EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- P.J. Carlesimo said he wants Deron Williams to be Deron Williams again, and the point guard recoiled a bit when a reporter relayed the coach's wish.
"I don't know what that is anymore," Williams said.
That makes two of us, Deron, plus millions of NBA fans.
"I don't know what you mean by that, being Deron Williams," the one and only continued.
For starters, it means being a max-out player rather than just another guy with a max-out deal. It means being one of the league's best quarterbacks, and honoring the staggering commitment made by the Brooklyn Nets to keep their point guard happy.
Billy King didn't just give Williams $100 million of Mikhail Prokhorov's money. The general manager overpaid Gerald Wallace at $40 million, and absorbed the nearly $90 million balance of Joe Johnson's contract to show Williams he was serious about surrounding him with competent players, serious about winning sooner than later, and serious about outhustling his rival recruiter, Mark Cuban, who was ultimately too busy being Mark Cuban to attend the Mavericks' free-agent sales pitch.
King also had surrendered a first-round pick to Portland in the Wallace trade, a pick that would turn into Damian Lillard, the likely rookie of the year and one of any number of point guards currently outdoing Williams, who took a seat at his team's New Jersey practice facility Monday night and sounded almost incredulous when he said the following:
"I think people want me to be what I was in Utah."
Umm, yeah, that was sort of the point of the 2011 trade that cost the Nets Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, two first-round picks, and cash. Williams was averaging 21.3 points and 9.7 assists and shooting 46 percent from the field at the time, numbers that made his clash with Jerry Sloan -- who immediately retreated into retirement -- someone else's problem, the simple cost of doing big business.
A New York minute after the Knicks had beaten them to Carmelo Anthony, the Nets had countered with a move that left Donnie Walsh kicking himself hard. The Knicks executive didn't know Williams was available when he acquired Anthony, and made it clear he sure wished he'd known. If Melo's three favorite teammates in Denver were said to be me, myself and I, Williams was known for a relatively selfless approach to the game, at least until his TKO of Sloan.
But in the immediate wake of an All-Star Game he wasn't invited to, and after practicing for the first time since undergoing platelet-rich plasma therapy on his ankles, Williams moved to temper the expectations of fans who expect him to play up to his reputation, not to mention his wage.
"They want me to average 11 assists, 10 assists," said Williams, who is averaging 7.6 assists and 16.7 points on 41 percent shooting. "This is a different team. I don't have the ball in my hands as much as I did [in Utah]. It's not the same type of team where I have to do that.
"I have Joe that can score, so he's going to have the ball. Brook [Lopez], we pound it to him and he's going to have the ball. It's a different offense, so I'm not going to do the same things and have the same numbers that I did in Utah. I can still have the same impact on the game without having the same numbers."
It's long past the time for Williams to have that impact, to become the team leader he was hired to be. First he blamed his decline on Avery Johnson's system, comparing it unfavorably to Sloan's (of all systems), a critique that was the beginning of Avery's end. Now the complaint is more legit: A lingering wrist injury isn't as troublesome as his two bum ankles.
"I can't jump," Williams said. "I don't know if you've noticed, I haven't dunked. I can't dunk. So it's definitely affected me."
Another New Yorker on the mend, Derek Jeter, forever subscribed to these articles of game-day faith: If you're too injured to play, don't. But once you take the field you forfeit the right to claim that aches and pains caused this error or that one.
Sore ankles shouldn't dramatically impact a point guard's lifeblood -- his vision and passing skills -- and yet Williams' assists average is his lowest since his rookie season. A widely respected scout, who has watched plenty of tape on Williams in Utah, New Jersey and Brooklyn, said Monday he has been seeing a much different man than the one who rose to the top of his craft with the Jazz.
"Deron's not finishing in the lane the last year or two like he did in Utah, and I know the Jazz did a lot of finishing drills in practice with their guards," the scout said. "I think there's a conditioning issue with him, too. It might sound weird because Deron's only 28, but there's a lot of younger, lightning rods as point guards now, and so he has to be in even better condition to keep up.
"I used to see Deron reject screens in Utah on the pick-and-roll, where he'd get a defender leaning toward the screen and then come back the other way, and I haven't seen him do that as often with the Nets. And in the NBA every over-dribble is a tick off the shot clock, which leads to a lesser shot.
"Overall, a point guard has to value his team first. He has to accept his teammates' limitations, and help them become better and compensate for that, and I don't think he's done that yet in Brooklyn."
The scout then offered this disclaimer: "I would never give up on Deron Williams, not yet. I think he has talent and some innate toughness, so I think he'll bounce back."
Will he? Really? If he were a recreational athlete, the garden variety weekend warrior, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Williams would be in wonderful shape. But in the context of a world-class playmaker, Williams looks a bit doughy, and not at all like a guy wired to chase his young and restless and athletic counterparts over the next four years.
It doesn't matter anymore if he was in shape for the Summer Games in London; the Nets need him to be in shape for the final 29 regular-season games and beyond. Carlesimo liked what he saw in practice Monday night, and said he hopes the PRP ankle treatments prove to be "a miracle."
Right now, a miracle might be required to return Williams to the ranks of the Chris Pauls and Tony Parkers and Russell Westbrooks. If he were still with the Knicks, Donnie Walsh wouldn't dare trade Carmelo Anthony for Williams now, not with the two New York stars playing in completely different galaxies.
Williams was supposed to be the Nets' All-Star, not Lopez, the center meant to be dealt for the second half of Deron's dream dynastic duo, Dwight Howard. Suddenly Brooklyn is revolving around the improving Lopez, if only because it has little choice.
The original franchise player isn't carrying the franchise. "I feel Deron Willliams is the best point guard in the NBA," King said the day he traded for him.
It sounds like a punch line two years later. A room-temperature presence on the floor, Williams needs to understand he's being paid to bring the heat.
When the Nets made the trade with Utah, they weren't sure they'd ever get him to Brooklyn. A hundred million bucks later, guess what?
They're still not sure.