Pain, no gain

Deron Williams is the Nets' superstar. But is an injured D-Will better than no D-Will?

Originally Published: April 5, 2013
By Beckley Mason | ESPN The Magazine

Deron Williams Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty ImagesWilliams' 2.9 shots at the rim per game this season is 31 percent below career average.

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DERON WILLIAMS, THE NETS point guard in the prime of his career, was about to drive the lane in a March 1 home game against the Mavericks. Just one thing stood in his way: Dirk Nowitzki, hardly a renowned rim protector. Easy decision, right? Speed past the creaky forward for the quick two?

Not exactly. Williams hesitated and, unable to elevate, hoisted an off-balance layup that clanked off the rim and skittered out of bounds. Mavs' ball.

It was just one play. But it was also the story of a season, one in which the Nets' handling of the 28-year-old Williams has raised the NBA's most persistent question: Is it better to rush a star back from injury or allow him time to heal?

It was clear by the All-Star break that if there was a hole in the Nets, that hole was Williams. His PER (17.5), assist percentage (35.8 percent) and free throws per game (4.4) were the lowest since his second year in the league. According to HoopData, he was taking just 2.6 shots at the rim per game, a 33 percent drop from last season and a 50 percent drop from his career high. "I heard people say I looked disinterested," Williams says. "I wasn't disinterested. I just couldn't beat anybody off the dribble, couldn't make shots, couldn't jump to shoot a layup." Nets fans knew this. They just didn't know why.

Their answer arrived on Feb. 22, when Williams revealed that after the All-Star break he'd received a round of cortisone shots in both ankles, his third of the season. He'd also undergone platelet-rich plasma therapy to heal from synovitis, painful swelling likely due to an offseason devoted to the Olympics. D-Will, driving force of the Nets, had been playing with bad wheels. And those wheels were slowing down his team.

Other teams could relate. Consider that in 18 games for the Wolves this season after breaking his hand, Kevin Love had a True Shooting Percentage of 45.8 percent -- 285th in the NBA. Yet that didn't stop him from shooting with almost the same frequency as when he averaged 26 ppg in 2011-12. Consider also that defensive stud Andrew Bogut, whom the Warriors acquired last March prior to offseason ankle surgery, has actually made the team's D worse -- by four points per 100 possessions in the first 15 games he played. Then there's Dwight Howard's Lakers-hobbling effort to play through back pain. "It's mental," says a scout about stars returning from injury. "They're trying to do it, but they physically can't. It screws with their mind."

Regardless, the Nets' approach was to ride Williams hard. In the first 65 games he played, he averaged half a minute more per game than last season. The Nets apparently thought an injured D-Will was better than no D-Will at all. They were wrong. According to NBA.com, the Nets' plus/minus rating of minus-0.4 through the All-Star break was 0.9 of a point worse than backup C.J. Watson's. The team, at the time, carried a net rating of minus-1.4 with Williams on the floor, a plus-3.8 with him off of it.

But when the Nets finally let D-Will rest in February, he didn't just get healthy, he reached a level he's never attained. Since his All-Star-break therapy, not only is his plus-4.5 plus/minus rating* 2.8 points better than Watson's, his 24.4 PER far eclipses the highest mark of his career. "Before, I couldn't walk up my stairs without it killing me," he says. "I feel totally different now."

So do the Nets. Since March 6, they've outscored opponents by 11 ppg -- 10 above their season average and higher than the NBA's top differential. Which is exactly what a healthy D-Will will do for you.

Which raises yet another question: What took the Nets so long?

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Beckley Mason is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com.