February 16, 2019

Once on the cusp of household-name superstardom, once considered to have a career on the same trajectory as Chris Paul’s, you probably no longer think of such nice things when you think of Deron Williams. Now on his sixth coach since just the winter of 2011 (Jerry Sloan, Tyrone Corbin, Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Jason Kidd, and now Lionel Hollins), Williams has taken on the hard-to-shake reputation as a locker room malcontent, destroying team chemistry and refusing to follow orders. His contract is considered to be one of the most inefficient of any in the NBA, and because of that, he is thought to be emblematic of the expensive, underachieving Brooklyn Nets.

It is probably true that Williams, earning $19.7 million this season and $21.0 million in the next, is overpaid. But just because a player is paid inefficiently, it does not necessarily mean that they play inefficiently as well. Not only do I think that Deron Williams is still playing good basketball, but I contend that the way he is playing is completely at odds with his newfound reputation.

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When I watch Williams, it almost seems impossible that he would ever be the type of player to cause locker room strife. There is no direct correlation between on-court unselfishness and off-court behaviour, of course, yet Deron is playing with an unselfishness that makes any connection hard to fathom. Williams makes the game look easy; he plays with total court awareness, and he is always looking to get the ball in the hands of the open man. Sometimes he is that open man, and he does not hesitate to take those in-flow shots. But most of the time, when he is not that open man, Williams makes Brooklyn’s offense hum by smartly looking for the open man without forcing situations or demanding that he get his prerequisite number of shots.

On Monday night, the Nets dismantled the Oklahoma City Thunder, 116-85. The popular takeaway from the game is no doubt to be that a seriously injured Thunder squad simply did not have the bodies to keep up with a presumed playoff team like the Nets. This is a part of the story, to be sure. They could not keep up. But in the Nets, I also saw a veteran team working as a single and cohesive unit to find the open man, their individual personal statistics be damned.

The best play does not always look overly complicated or fancy, either. Take a look at the following first-quarter play:

Two very simple passes here by Williams. The key to this play, I would argue, is the speed with which Williams makes the second pass. By not dribbling after he receives the ball from Joe Johnson, Williams’s pass moves faster than the Thunder defense can manage, creating an open 3-point attempt for Bojan Bogdanovic, with some screening help from Kevin Garnett. That shot is not so open if Williams dribbles even once.

What I find really exciting about Williams’s play right now is that, when he dribbles, he is finding ways to use his dribbles to get his team mates open. This sounds paradoxical, I know. But watch how Williams purposefully uses dribbles on this fast break to keep the defender away from Mirza Teletovic on the arc, who is Williams’s target the entire time:

For a more heady example in the half-court, watch this play with a focus on Lance Thomas (wearing #42 for Oklahoma City):

Williams’s awareness of the entire court once he receives the ball is just outstanding. By dribbling to the right side of the court while Brook Lopez rolls into the lane, Williams seems to anticipate (without looking) that Lance Thomas will cheat off of his own man (Alan Anderson) to help cover Lopez. Williams picks up his dribble, spins around, and hits the now-open Anderson with a pass so quickly, it seems as though he already knew the play’s outcome. Thomas exacerbates the effect that he has been played like a puppet by Williams when he trips over Lopez, giving Anderson ample time to set up the shot.

Even the shots that Williams took were a selfless part of an overall team concept. At a loss for answers, the Thunder briefly went into a 2-3 zone in the second quarter, which was easily exploited by the in-sync Nets. Watch how Johnson, Garnett, and Williams all work together to explore the zone’s weak parts. They quickly realize that a single screen is all it takes to free the shooter.

Even though there are only two passes on the play, neither of which lead to the shot, this is a good example of selfless basketball, with players are working together to create the best shot possible. That normally means moving the ball around and throwing multiple passes in the same possession, but here is the exception that proves the rule.

My favorite play made by Williams the entire night is one that will not appear in the stat sheet. Actually, Williams never even touched the ball. It is all encapsulated in this one still frame (click to enlarge):

Williams finds himself underneath the basket, guarded only by the much-smaller Sebastian Telfair. Williams thereofre has every right to ask for the ball from Garnett in the high post, and, a split-second before this moment, Garnett was looking Williams’s way. Instead, though, Williams directs Garnett’s attention to the opposite elbow, where Joe Johnson has come open off of a Lopez screen. Recognizing the importance of getting primary scorer Johnson the requisite number of shots, Williams helps to create an assist without even touching the ball.

Deron’s totals on the evening were 17 points on eight shots, alongside only two turnovers (one of which was a questionable offensive foul call) and nine assists (which would have easily been in the double-digits if Garnett knocked down all of the open jump shots that Williams created for him). That is about as close to perfect as it gets. And this is not a one off. This is how Williams plays. We all used to believe it, yet at some point, his story arc lost its way. But do not buy into the narrative of his selfishness on the court. It just is not there.

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Miles Wray

Miles Wray flaps his gums about sports for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, FanGraphs, The Classical, and to patient people at parties.

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