In the “oops-my-bad” moment of the week, Deron Williams openly pined for the good ol’ days when he played in Utah under the Hall of Fame coach he has widely been blamed for running off to a simpler life on the farm.
Williams’s comments expressing his love for Jerry Sloan’s playbook while explaining his season-long slump set off the first bit of controversy in Brooklyn, where the Nets have been riding the momentum of one of the most successful re-brandings in recent memory – from sad-sack afterthought by the swamp to a symbol of urban chic and hip-hop-infused cool in a pristine new arena.
By publicly griping about his frustrations, Williams put Nets Coach Avery Johnson on alert that he needs more of the flex cuts and motion that helped him reach all-star status with the Jazz. But Williams also brought more attention to his fall from a player who once seriously challenged Chris Paul for the title of game’s best point guard to a franchise cornerstone with a $100 million contract who seems dependent upon a system.
With Johnson forced to utilize an isolation-attack to establish Brook Lopez and newcomer Joe Johnson, Williams is experiencing an identity crisis this season – and he is not alone.
Due to circumstances that were mostly out of his control, Pau Gasol is a player without much purpose in Los Angeles, where the Lakers exist mostly as a vehicle for Kobe Bryant to move up the all-time scorers’ list this season and Coach Mike D’Antoni appears unwilling to accommodate an aging but still efficient, all-star level talent.
Gasol returned to the Lakers after missing the previous eight games with knee tendinitis, but his role for the Lakers appears undefined. Phil Jackson took advantage of having two gifted players in the low block and allowed Andrew Bynum and Gasol to help the Lakers win back-to-back championships. Mike Brown made the duo even more of a focal point last season, but D’Antoni’s system usually relies on one interior presence and asks power forwards to stretch the defense from the perimeter.
Gasol recently met with D’Antoni to hammer out their differences, since he is certainly capable of hitting the occasional jumper and is skilled from several spots on the floor. He rarely gets inside touches the few times he’s on the court with Dwight Howard. D’Antoni has often benched Gasol in the fourth quarter of close games, which has contributed to Gasol averaging career lows in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.
Bryant has already asked Gasol to put on his “big boy pants” but Gasol might eventually put on some different colored shorts altogether if Steve Nash is unable to work miracles when he returns from a fractured tibia.
Meanwhile, the individual pieces in Boston don’t appear to be struggling – Rajon Rondo leads the league in assists and Paul Pierce recently had a 40-point game – but collectively, the Celtics are out of whack.
No Celtics are openly pleading for the return of Ray Allen, but the departure of the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers has contributed to the team sputtering out of the gates. Allen’s role was marginalized in his last year in Boston, but there was no denying how the pieces fit when he was wearing the No. 20 on Causeway Street.
After coming within one game of the NBA Finals, the Celtics appeared to recover from Allen’s loss with the additions of Courtney Lee and Jason Terry. But the spacing that Allen provided for Pierce and Rondo to slash and for Kevin Garnett to operate in the paint has affected the offense.
Boston is scoring at a higher clip than previous seasons, but the chemistry is off – especially on the defensive end, which had never been a problem since Garnett arrived in the summer of 2007. Avery Bradley’s absence with a shoulder injury hasn’t helped, but the Celtics play small but don’t run, don’t have a physical inside presence and routinely get killed on the glass.
They have surrendered 100 points 11 times this season, going 3-8 in those games. Pierce said the team is still searching for its identity and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers recently said, “Right now, we’re not a good team.”
As Paul became the third-youngest player to reach the 5,000-assist mark last week, the man drafted one spot ahead of him in 2005 is having a rough adjustment in his second NBA home. Injuries have possibly contributed to Williams seeing his scoring and shooting numbers plummet since the Jazz traded him to the Nets in February 2011 – shortly after Sloan’s stunning retirement after 27 years as a coach.
Williams isn’t getting to the basket as much as he did in Utah, where his shooting percentage never dipped below 45 percent from 2006 to 2010. He has shot below 40 percent throughout his time in the Eastern Conference. His struggles last season could be attributed to a glaring lack of talent surrounding him. This season, he has more help and still can’t shoot.
Brooklyn now has to overcome its first crisis since professional sports returned to the borough. And the rest of the league is waiting to see how the Nets, Lakers and Celtics respond to their problems.