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It's fair to say that Deron Williams's time with the Brooklyn Nets did not go nearly as well as planned. After joining the franchise for the final few months of the 2010-2011 season with the expectation of becoming the main attraction for the team's 2012 move from New Jersey to New York's hippest borough, Williams suffered a steep drop in form amid injuries and some disappointing finishes for one of the NBA's most expensive rosters. Those struggles became most egregious in each of the past two postseasons, when Williams could not come through in big spots and even went scoreless in an Eastern Conference semifinals game against the Miami Heat. The successes were all too rare and drove the still only 31-year-old point guard to reach a buyout agreement this offseason that freed him to join his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
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Despite those struggles, one of Williams's former teammates does not understand why he was so intent on leaving Brooklyn. At Nets media day on Monday, Joe Johnson expressed confusion over the departure. From Roderick Boone for Newsday:
"What did he have, like two years left on his deal?" Johnson said Monday at Nets media day. "I don't know if he wanted the buyout, if they just bought him out. I don't know. I'm just saying if he wanted to get bought out, I don't think it was that big of a deal, that bad. That's just me."
Johnson said he hasn't spoken to Williams since he left, something that offered insight into their relationship. A moody Williams often alienated himself from his Nets teammates, including Johnson. [...]
"Honestly, I didn't know what was going to happen -- if I was going to get traded, if he was going to get traded," Johnson said. "I didn't really know. But I didn't see that coming. I didn't see that coming, him getting bought out. I don't think it was that bad. It's not that bad here, so to be wanting to get bought out, I couldn't really put my fingers around that one.
"But I hear that he's happy, so that's the most important thing for him. He's back at home. So good for him."
First, let's address Johnson's choice of words. Saying that the experience of playing with the Nets is "not that bad" suggests that it is in fact somewhat bad, albeit not terrible enough to give up millions of dollars for the sake of free agency. It's as if the Nets are the NBA equivalent of having to move in with your in-laws. Sure, it's nice to have a babysitter on hand whenever you need one, but does Lionel Hollins your father-in-law really have to question your career earning potential at every available opportunity?
At any rate, Johnson is not exactly wrong here. The Williams buyout came as a surprise to outsiders — a high-profile deal to cut salary was very likely but it seemed as if Johnson would be the more movable player given his skillset and a contract that expires this offseason. Williams's decision made things much easier on the Nets, naturally, especially considering that his performance relative to expectations had the potential to turn into an ever-present issue and media distraction.
Ultimately, it's that context that makes Johnson seem not so much on target as experiencing a failure of empathy. Like Williams, he came to the Nets with several All-Star selections and a reputation as a productive player. Unlike his former backcourt partner, Johnson had already been tabbed as overpaid after signing a massive nine-figure deal with the Atlanta Hawks that became one of the league's worst contracts as soon as he signed it in July 2010. He was brought to Brooklyn to be a piece of an excellent starting lineup and not its leading star, a factor that by itself ensured that he would never receive the same amount of criticism as Williams. The Nets were a disappointment as a whole, but no one took as much of the blame as their point guard. It was deserved, to be sure, but it's also easy to understand why he would have been uncomfortable.
A quick glance at Williams's preseason comments from Dallas clarify the situation even more. From Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com:
"I want to prove myself wrong," Williams said Monday during the Mavericks' media day. "I started to doubt myself in the past. Mentally, it took a toll on me. I just got to get out of that rut that I was in the last couple years mentally, and I look forward to this situation. [...]
"Talking to [owner Mark Cuban] and talking to coach [Rick Carlisle], that's kind of the plan, just hitting that reset button, clearing my head and getting away from the situation that wasn't going well for me or the team in Brooklyn," said Williams, who cited having four head coaches in three and a half seasons as another factor in his underwhelming stint with the Nets. "It's a total change coming here.
"Let what happened in Brooklyn be in the past and move forward. It's over and done with. I'm a Maverick, and I'm excited to play with the group we have and for Coach Carlisle."
Whether Williams alienated himself from Johnson and other teammates or not, his desire to leave the Nets two years before the end of his contract is not a grand mystery. The reasoning should be evident to anyone willing to consider his point of view.
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