Splitting the difference

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:12
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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Shaun Livingston and Deron WilliamsUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesShaun Livingston has defied all expectations, while Deron Williams struggles to live up to them.
Almost seven years removed from the catastrophic knee injury that could have led to amputation, Shaun Livingston’s admirable, arduous transition from young phenom to wizened role player is the feel-good story of the Brooklyn Nets' season. Yet his bright play when all expectations of the once-presumed future superstar seemed to have vanished only underlines the struggles of the Nets' current superstar to live up to his massive contract.

Left for dead when Brook Lopez was lost for the season to yet another foot injury, the Nets are 14-5 since the calendar flipped to 2014 and have a realistic chance at snagging home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The positive momentum began with Livingston starting while Deron Williams recovered from a tweaked ankle. With his ranginess and vision, Livingston played a crucial role in the Nets' suddenly staunch defense, even taking on Kevin Durant when they beat Oklahoma City on the road at the end of January.

In reality, only Kevin Garnett has had a more positive on-court influence on the Nets than Williams, even during this hot stretch. But "more helpful than Shaun Livingston" isn't exactly what a team hopes for when they shell out a $98 million contract. Expectations frame accomplishment. It's flat out more fun to root for the best version of Livingston we've seen in a while than the current version of Williams.

Back in 2007, the season of Livingston's catastrophic injury, Williams was riding on the superstardom jet stream. In his first playoff appearance and just his second season as a pro, Williams led the Utah Jazz to the Western Conference finals, where he averaged 25.8 points and 7.8 assists in five games against the San Antonio Spurs.

If it now seems ludicrous that Chris Paul and Deron Williams were once destined to battle for supremacy atop Point God Olympus, remember that Paul still has yet to reach the playoff depths Williams did as a 24-year-old.

What has happened to Williams' game in his three seasons as a Net is both obvious and elusive. Injuries are mostly to blame; this we know. He has fought through a bum shooting wrist, and ankles that gave him so much pain he could barely get up and down the stairs of his apartment. But the dimensions of his injury history also resist our compassion. Williams' pains don’t stem from a hippocampus-searing incident that easily explains his struggles to any fan who has been paying attention. We rarely know as much as we think about the athletes we see everyday, but Williams is especially inscrutable.

You want to talk about injury stories that elicit empathy, talk about Shaun Livingston.

Despite the bad contract and disappointing record, Brooklyn fans want to embrace Williams. When fully healthy, he's capable of running the show like no other point guard in the East. Following a pain-reducing, platelet-rich plasma treatment around last year's All-Star break, Williams averaged 22.9 points and 8 assists on 62.2 percent true shooting percentage in the season's second half.

One can imagine Deron Williams, likable New York star. As he reminded Paul in December, Williams still has the nasty handle of a classic New York point guard. He lives in a fantastic penthouse apartment in fast-paced Tribeca rather than the more typical suburban McMansion. Since their adopted son was diagnosed with autism, Williams and his wife have become outspoken advocates for autistic children. Even his occasionally truculent relationship with the media is the kind of grouchiness New Yorkers can get behind. But the series of injuries that are just debilitating enough to hold him back, but not severe enough to keep him out, has made it difficult to form that connection with a fan base still figuring out who the Nets are and what they’re about.
[+] EnlargeWilliams
AP Photo/Kathy WillensHis play may not match the wild visions elicited long ago, but D-Will has fueled the Nets' bounce back.

Now, as the Nets claw their way to respectability, Williams' contributions aren't the story. He is not the most important player on his team -- that would be Garnett -- though he certainly makes them better. He's the proverbial 40-degree day.

Heck, when Williams was healthy enough to re-enter the lineup, he did so as a substitute so as to preserve the good vibes of the Livingston-led starting unit. Now imagine Paul ever, ever in a million moons coming off the bench for Darren Collison.

In the past week, there have been worrisome signs that Williams, who is once again starting and playing major minutes, hasn't shaken the ankle problems that prevent him from shaking defenders. Sunday against Detroit, on the second night of a back-to-back, Williams' movements were dulled. The unfortunate fact may be that Williams' ankles need the Dwyane Wade treatment: rest on back-to-backs and more than 32 minutes of action only on special occasions. Facing the Pistons' porous defense, Williams failed to record an assist in 25 minutes of play.

Meanwhile, Livingston has a career-best player efficiency rating of 14.3, which is slightly below league average. No matter. Livingston is triumphing over the image of him writhing on the hardwood in Los Angeles. Expectations frame achievement.

For Williams, nagging, debilitating injuries may have put his 2007 high-water mark permanently out of reach. No one expects the Nets to be in a conference finals, and rightly so. There's something especially cruel about his decline, how its subtlety resists a compelling narrative of redemption. Maybe that's why no one wants to talk about it.
Beckley Mason is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com.

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