BOSTON -- Before we begin talking about the present-day Deron Williams, we have to revisit the past. No, not the guy with the surgically-repaired wrist and the plummeting shooting percentage who left a trail of coaches in his wake. Forget about all that for a minute and remember back to a better time when the great point guard debate had only a handful of names ... and one of them was Deron Williams.
From 2006-10, D-Will averaged 18 points and 10 assists while shooting 47 percent from the floor and posting a .570 True Shooting Percentage. In 2007-08, he led the most efficient offense in the league per Basketball-Reference, running pick-and-rolls with Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur all the livelong day. So profound was his impact that Ronnie Brewer posted a .612 True Shooting Percentage while missing 78 percent of his three-point attempts that season.
Williams took the Jazz to the playoffs in all four seasons he spent in Utah. He actually played even better in the postseason, averaging 21 points, 9.6 assists and posting a playoff PER of 20.7. The Jazz reached the conference finals once and the second round twice, although they could never get by the Lakers.
Now, it's true that Chris Paul was the undeniable top dog in the point guard hierarchy during that stretch, but it's also true that by the end of the 2010 season, Williams had played in almost twice as many postseason games as Paul and had the benefit of healthy knees. It wasn't crazy to suggest that maybe, just maybe, D-Will was creeping up on CP3.
Then it all fell apart. There was the wrist injury, Jerry Sloan's awkward resignation and the trade to New Jersey where Williams played only a dozen games before having season-ending surgery. He saw action in just 55 games the following season and shot barely 40 percent, while the Nets were marking time with a talent-thin roster until their move to Brooklyn would be complete.
For a while, this season seemed like more of the same. The Nets were floundering, Williams' shot was suffering and Avery Johnson was fired a week or so after D-Will went public with his dissatisfaction with the offense.
With Sloan's untimely exit still fresh in many people's minds, Williams was cast as the heavy after Johnson's dismissal, but in retrospect he was right. Under P.J. Carlesimo, the Nets have gone 32-18 and emerged as the fourth seed in the East, with homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs all but locked up.
Williams' game picked up almost immediately under Carlesimo, but he really kicked into gear after the All-Star break. He's averaging almost 23 points and eight assists in the 25 games since the break while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 42 percent behind the three-point line.
Normally, using the break as a barometer of change is a dubious proposition (selective endpoints!), but in Williams' case it makes sense. It was around that time that he underwent platelet-rich plasma treatment and received the last of three cortisone shots for his balky ankles while going on a juice cleanse.
His health is something of a running joke among the beat writers who cover the team. As Jake Appleman put it in a post for GQ:
"Deron Williams has told reporters--no matter who, what, where or when--some variation of the following statement: "I really appreciate your concern for my health, man. I really do."
After the Nets win over the Celtics, the subject was broached again by an unfamiliar scribe. Williams looked up, almost amused, and said, "I feel great!" while flashing a sardonic two thumbs-up. Williams may not want to talk about it, but it's obviously true. A healthy (or at least healthier) Deron Williams is still a great player.
"Since the break he's been as a good as anybody playing the game at any position," Jerry Stackhouse said. "How he's played has been indicative of who we've been of late, winning games and playing at a high level."
One of life's little rules is to never, ever contradict Jerry Stackhouse, but we'll take slight exception here and note that LeBron James has also been fairly awesome. That's taking nothing away from Williams. At the very least, he has been playing up to that max contract he signed in the offseason.
He has also been brilliant down the stretch, shooting 55 percent and scoring more than 25 a game over his last five. On Wednesday he carved up the Celtics, scoring 29 points on 18 shots with 12 assists. He got Avery Bradley into early foul trouble and then went to work. Inside, outside, at the free throw line -- whatever Williams wanted, Williams got. The C's kept hanging around, but D-Will had the appropriate response to each minor run.
"We're saying the same thing every game, right? He's playing at Deron Williams level," Carlesimo said. "He's playing at absolutely one of, if not the, elite point guards in the league in terms of the things he brings to the table."
All of these labels are really secondary. Like the Nets, Williams is going to have to prove it in the postseason. They have essentially met expectations in their first season in Brooklyn. The Nets are going to win 45+ games and Williams is back to being what he was before all that other stuff happened.
The question has always been, what then? No one is including Brooklyn on any list of teams that might be able to give Miami a series, which is unfortunate because that's who the Nets will almost certainly draw in the second round if they can find their way out of the first. An 0-3 record this season against Miami doesn't help. If they take care of the ball and do their usual number on the glass, they could make things interesting, but that's as far as anyone is willing to go.
The Nets don't have that scare factor the way the Knicks do with their plethora of three-point shooting and Carmelo Anthony's uncanny scoring ability. They don't bring the pain on the defensive end like the Pacers and Bulls and they don't have the Celtics big-game mystique either. They do have Brook Lopez, who has become the premier offensive center in the East, and a proven shot-maker in Joe Johnson. But it's Williams playing like the D-Will of old that gives them legitimacy.
"Teams have to pick their poison because if he gets two people on him he's going to make the right play," Stackhouse said. "He's one of the best guys to play with because he's going to make the right play almost ten out of ten times. Then when you start to stay home with shooters and things like that it gives him room to operate and he's one of the best one-on-one players in the league."
That's the guy we used to know.