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“It was smart on their part,” Williams said Monday, “because there’s a possibility that I wouldn’t have came back.”
Twenty-two months and a $100 million contract later, Williams seems happy with his fate in Brooklyn. He has a solid supporting cast, a winning record and the adoration of New York’s biggest borough.
But some things were better in Salt Lake City. Namely, Williams himself.
Since coming to the Northeast, he has eroded in nearly every facet of his game. His scoring has declined, and his shooting percentages have plummeted. Through 23 games, Williams is averaging 17 points and 8.3 assists while shooting 38.8 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from 3-point range. Injuries may be partly to blame.
But as the Nets prepared to host the Jazz on Tuesday, Williams listed another factor: the playbook.
“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.
The Nets rely much more on isolation plays, usually featuring Williams or guard Joe Johnson, than the Jazz ever did. It is a staple of Avery Johnson’s offense. However, Johnson has also installed a number of “U.C.L.A.” sets, to emulate some of Sloan’s offense.
An Eastern Conference scout noted that Johnson never ran the U.C.L.A. sets when he coached in Dallas and that he seemed to be using them now for Williams’s benefit.
Williams made his remarks on Monday after Johnson had already spoken to reporters, so the coach was not available to respond.
During his peak years in Utah, from 2006-7 through 2009-10, Williams’ field-goal accuracy ranged from 45.6 percent to 50.7 percent. He was shooting 45.8 percent for the Jazz when they traded him in February 2011. In 90 games with the Nets, Williams is shooting 39.6 percent from the field.
The struggles were understandable during the season and a half Williams spent in New Jersey. The team was terrible, the environment was depressing, and Williams was frequently hurt.
But with a talent-rich new roster and the move to Brooklyn, the Nets (13-10) expected Williams to return to All-Star form. They are still waiting.
Williams has converted 50 percent of his shots in just three games this season. At 28, he is too young to be on the decline. Just two years ago, he was considered one of the top two point guards in the N.B.A.
Although Williams is dealing with wrist and ankle injuries, he said the problem was not physical. Avery Johnson concurred.
“I even told him before practice today in our video session, nothing is wrong with his game,” Johnson said. “Everything is going to be fine. It’s the 23rd game of the season. He has a chance to get on a roll for the next 23 games.”
The problem may be where Williams is getting his shots, according to a recent analysis by Ethan Sherwood Strauss of Bleacher Report. In 2008-9, Williams attempted 43.3 percent of his shots at the rim, Sherwood noted. Since Williams joined the Nets, that figure has dropped below 30 percent.
In recent weeks, Williams has alluded to his confidence and comfort level as issues. This is the first time he has specifically pointed to the offense. He said his high school team had a set system and that his college team ran a motion offense that featured cutting and passing.
“I’m used to just movement,” he said, “so I’m still trying to adjust.”
But, Williams said, “I believe I can adapt to anything. We’re still a young team. Things don’t happen overnight. It’s still just December.”