TORONTO — Brooklyn Nets fans likely will have to wait until next season to boo Deron Williams in an opponent’s uniform.
Williams strained his left hamstring in the Dallas Mavericks’ loss to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night, exiting in the third quarter and putting his availability in doubt for his first visit to the Barclays Center since receiving a $27 million buyout from the Nets last summer. The Mavs play in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
“The last thing I want to do is miss this game tomorrow,” said Williams, who had been experiencing tightness in his left hamstring and felt a pop during the third quarter. “It’s definitely frustrating.”
Williams, the former All-Star point guard who is revitalizing his career with the Mavericks after a disappointing stint as the face of the Nets’ franchise, accepts that boos in Brooklyn are part of the deal after failing to live up to the expectations that came along with a five-year, $99 million deal in Brooklyn.
“I’m sure I’ll get booed,” Williams told ESPN.com over the weekend. “Those Brooklyn fans, they expected more out of me. I expected more out of myself. Injuries are tough, man. Somebody that’s been injured year after year, they can attest. They take a toll on you physically. It takes a toll on you mentally.
“Add that to the New York media and the fans — or I should say the non-fans, the ones that don’t pick you up — it all takes a toll on you. I think it definitely took a toll on me, but that’s what happens when you get paid that money and you don’t produce like it.”
Williams has acknowledged that self-doubt crept in during his three seasons in Brooklyn, which he describes as the most difficult years of his life. He struggled to cope with the frustration of being limited by ankle issues that began bothering him during the 2012 Olympics and eventually required surgeries in May 2014.
Relentless criticism from media and fans created a toxic atmosphere for Williams, who said his rough experience as a focal point in the New York market “made my skin thicker.”
“It can take a toll on you when you’re not playing well,” Williams said. “It’s just inevitable. I try not to read stuff anymore. I don’t do social media, so I don’t hear what’s going on, but it’s impossible to not find out because somebody’s going to say something to you. Whether it’s your friend, your mom, somebody’s going to say something to you. ‘See what happened? See what’s said?’
“The thing that bothered me is [when] the headline has nothing to do with what the article is about. It’s just about selling papers there. You’ve got to understand that. It’s the nature of New York. That’s just how it is.”
Williams is thriving in Dallas, a 35-minute drive from his hometown of The Colony, Texas. He is averaging 14.8 points and 5.8 assists and has been a major reason why the Mavs are off to a 15-13 start despite their two highest-paid players — shooting guard Wesley Matthews and small forward Chandler Parsons — struggling as they return from major surgeries.
“It’s been great, man,” said Williams, who turned down a four-year max offer from the Mavs in the summer of 2012 to go to the Nets. “It’s been a great situation all around, just being back in Dallas, living in Dallas, being back around family. The basketball situation has definitely been great being on this team. It’s been a great experience all around for me.”
Williams doesn’t have the weight of the Mavs franchise on his shoulders after signing a two-year, $11 million deal with a player option for the second season. However, he disputes that the size of his contract with the Nets contributed to his issues in Brooklyn.
“You know what? It wasn’t that big a deal. I was already a max player in Utah,” said Williams, who played in three straight All-Star games, including his first full season with the Nets, the franchise’s final year in New Jersey. “People saw, ‘Ah, when you get a max deal, it’s a lot of pressure.’ If I wasn’t hurt, I know it would have been a whole different story. My confidence never would have gotten to where it was.
“I was playing through swollen ankles every single day. I could barely walk, barely get up the stairs, and I had to play basketball. I just know it would have been a whole different story. I wish I would have had the surgeries earlier. That probably would have been a little bit better, but you never know.”
Expectations for the Nets skyrocketed when Brooklyn made a blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics in July 2013, acquiring three aging stars with championship experience (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry) for a package that featured unprotected first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the right for the Celtics to swap first-rounders with the Nets in 2017.
The Nets’ payoff from that deal was one playoff series win, a massive luxury tax bill and the franchise’s future mortgaged. Brooklyn traded Terry midway through the season. Jason Kidd, one of four head coaches Williams had during his stint with the team, moved on from the team after the season. Pierce left in free agency. Garnett was traded during the next season.
And Williams had his two least productive seasons since he was a 21-year-old rookie in Utah. He doesn’t blame anyone — just bad luck — for the Nets falling so far short of expectations during his tenure.
“I just think that the circumstances didn’t pan out,” Williams said. “I felt like [general manager Billy King] did a great job. Obviously he wanted Jason Kidd to be the next coach, and that didn’t work out both ways. I don’t think it was one side’s fault. I really don’t know whose fault it was, but it just didn’t work out for either party, kind of like my situation.
“I think you can say looking back on the trade to get KG and Paul, it didn’t work out, but you know, what if it did? What if I wasn’t hurt? There’s a lot of things that year that just kind of went south. Because there was so much expectations and the draft picks given up, it was kind of a waste, but he didn’t know that going in. When it happened, it seemed like a great opportunity. I don’t think they let me down. The organization was great for me. It just didn’t pan out.”
It’s a time in his life that Williams would prefer to leave in the past, particularly once his first visit to Brooklyn as an opponent is over.
“I try not to look back,” Williams said. “It was three tough years for me, as far as being injured, not playing the way I felt like I was capable of playing. It just wasn’t a fun time for me, so I try just not to look back. Just move forward.”