NEWARK, N.J. -- As I was heading to New Jersey Nets practice at the PNY Center on the morning of Feb. 23, I didn’t know what to expect.
The Nets had failed in their seemingly never-ending pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, and were left with a roster full of unhappy players -- half of which had been rumored to be dealt in the blockbuster trade that never occurred. Would point guard Devin Harris and rookie power forward Derrick Favors, the two centerpieces in the deal, be at practice?
Would it be awkward?
These questions were never answered. Around 10:30 a.m. or so, I received an e-mail from one of my editors. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein had been informed that the Nets were set to acquire superstar Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams for Harris, Favors, two first-round draft picks and cash.
I didn’t believe it at first. I couldn’t believe it at first. But once reality set in, my first thought was "Wow!"
The Nets had failed to land any notable free agents in the offseason. LeBron James. Carlos Boozer. Chris Bosh. David Lee and Rudy Gay. None of them committed to New Jersey. That "Blueprint For Greatness" billboard the Nets had put up across the street from Madison Square Garden was a symbol of disappointment and frustration.
But by acquiring Williams, general manager Billy King and the Nets had gotten more than just a two-time all-star who was averaging over 21 points and 10 assists at the time. They had gotten hope. A belief that as bad as things were now, they could get better in the future. A player who could turn around the fortunes of the franchise much like Jason Kidd did a decade ago.
Yet there always was and continues to be one major caveat: Williams can opt out and become a free agent after the 2011-12 season, right before the Nets are set to move to Brooklyn before the start of the 2012-13 campaign.
Will Williams agree to sign a long-term extension? Will he opt out? Will he sign with the rival New York Knicks or his hometown Dallas Mavericks?
As of now, no one knows for certain. Even Williams may not know at this point.
What the 26-year-old does know, however, is that he ended up needing to have surgery to repair his nagging strained right wrist. Williams had reiterated time and time again that doctors told him he’d just need three-to-six weeks of rest. But an MRI taken on Wednesday revealed otherwise.
Williams’ first season with the Nets lasted just 12 games. The team went 4-8 in those games. And all that’s left at this point to commemorate the abbreviated season is an 80-by-60 foot billboard in Times Square featuring Williams, which says "Bound For Brooklyn."
Maybe Williams should’ve shut it down after he first suffered the injury on Jan. 26 when he was still with the Jazz. Maybe he should’ve shut it down after he injured it on Mar. 18 in Milwaukee.
But he didn’t, because, as he put it, "the Nets didn’t trade for me to sit." Many people have questioned Williams’ toughness, as well as his desire to give the Nets 100 percent. After all, he’s just going to leave as soon as he can, right?
But despite putting up terrible shooting numbers (34.9 fg pct, 27.1 3-pt fg pct) by his standards, Williams continued to play through the persisting pain, probably to his detriment, because the injury worsened over time.
That doesn’t sound like someone that’s not giving it 100 percent, does it?
Despite not being able to shoot or drive and finish with any sort of consistency, Williams (15 ppg, 12.8 apg) had a major impact on the Nets offensively.
Here's a statistical breakdown courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info’s Micah J. Adams (note: this analysis was completed before Friday night's 116-93 blowout loss to Anthony's New York Knicks):
Nets Per 48 Min Since All-Star Break
Williams On and Off Floor
On Floor Off Floor
Pace 94.9 93.4
OffRtg<< 104.6 99.4
Points 99.5 93.4
Pts in paint 39.2 36.0
FG pct 43.5 44.1
3-pt FG pct 33.7 33.6
>>Pts per 100 possessions
As bolded above, the one noticeable stat that really stands out is point per 100 possessions. Many Nets players have said that Williams commands so much attention, which opens up easier shots for his teammates. And again, this is the same player that was playing hurt the entire time.
Williams didn't really have many signature "Wow!" moments in those 12 games, but two plays stand out to me:
1. His 3-pointer with 35 seconds left that gave the Nets an 86-79 lead in their eventual 88-79 victory over the Boston Celtics on Mar. 14. It was the nail in the coffin in arguably New Jersey's most impressive win of the season.
2. His game-winning 15-foot step-back fadeaway jumper with 1.7 seconds left that lifted the Nets past the Minnesota Timberwolves, 107-105, on Tuesday night. The game-winner capped off an 18-point, 21-assist performance for Williams. The 21 assists tied a career-high.
Expect many more next season, when Williams, who will undergo wrist surgery on Monday morning, is fully healthy.
Will the Nets have upgraded their roster by then? Do they have to make the playoffs for Williams to re-sign? Would the Nets be left with nothing if he leaves?
Again, these -- and many other -- questions are still left unanswered. And they won't be answered until after the 2011-12 season.
That's when things get interesting.