Since the Brooklyn Nets have been one of the best teams in the NBA in the calendar year, that certainly means they've been, arguably, the best team in the Eastern Conference over the same time period. But for anyone who believes that means they'll make some noise come playoff time -- that a championship parade may find its way to New York after all -- then you can hit those brakes right now unless Deron Williams decides to show up.
The Nets aren't going to the NBA Finals unless Williams shows up. They are not going to the Eastern Conference Finals unless Williams shows up. Chances are, they'd be hard pressed to get past the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs unless Williams shows up. And that essentially means the Nets aren't relevant in the grand scheme of things ... unless Williams shows up.
"He's important to this team," Nets GM Billy King told me recently. "He's very important to us. But he isn't the only one."
No one's trying to dismiss the contributions made by the likes of Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and even rookie Mason Plumlee. One's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The other is an elite closer. Livingston is a sparkling addition to Brooklyn's backcourt, and Plumlee, quite frankly, is first-team all-rookie and, at the very least, a legitimate backup center who'll challenge Brook Lopez for years to come.
But if you don't see anyone standing up and screaming about the Nets, how legitimate their title aspirations are, it is because of the $98 million man who is regressing before our eyes.
Plagued by nagging ankle injuries since the 2012 London Olympics that have contributed to 16 missed games this season, Williams is averaging just 14.3 points on 44.9 percent shooting and just 10.9 points on 34.6 percent shooting over the past seven games.
Yet despite the Nets registering an impressive 33-14 record since Jan. 1, despite knowing that Williams (bad ankles and all) can still spot up and shoot, take defenders off the dribble and create his own shot with relative ease, there's still an underlying issue with Williams more salient than his ankle: his psyche.
"The truth of the matter is, it isn't good and has never been that good," one league executive said a few days ago. "From a talent perspective, you can't find too many people that would doubt he's worth an awful lot. But that's rarely the issue with him. The issue has always been questions about how bad he wants to win. What sacrifices is he willing to make? How much does he really care in the end? And believe me, people are still thinking about that now as the Nets approach the playoffs."
For the record, few folks within the Nets' organization are thinking about such matters right now. They're locked in. Focused on the upcoming playoffs. Leaders like Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who returned two games ago, are in Brooklyn's locker room for a reason. Diminishing the chances of a severed clubhouse stands atop practically all other obligations.
Yet everyone is aware that Deron Williams has had, arguably, the easiest job a franchise player could ever hope to have. With leadership from KG and Pierce, with Johnson's finishing abilities, with the depth the Nets possess, the exceptional young coaching by Jason Kidd -- practically hand-picked by Williams -- and stellar leadership from Billy King, all Brooklyn's point guard has to do is play.
"Nothing else," one Nets player told me weeks ago. "We believe in him. We know what he's capable of. And we're riding with him. But he's definitely got to ball. It's all he has to do, but he has to do it."
The question remains: Will Williams show up?
That question doesn't appear as poignant as it was a few months ago when, according to team sources, he had to be talked to separately by KG, Pierce and Johnson due to his unwillingness to play off the ball and concede point guard responsibilities on occasion to Livingston. That matter appears to have been resolved.
But there's still the issue of Williams' ankles, sloppy play and sporadic shooting. Considering the mandate handed down in training camp about winning now, accentuated by the $190 million invested in this roster by owner Mikhail Prokhorov, Williams' issues aren't something anyone's going to be interested in hearing within the next eight to 10 days.
Johnson, averaging 20 points on 54 percent shooting in April, isn't a decoy anymore like he was late last season when plagued by a foot injury. Nor will the focus be laid on his shoulders, since Pierce is an option for this postseason. Gone are Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace -- who couldn't shoot -- replaced by Marcus Thornton, Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic.
"The Nets are a dark horse," another league executive said. "No one's ignoring them. But the truth is, they could go to the conference finals or they could be home in the first round."
One reason is that Chicago, led by Joakim Noah, is enjoying a successful second half. The other reason is more profound:
In the past two All-Star games, nine different point guards were asked to come and represent their teams at the midseason festivities: Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, John Wall, Steph Curry and Damian Lillard.
None of them was named Deron Williams. And only CP3 is getting paid as much as him.
"The playoffs will make up for all of that," one Nets player said. "I believe he'll do what needs to be done."
For Brooklyn's sake, one would hope so. And we're not just talking about the team.
We're talking about Broooooooookklllyyynnnnnnn!!!!!!!!! Brooookkklllyyyynnnnn!