|This is the Deron Williams we've been looking for. (Getty Images)|
MINNEAPOLIS -- What has Brooklyn been missing?
Before this past off-season, the answer to that was a basketball team. While the New York Knicks covered all five boroughs in New York City, there was always room for a second team in the Big Apple. Once Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z brought the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn, the team missed a superstar.
We assumed the Nets had a superstar. They had Deron Williams. But the Deron Williams we saw was not the one we were used to seeing. When he was a member of the Utah Jazz, Williams was often put into the argument against Chris Paul for the best point guard in the NBA. Once he was shipped to the East Coast and away from the Jerry Sloan system that helped him become an All-NBA player, he looked like just another guy on the court.
Williams fell off the map completely while simultaneously stepping into a bigger spotlight. He went from punishing opposing backcourts to missing shots, turning the ball over a lot more, and losing a lot of games. He didn't have much help and it showed in the ways opposing teams defended him. They packed the paint, forced him into bad jumpers, and didn't worry about anybody else on the team stepping up to beat them.
When the Nets moved to Brooklyn, they opened up the checkbook and spent a lot of money to keep Williams and surround him with complementing talent. They traded role players for Atlanta's high-priced shooting guard Joe Johnson. They re-signed Gerald Wallace after sacrificing what ended up being a top-six pick in the 2012 draft. They committed a max contract offer to Brook Lopez.
Williams was no longer going to have to hope for Kris Humphries to flank him against opponents. He now had a healthy Lopez, an All-Star on both wings, and a revamped bench that was going to help turn the Nets back into a playoff team.
In November, the Nets brought winning basketball to Brooklyn. They had two different winning streaks of five games in the first month. They posted an 11-4 record while earning Avery Johnson Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors. Then everything fell apart for Williams and his new team.
Brooklyn lost 10 of the next 13 games. Williams wasn't leading his team and he was questioning whether or not Johnson was using the right system. Two days after Christmas, Nets management fired Johnson and made P.J. Carlesimo interim coach. This was Williams' second coach people accused him of having fired in under two years. Jerry Sloan left the Jazz after butting heads with Williams in Utah.
While you'd expect controversy to persist, the Nets banded together, rallied around Carlesimo and their point guard and figured out how to win again.
"I think we all have our confidence back a little bit," Williams said after Wednesday's 91-83 win in Minneapolis over the Timberwolves. "I think we have confidence in each other, which we didn't have in that month of December. That's been the main thing.”
They certainly have their confidence back. The Nets have won 12 of their 14 games under Carlesimo and catapulted themselves into the third seed in the Eastern Conference. A big part of that is the defense the Nets are playing. Under Avery, Williams and his teammates played poor defense. The Nets ranked 21st in the NBA in defensive rating, giving up 104 points per 100 possessions.
In the 14 games since the coaching change, the Nets have been the 10th best defensive team in the NBA, giving up just 101.3 points per 100 possessions. The defense at the top of the half court has been a big reason for that.
"[Deron] always defends well," Carlesimo said. "People never talk about his defense but he's a very good defensive player. Deron, to me, is very underrated defensively. That position is an impossible position in this league to defend.
"He's challenged every night. The fact that he can do that really helps us.”
Defense at the top for the Nets is important, just like it is for many teams. While the emphasis in analyzing today's defensive schemes seems to be on a big man who can hedge pick-and-rolls and then knows where to recover once that threat is neutralized, being able to get an opposing team into their sets later in the shot clock can be just as important.
Before the coaching change, the Nets got torched with Williams on the court. They gave up 105.7 points per 100 possessions. With Williams making more of a concerted effort to defend and be an annoyance to his opponents' point guards, the Nets have posted a 102.2 with him on the court.
“In order for us to be good," Williams said, "We've got to be good defensively. And part of that is getting after people, disrupting them and making things hard for them. I've done a good job of that in stretches but I can be better at it, too.
"That will be what takes us to the next level, is if we can be consistent defensively.”
Last season, Williams' defense was really bad. He gave up a PER of 18.0 and an effective field goal percentage of 50.7 percent to opposing point guards, according to 82games.com. This season, those numbers have improved to a PER of 13.6 and an eFG percentage of 49.3 percent.
“It's huge," Carlesimo said. "It's the most disruptive thing. When you have a good defensive point guard, it's the most disruptive thing for the other team that you could ask for.”
It's not just on the defensive end where their play has improved. Williams is directing his team like you'd want a point guard to do. He has the Nets playing incredibly efficient offense under Carlesimo without having to dominate the ball that much.
“He's been a lot more aggressive and making plays on both ends of the floor," Joe Johnson said. "Making his teammates better.”
The Nets weren't a bad offensive team before the coaching change. Their 102.9 offensive rating ranked 11th in the NBA. But during this 14-game Brooklyn basketball renaissance under Carlesimo, the Nets have been destroying teams on the offensive end. They're posting a 107.8 offensive rating, which is good for fourth best in the NBA over this stretch. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat have been better offensive teams.
With Williams on the court directing traffic, they're scoring a ridiculous 110 points per 100 possessions over the last 14 games. There is nothing selfish about the way they're playing. He's just being a point guard, getting his teammates into what they need to do and trusting them to help him like they couldn't before this season.
“We don't have a team where we have to have a guy score 35, 40 for us to win," Williams said. "We have a balanced team. That's how we like to play. We like to share the basketball; we like to move it around, get everybody involved. We don't have a really ball dominant guy.
"It's more fun that way; everybody gets involved.”
This is what the Nets had been missing. They were missing fun. They were missing good basketball. And they were missing the Deron Williams we once knew. It looks like he's stepping up into that bigger spotlight and is ready to take his team to a new level.