The Brooklyn Nets have taken some drastic measures to right the ship, including the recent benching of Deron Williams. After a 96-82 win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday -- the team's fifth victory in six games -- those changes appear to be working.
Williams was supposed to be the Nets' franchise player after signing a five-year maximum contract with the team two years ago, but he's fallen on hard times with a steep decline in his early 30s. No longer the physically dominant point guard that he was during his prime with the Jazz, Williams has tested the patience of the Nets coaching staff with subpar performances this season.
Things got particularly bad this month, when Williams battled both ineffectiveness and injury. The point guard was averaging 12.2 points on 32 percent shooting until suffering a calf injury before Christmas, then proved unable to reclaim his starting spot from Jarrett Jack upon getting healthy.
It's enough to make you wonder about Williams' future and whether the Nets are better off keeping Jack in the starting lineup going forward. It certainly has worked so far, but will it continue?
What's happened to Deron?
It's been only a couple years since Williams last appeared in an All-Star Game, but few present-day stars have declined as quickly as the Nets point guard. Over the past five years, he's devolved from a legitimate franchise player into a decent role player with poor shooting numbers.
And given the money he's paid by Brooklyn -- roughly $63 million through 2016-17 -- that's going to make it difficult for the Nets to acquire quality alternatives in the meantime. So the Nets and Williams appear stuck with each other for now, and that means figuring out what's gone wrong.
The most obvious aspect of Williams' game to decline is his scoring efficiency. He's shooting just 39 percent overall this season, down from 45 percent last season and a career-high 51 percent in his prime. Once a legitimate weapon around the rim, Williams is now struggling to finish the same plays he once thrived at. Two years ago, the point guard shot 63 percent on attempts inside five feet. Last year, that number dropped to 59 percent, which is still pretty good, but a cut below his best. However, the bottom has fallen out this year, as he's hitting just 48 percent of those shots.
For a player who dominated around the rim for so long, it's startling to see Williams struggle in that area, particularly because of how it allows defenses to adjust. No longer concerned with the possibility of Williams barreling to the rim to attempt a layup or force a foul, defenders can more aggressively close out on his other shot attempts and take away certain spots on the floor.
There are silver linings that offer optimism, including good three-point shooting numbers and a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, but this isn't the Deron Williams of past seasons.
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The Jack upgrade and pounding second units
Some decline from Williams in his early 30s is to be expected, but the Nets' improvement since installing Jack in the starting lineup is surprising. Over the past six games since making the change at point guard, Brooklyn has steadily outplayed its opposition and crept back near .500.
What's particularly interesting is the thriving second unit with Williams leading the way. While Jack and the starters have been productive over the past six games, with the Nets outscoring opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions with Jack on the floor, it's actually the second unit powered by Williams that's really crushing opponents.
Over the past four games with Williams coming off the bench, the team is outscoring opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. As other teams dig into their reserves to toss out journeymen and young players, Lionel Hollins has his former all-star orchestrating the second unit, and it's allowed Williams to make an impact even as his shot has been off.
It's only been a few games, but it's possible the Nets try to work with this setup going forward. If Jack can keep the starters competitive for most the game and allow Williams to light it up against reserves, the Nets may have a formula that allows them to make a playoff push in the second half of the season.
But will Williams be happy?
This is one aspect of the situation that won't be simple. Williams is the Nets' highest-paid player, a guy who was originally brought in to be the new face of the franchise. Last season was the first time he averaged fewer than 36 minutes per game since 2006.
For someone who was considered a star for years, how long will Williams really be happy playing roughly 20 minutes a night at 30 years old? It's one thing when the team is rolling off wins in late December, but what happens at the first sign of trouble?
Williams has earned a reputation for being tough on coaches in the past -- his rocky relationship with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan being the most obvious example -- and will have his patience tested coming off the bench for Hollins. Even if the formula ultimately puts Brooklyn in a better position to win, Williams might not be thrilled with his role in the near future.
How that impacts Hollins' decision-making is difficult to predict, but it'll likely be one of the biggest factors in the situation. Williams is too prominent a member of the franchise to be openly dissatisfied with his role, and while there's no reason to believe that's the case yet, many players have bristled at losing significant minutes in the past. Jack should remain the starter for now, but he's on a short leash with the possibly disgruntled star behind him on the depth chart.