing defenses tend to tighten when games are in the balance in the fourth quarter. They can focus on denying Lopez the ball where he likes it most. Sometimes they’ll double Lopez knowing that he is a poor passer out of the post and likely to turn the ball over (six times versus only one assist in 41 minutes this season during the last five minutes of games that were within a five-point spread, according to NBA.com).
Lopez’s frustration has led to poor shot selection — after making 1-of-2 field-goal attempts in Chicago on Monday, he is 3-for-15 (20 percent) this season in those clutch situations.
Look, I get that Lopez’s deficiencies are somewhere in the middle of reasons why the Nets are in their current predicament. He’s actually been putting forth some of the more complete efforts of his career this season, albeit with some patches of inconsistency in December. As bad as the Nets have been with Lopez averaging 19.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, they’d almost certainly be the equivalent of the two teams (the Sixers and Lakers) who are trying to lose as many games as possible if he wasn’t around.
But it’s precisely because Brooklyn has so many needs — facilitators, “3-and-D” wings, and more general athleticism — that makes Lopez a luxury it can’t really afford.
King should have recognized after watching the playoffs last season the direction the league has been trending. The top teams these days shoot from and defend the 3-point line, and don’t rely so much on a plodding big man.
As I wrote in June, the league is evolving. King had an opportunity last summer to at least attempt to re-allocate his assets accordingly. Instead, all he did was anoint one ill-suited max player — Lopez — over another — Williams — as the new foundation of a crumbling franchise.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1