By Ben Eagle
Before the season, the best team in New York was subject to debate. Skeptics said the Knicks would struggle to replace the production of Jeremy Lin while integrating several new parts. Optimists declared that the acquisition of Joe Johnson pushed the Nets to the top of the heap as they moved to a new home in Brooklyn. Then the Knicks jumped out to a 21-9 start while the Nets struggled to stay above .500, effectively ending the debate.
But what a difference 2½ months make. Since Jan. 1, the Knicks are 17-16; the Nets have gone 22-12. Considered a threat to the Heat earlier this season, the Knicks now hold just a one-game lead over the Nets for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
So what's changed? The Knicks have struggled with injuries to Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, but a more interesting development is afoot in Brooklyn: Franchise centerpiece Deron Williams is finally looking like ... well, a franchise centerpiece. Since the New Year, Williams is averaging 19.5 points and 7.8 assists and shooting 45 percent from the field, a marked improvement over his early-season averages (16.3 points, 7.5 assists, 39 percent shooting). Further, he's fourth among point guards in per-game scoring since the All-Star break.
These are the numbers the Nets expected when they acquired Williams two years ago from Utah, where he earned a reputation as one of the best point guards in the league. But his status has fallen in Brooklyn. In NBA.com's annual preseason survey of general managers, Williams trailed at least four other players -- Chris Paul, the injured Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker -- in the Best Point Guard category. He also fell outside the top seven in Ben Golliver's ranking of the best point guards in the league and failed to make the All-Star team for the first time since 2010.
Injuries deserve some of the blame for Williams' struggles. Wrist surgery cut short his first season with the Nets and ankle issues plagued him this season. But the injuries now seem to be behind him. Since sitting out the two games before the All-Star break, Williams has resembled his old explosive self, and that, in turn, has boosted his all-around game.
"I just think that he’s in a good place now, physically, emotionally,” interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said after the Nets beat the Hornets on Tuesday. "And that's a good thing."
Williams’ rediscovered explosiveness has afforded him more room on the perimeter as defenders look to hedge against his drives to the rim. He’s responded by hitting 3.4 three-pointers per game since the All-Star break, a figure slightly skewed by the career-high 11 triples he hit against the Wizards on March 8.
"I feel great -- night and day from the beginning of the season," Williams told reporters after the 95-78 win over Washington. "Mentally and physically."
Despite the emergence of Brook Lopez, who has proved to be one of the best low-post scorers in the league this season, the Nets know they will only go as far as Williams can take them. Brooklyn is 17-9 when Williams scores 19 points or more and 26-13 when he hands out at least seven assists.
Yet, even with Williams returning to form, challenges await the Nets in their bid to overtake the Knicks. On Monday, the Nets embark on an eight-game road trip just as the Knicks are wrapping up a five-game trip of their own. Beyond that, Brooklyn is just 14-23 against winning teams, per ESPN Stats & Info, casting doubt on its ability to make a deep playoff run. Still, with more than $81 million remaining on Williams’ contract, the Nets have to be happy he’s looking like his old self, whether it pushes them past the Knicks or not.