Deron Williams has never wanted excuses, but still he's been burdened with them. In Utah, the last time he danced with the moniker "best point guard alive," it was his supporting cast. Then it was a rebuilding organization. Then injuries. Last year it was a combination of all of the above. Williams was signed to max contract, the uber-star deal that so many players feel they deserve, and set as the face of the franchise as the Nets moved into Barclays.
But this season, regardless of whether he wanted them or not, he will be given no more excuses. Williams is a year removed from the ankle and conditioning issues that gave him problem at last year's start. (Williams maintains there was no conditioning issue but the buzz around Team USA circles was different.) He has a top-five center, a top-ten power forward, a top-fifteen small forward (maybe two) and a top-ten shooting guard. His coach? His former mentor, a former point guard. He has the money behind the organization, and the emotional leader in Kevin Garnett.
But the Nets go nowhere without Williams putting in a career year. He's the engine, the go-to player, the face of the team, and its best player. Williams just turned 29. He's entering a three-year stretch he can legitimately still call his prime. He's no longer an up-and-coming point guard, no longer a player who could be a superstar if given the chance. He has the chance, has the talent, has the opportunity, but reaching where he wants and needs to go goes beyond that.
Last year's Nets team was good. It won a bunch of games, landed a top-four seed, looked like a dangerous team from time to time. But something was always missing. It never had a gear that really scared you. Most concerning, against the Chicago Bulls in their first round series, it wasn't that they were outgunned, far from it. They simply couldn't match the intensity, commitment, and execution the Bulls offered. That's representative of their leadership, and part of the cause of this offseason's decisions. Kevin Garnett can bark and scream, Paul Pierce can give speeches and guidance, Jason Terry can (might) hit some big shots. But someone has to define the team's attitude, has to set the bar, and make the team believe it can get there.
Is Williams that player? After his frustration in Utah, his malaise in the lottery years in New Jersey, and the passive struggles of last season, is it fair to wonder whether or not he has that characteristic in him? In previous years, Garnett could simply take that role. But he's more wise mentor and figurehead than definitive leader. And besides, this is DWill's team. It was given to him and it's on him to make it work.
Much of what we're discussing here is circumspect, circumstantial, and nebulous. You can't define heart, can't measure it or prove its existance. You can't put digits on leadership, or prove that Williams did or did not do enough last year in that regard. Maybe the Bulls just hit more shots.
But we've yet to see Williams take over at an elite level with a good team. He's done it for stretches on bad teams, and was certainly an excellent player for the second half of last season after receiving some medical treatment. But he hasn't been dominant for any stretch since really 2010. It's also difficult to say how he does all these things.
What, really, do we expect of Deron Williams and what should he expect of himself? It's not about excuses anymore, it's about expectations, and living up to them.
Throughout his career, it's been about other people. Chris Paul. Derrick Rose. John Stockton. Rajon Rondo. Carlos Boozer. Jerry Sloan. Ironically, it took having a superstar, mega-payroll team built around him for that to change. Because now, his destiny is just about him.
He was given the keys to the kingdom but that comes with a heavy crown. And if Brooklyn is going to claim any title it seeks, Best Team in New York, Atlantic Division Champions, Eastern Conference Champions, NBA Champions, he's going to have to learn how to wear it. There's nowhere else for Deron Williams to go.