Avery Johnson points at the player on whom he wants Deron Williams to isolate. (Mike Ehrmann-Getty Images)
Through 15 games, the Brooklyn Nets were humming along. Their 11-4 mark ranked among the East's best, they'd notched statement wins over their Atlantic Division rivals in Boston and Manhattan, and they'd scored a 10-point victory over a good Clippers team. Sure, the vaunted/max-salaried backcourt pairing of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson had yet to really bear fruit, with neither player averaging more than 16 points per game and both hovering around the 40 percent mark from the floor, but starting center Brook Lopez had been going great guns, found-money pieces Andray Blatche and Jerry Stackhouse were paying major dividends, and the Nets were scoring and defending like one of the 10 best teams in the league. Everyone at the Barclays Center — save for those who had to deal with Reggie Evans — was quite pleased.
And then the calendar turned to December, and what was thought to be a mild strain to the left foot Lopez fractured last season turned into a two-week injury. The absence of the Nets' leading scorer (and, somewhat surprisingly, lead interior defender) coincided with a difficult stretch of games against the Heat, Thunder, Warriors, Bucks and Knicks; the Nets lost all five and are 2-6 in December. The upcoming slate doesn't do them any favors, either; Brooklyn's next five games come against .500-or-better competition, beginning with Tuesday's matchup against the Utah Jazz.
Heading into the meeting with the franchise with which he spent the first five-plus seasons of his NBA career, it's the Nets' flagging offense, running seventh in the NBA in offensive efficiency through the first 15 games but a middle-of-the-pack unit since Dec. 1, that had Williams most concerned on Monday. Specifically, according to Howard Beck at the New York Times, its relative lack of ingenuity and movement:
"That system was a great system for my style of play," Williams said of the "flex" offense run by Utah Coach Jerry Sloan. "I'm a system player. I love Coach Sloan's system. I loved the offense there."
The comments were provocative on multiple levels.
Williams was widely blamed for Sloan's sudden retirement in February 2011, just before the Jazz traded Williams to the Nets. And his openly pining for Sloan's system could be viewed as subtle criticism of Coach Avery Johnson's offense.
Williams did nothing to discourage that interpretation when he was asked to compare the offense used by the Nets with the one he ran in Utah. "Is it as good as there? No," he said. "There's just more one-on-one and isos" in Johnson's offense.
Another version of the quote, shared by Brian Lewis of the New York Post, offers a bit more in the way of explanation from Williams:
Playing in Avery Johnson's isolation-heavy system instead of Sloan's pick-and-roll attack, the three-time All-Star is shooting a career-worst 38.8 percent this season. Asked if the Nets' offensive system was better, Williams again didn't hesitate with a negative answer.
"No," Williams said. "It's just more 1-on-1 isos. I grew up ... in high school, my coach wasn't one of those guys that just let us just throw out the balls and play. We were a system team. We had a staple of plays that we relied on for good execution.
"In college [at Illinois], we ran a motion offense, a lot of cutting, a lot passing, a lot of screening and making the extra passes. I'm used to just movement. So I'm still trying to adjust. It's been an adjustment for me. But it's coming along."
It's very weird to hear Williams pine for an offense run by a coach with whom he reportedly feuded pretty seriously prior to Sloan's February 2011 clash with then-Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor and the legendary coach's subsequent retirement. Not sure if it's as weird as hearing a guy popularly discussed as one of the top point guards in the NBA over the past decade refer to himself as a "system player," but still: Pretty weird.
That said: Williams isn't alone here.
Williams' assessment echoes a criticism raised Monday by Devin Kharpertian at Nets blog The Brooklyn Game, in a piece that took the Nets coach to task for his team showing "a frightening propensity for heroball" — offensive possessions dependent on one player making a difficult one-on-one shot against a ready defender — rather than utilizing the variety of offensive talents available on Brooklyn's roster in well-designed plays and sets to confound a defense and create open, high-percentage looks in late-game situations. The results, by Kharpertian's reckoning, have not been good: "In the final 10 seconds of games, with the game within three points, the Nets are 1-7 from the field this year, and 0-4 from 3."
A possible late-game penchant for isolations aside, as Beck noted in his story and Grantland's Zach Lowe backed up on Twitter, Avery Johnson has installed elements of the Jazz's flex scheme, including deployment of the "UCLA cut," into Brooklyn's regular offense; it's not as if "The Little General" hasn't worked to meet his point guard's comfort zone and skill set. Johnson emphasized that on Tuesday, saying that "as much as 30 percent of the Nets offense [...] mimics what Williams did" in Utah and that the Nets are implementing "more and more stuff that [Williams] is familiar with and getting back to some of the things, a lot of the stuff that he did in his Utah system," according to Jazz beat writer Bill Oram of the Salt Lake Tribune.
Still, while taking the media to task for stories about his Monday comments — "[...] you guys take stuff and run with it, and you write whatever you write. So, there's nothing to it" — Williams on Tuesday didn't walk back his assessment of how he's fitting into what his coach is doing, according to Oram:
"You asked me about Utah, my time in Utah," Williams said [...] "I'm not going to badmouth Utah, I had a great time in Utah, I loved the offense. I said that we've had struggles on offense here, I haven't felt as comfortable here, which I've said all year."
Just what's behind that lack of comfort, of course, is the $64,000 (or $98 million) question. Avery's system could be responsible for part of it, whether because it's creating more isolations for other players or because it puts Williams in situations where he has difficulty getting to the rim and instead pushes him into long jumpers, as Bleacher Report's Ethan Sherwood Strauss recently suggested. It could be that, as coach Johnson told NBA.com's Jeff Caplan on Monday, there's nothing wrong with Williams' shot itself, and that his Williams' sub-39 percent field-goal accuracy and sub-30 percent mark from 3-point range on the season are just a garden-variety cold snap.
Or, as Jazz radio announcer David Locke suggested on Tuesday — and this is the potential explanation that Nets fans will least like — it could be that Williams' shot hasn't really been consistently on-target since injuring his right wrist in February 2011 prior to the trade that sent him to New Jersey. Williams reinjured the wrist weeks after coming to the Nets and had required season-ending surgery that April. He suffered a sprain of the same wrist in late November and has continued to play through it (and, reportedly, myriad other nagging injuries), but with limited success offensively. All told, since coming to the Nets, Williams has shot 39.6 percent from the floor and 32 percent from 3-point land, both well below his career averages in Utah (47 percent from the floor, 35.8 percent from 3).
With four years and $81.6 million remaining on Williams' freshly minted max deal after this one, Nets fans surely hope it's one of the former two options than the latter. But while Johnson, Williams and everybody else around the team searches for answers to restore the offensive punch — getting Lopez closer to full strength and availability should help a lot, and after playing about half a game in each of his first two contests back, he'll reportedly be able to go about 30 minutes against the Jazz if needed — everyone should be looking for answers on the other end of the floor. The Nets' defense has fallen off a cliff in December.
Remember that seventh-to-14th slide in offensive efficiency I mentioned earlier? Brooklyn's decline has been much more precipitous on D, where they've gone from the league's No. 11 defense in points allowed per 100 possessions through the first 15 games to the league's fourth-worst unit over the past two-plus weeks. The implosion has been especially serious at home, where they've allowed opponents to score at a more permissive rate than the league-worst Charlotte Bobcats in their last five Barclays affairs, and in the paint, where they've given up a league-worst 44.3 points over the past eight games.
While getting Lopez back to pair with disappearing power forward Kris Humphries in the starting lineup and relegate the Blatche-Evans duo to the bench should help in terms of patrolling the paint, those stats still don't bode well for a Nets team set to welcome the likes of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter and a just-back Derrick Favors into Barclays Center on Tuesday night. Whether they're running isos or flex cuts on the offensive end, if Brooklyn can't keep Utah from getting whatever it wants down low, the Nets could see their monthly record drop to 2-7 in a December that, thus far, they'd rather forget.