point guard Deron Williams
(left) is off to a slow start offensively this season. (Erick W. Rasco/SI)
By Rob Mahoney
It's been said that the best villain a narrative can ask for is one who, beneath his devious methods, tells truths. He serves as a vocalized extension of public doubt and calls to the forefront an accurate portrayal of a real problem, albeit one typically manipulated in its terms and presentation to engender some kind of extremism. In that, the best bad guys often aren't bad guys at all -- merely those fixed on a particular issue and a bit confused as to how to best solve it.
In light of his recent comments regarding the Nets' offense, I see Brooklyn's Deron Williams as just such a villain. Howard Beck put the comments and situation in the proper context in a recent piece for The New York Times.
Here's the abridged version:
"That system was a great system for my style of play," Williams said of the "flex" offense run by Utah Coach Jerry Sloan. "I'm a system player. I love Coach Sloan's system. I loved the offense there."
The comments were provocative on multiple levels.
Williams was widely blamed for Sloan’s sudden retirement in February 2011, just before the Jazz traded Williams to the Nets. And his openly pining for Sloan’s system could be viewed as subtle criticism of Coach Avery Johnson’s offense.
Williams did nothing to discourage that interpretation when he was asked to compare the offense used by the Nets with the one he ran in Utah. “Is it as good as there? No,” he said. “There’s just more one-on-one and isos” in Johnson’s offense.
The Nets rely much more on isolation plays, usually featuring Williams or guard Joe Johnson, than the Jazz ever did. It is a staple of Avery Johnson’s offense. However, Johnson has also installed a number of “U.C.L.A.” sets, to emulate some of Sloan’s offense.
As a star player taking a knowing, public shot at his coach, Williams is by default a villain. He's been criticized. He's been ridiculed. And, to an extent, the opposition is justified. There is a process to be respected when it comes to such grievances, one conducted away from the public eye and exempt from added scrutiny that comes with making a pointed comment to a prominent, widely read beat writer. Williams spoke up so that he might be heard, and though his status on the team does make his an important voice, I think most fans, executives, players and coaches would take issue with using The Times as a megaphone to put one's own coach on notice.
As a result, Williams has been criticized for saying only what many who watch the Nets have been thinking for weeks. Some initial success (and an early 11-4 record) helped disguise the stagnation of Avery Johnson's offense, but so far Brooklyn has lived and died by the limits of isolation basketball. Whether enabling center Brook Lopez in the post or guard Joe Johnson on the wing, the Nets' sets have been rudimentary and clear in their intention: Players like Williams get the ball to a specific place with few programmed alternatives, and a shot attempt is manufactured from that player leveraging some perceived advantage in a one-on-one matchup. That approach has helped Lopez post a career high in field-goal percentage and points per minute, but also worn on the patience of a point guard accustomed to the continuity in movement of the flex offense.
But couched in Williams' quote-slinging is another complicating factor: The max-contract point guard tabbed to usher in a new era of Nets basketball is having essentially the worst season of his eight-year career. His assist and turnover numbers are weak by his standards, watered down by individual struggles and an iso-driven offense. Williams' scoring, both per game and per minute, is the lowest since his second season. He is single-handedly dragging down the Nets' shooting percentages, with his 29.5 percent mark on 5.6 three-point attempts per game the most burdensome of all. Eliminate Williams' three-point makes and attempts from the team's total shooting numbers, and Brooklyn's 18th-ranked three-point percentage (34.5) soars to eighth (36.8).
All of which is to say that Williams -- who, it should be noted, is playing through wrist and ankle injuries -- probably shouldn't be lobbing stones at Avery Johnson from the living room of his custom-built glass house. The Nets' assumed All-Star (and what a lofty assumption that has turned out to be) has yet to live up to the level of play implied by both his billing and contract, a point that Williams himself has readily acknowledged. But there's a lot to consider here beyond the broad depictions of Williams' struggles. Some of the problems can be pegged to Williams and some to Johnson, but there's plenty to ponder aside from the two-dimensional conflict of point guard vs. system:
Points left on the floor
Most striking among Williams' struggles are the number of wide-open shots missed. He may be guilty of the occasional pull-up jumper in transition or premature three-point attempt at the beginning of a pick-and-roll sequence, but for the most part Williams is doing his part by spotting up away from the primary play action, shooting when looks become available from the outside or redirecting the ball as necessary. It's a task that Williams is ultimately overqualified for, but one would at least think that a fairly average (or above-average, if we judge Williams on the strength of his best shooting seasons) long-range shooter would be able to convert a far better rate of uncontested looks. Depending on how you choose to parse those incidences, Williams' shooting struggles could be either physical or mental -- but not as explicitly linked to shot selection or offensive system as one might initially think.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss took a good look at Williams' shot charts in both this season and Williams' most efficient campaign and found a significant discrepancy in attempts at the rim (which accounted for 43.3 percent of his attempts back in 2007-08) and three-pointers (which, at the time of Strauss' writing, accounted for 38.7 percent of his attempts this season, all while his shots at the rim have taken a sharp decline). It's rarely a good thing for a player to get to the rim less, but given the quality of Williams' three-point looks, I have a hard time diagnosing his shooting discretion as some glaring flaw in his performance this season. He's not as great a shooter as his reputation might suggest, but Williams is accurate enough for his numbers on spot-up attempts (which account for 37 percent of his tries from long range) to eventually come back around and to better serve the Nets' offense regardless of its systemic mandates.
Filling out the lineup without filling up the lane
Independent of Avery Johnson's system, the Nets have a habit of making offense more difficult than it has to be through cluttered spacing. This is inevitable when Lopez and forward Gerald Wallace are so often sharing the floor with players such as forwards Kris Humphries or Reggie Evans -- a compromise in court spacing that makes dribble penetration that much more difficult. Even if there were still ample room for Williams to drive into the paint out of an isolation or off a high screen, defenders cheating off Wallace, Humphries and Evans turn the lane into an obstacle course. Sometimes Williams is still able to dash around his man, weave through the help and crawl just outside of reach of a rotating big man in order to hoist up an attempt, but his agility doesn't in itself guarantee a made bucket.
Johnson has looked to remedy this issue directly, and in Sunday's game against the 76ers he replaced Humphries/Evans in the starting lineup with floor-spacing guard Keith Bogans. The addition of another perimeter shooter isn't a cure-all, but it does open up driving lanes for Williams to create more dependable offense, all while widening the skill sets of the players on the floor as Johnson looks to expand his playbook (which he has since Williams' critique). Those "UCLA" sets have already managed to give the Nets' offense some life, seemingly in the very ways that Williams craved. He achieved the goals of his public shot at Johnson, and the Nets -- who are inching away from their iso-heavy offense with every flex set run -- will be better off with more variety in their play progressions.
I'll leave it to the masses to decide if Williams' working of press channels is justified by the end result, but for now we know that Brooklyn's offense has taken an interesting evolutionary direction thanks in part to comments from a disgruntled star. Williams will still need to live up to his end of the bargain, but it's hard to dispute the impact of his criticism.