Trade Candidate: Deron Williams

Two and a half years ago, Deron Williams was the single most sought-after free agent in the NBA. It’s almost unfathomable to think of Williams in that context now, but Williams came away with the most lucrative deal in a weak class. Williams, teammate Brook Lopez, who’s now also a trade candidate, Eric Gordon, Roy Hibbert, Nicolas Batum and JaVale McGee came away with the six most lucrative contracts that summer, as our free agent tracker shows. Times have changed not only for Williams but for the market, too.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Golden State WarriorsThat’s particularly so at the position Williams plays. George Hill and Goran Dragic were the point guards who received the next most lucrative contracts after Williams that summer, but it seems Dragic’s value has seemingly leapfrogged that of Williams. Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Jeff Teague, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, Ty Lawson, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Jennings, Brandon Knight and Jrue Holiday are others who’ve improved their games since Williams signed his contract. That lengthy list only encompasses players who were in the NBA the season before Williams signed, so it doesn’t include Damian Lillard, whom the Blazers drafted in 2012 using a pick they acquired from the Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace.

It isn’t just that Williams is in his third straight season of averaging few points than the year before, as his scoring average has dipped from 21.0 points per game the season before he signed the contract to 12.9 PPG this year. The quality of point guards around the league has risen to unprecedented heights, and Williams, once in the conversation with Chris Paul as the league’s best at his position, is merely a run-of-the-mill producer at this point. His PER of 15.4, the lowest he’s put up since his rookie season, suggests that he’s above average at best.

He’s not even starting for the Nets at this point, although a slow recovery from injuries, which have largely been behind his decline, seems to be the chief reason why he’s been unable to take his job back from Jarrett Jack. Still, it’s surely disheartening for Nets GM Billy King to see Williams, who’s making more than $19.754MM this season and almost $21.043MM next year with a player option for a whopping $22.331MM-plus in 2016/17, come off the bench and play just 23.5 minutes per game when he does so. He’s appeared in only nine games since New Year’s Day, only furthering the decline in his trade value.

The notion of a Williams trade has been a legitimate one since at least this past May, when Howard Beck of Bleacher Report wrote that the Nets wouldn’t rule out a dealMultiple reports followed in December indicating that the Nets are prepared to move on from Williams, as well as Lopez and Joe Johnson, with conflicting information about whether the team was initiating trade talks about the trio or merely open to the idea of parting with them. The most substantive recent discussions, by far, seemed to be with the Kings in December, but Sacramento’s insistence on taking back Mason Plumlee in such a deal put the kibosh on that. Brooklyn’s reluctance to part with Plumlee, whom the Kings were apparently demanding, shows that the team isn’t willing to take just any deal to move off Williams and his bloated contract, at least not yet. A source predicted to Marc Stein of that Williams would stay put, given the lack of attractive offers, as Stein wrote last month. Still, deadlines drive deals, as always, and so it’s conceivable that the Nets will revisit the Sacramento talks as next week’s trade deadline draws ever closer.

Brooklyn would like to trade two of Williams, Lopez and Johnson, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote. Lopez seems easiest to trade, given his somewhat cheaper salary and the shorter length of his deal, which could be over at season’s end thanks to a player option. Johnson is locked in through next season at salaries between $3MM and $4MM more than Williams makes each year, but that deal is assured of ending a year before Williams’ might, and Williams is owed the most money of the trio.

Williams and Lopez both reportedly drew mention when the Nets and Celtics talked about a deal involving Rajon Rondo, before Boston sent Rondo to the Mavs instead. The Hornets, predictably, appeared to have no interest in Williams when they spoke with the Nets about Lance Stephenson in December, given the presence of Walker. Charlotte’s point guard has since gone down with injury, but Walker’s short-term absence probably won’t change the equation for the Hornets. The Rockets reportedly made preliminary inquiries about Williams a year ago, but the Nets were unwilling to give him up at that point. Now, it’s debatable whether the Rockets would be better off with Williams or incumbent Houston point guard Patrick Beverley regardless of the profound gap between what Williams is making and Beverley’s minimum salary. The Lakers and Knicks are in need of point guards and have cap flexibility to burn, but there have been no indications that either of them would want to forfeit that flexibility for Williams.

It’s tough to envision much of a market for Williams, particularly given his recent production. He went scoreless Monday, his third straight outing of five points or less.

“I have no idea [what’s wrong with Williams],” coach Lionel Hollins said after the game to reporters, including Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “I feel bad for the kid because he’s trying and it’s just not happening.”

Williams, at 30, is a “kid” compared to the 61-year-old Hollins, and while he’s certainly not young for an NBA player, he’s not especially old, either. The possibility exists that Williams will regain some of what he seems to have lost, but it seems out of the realm of possibility that he’ll ever be the player he was when he last put pen to paper on a contract. The market may well force the Nets to attach a first-round pick or an intriguing young player like Plumlee to a Williams deal if they’re to part ways with their highly paid point guard, and the Nets seem prepared to keeping paying Williams’ salary for a while longer if it comes to that. Deadlines often inspire moves that teams otherwise wouldn’t make, but Hollins doesn’t expect the team will swing a deal, and at least as far as Williams goes, the coach is probably right.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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