Although Williams and two other key players, Keith Van Horn and Rony Seikaly, were sidelined by injuries at various times in March, Williams blames the team's slide on the front office, which publicly discussed the possible acquisition of Magic star Penny Hardaway before the Feb. 19 trading deadline. "Management doesn't understand the locker room," Williams says. "When you start talking about trading someone, players take it personally. They won't work as hard, because they feel betrayed. Our guys have stopped playing with the same energy. If you are going to trade somebody, then just do it."
Williams, the team's centerpiece, was enjoying the finest all-around season of his eight-year career (12.9 points and 13.6 rebounds a game) before he was hurt. "He's the best offensive rebounder in the world, but it's more than that," says Nets coach John Calipari, pointing to their 117-106 loss to the Lakers at home, a game in which Shaquille O'Neal scored 50 points. "If Jayson was playing, someone would have gotten hurt. He never would have allowed Showtime on his floor. He would have knocked someone into the third row."
After clashing repeatedly with Calipari last season, Williams spent much of All-Star weekend talking Calipari up to future free agents such as Hardaway. "I'd grade Cal an A plus this year," Williams says. "Last year, I would have graded him a P for punch—because that's what I felt like doing to him."
Williams, who will be a free agent this summer, grew up in New York City and still has strong family ties to the area. If the Nets promptly make an offer in the $10 million-a-year range, he's unlikely to bolt for the Suns or the Sonics, who, according to league sources, are among the dozen teams prepared to take a run at him. "It has to be done on July 1," Williams says. "If the Nets offer me fair market value on that day, all that needs to be done is the paperwork. But if it starts taking a few days, then I'm looking around, and I might see something else that I like."
He was mildly peeved when the Nets acquired Seikaly. "Let's not be foolish," Williams says. "They got him in case I bolt." But Williams and Van Horn have vowed to try to stick together, and the rookie's presence will encourage Williams to stay put. "We've taken 75 percent of that black-sheep image away from New Jersey this year," he says. "By next season it will all be gone."
A playoff appearance would help the team finish reforming that image. But even if the Nets lock up the final spot, Williams is unlikely to play. "I want to find a way to get there just to give Jayson a chance," Van Horn says.
" 'Cause if we don't," adds point guard Sam Cassell, "he'll never let us forget it."
The Denver Debacle
Ellis Down but Not Wanting Out
Time is winding down for the Nuggets, who at week's end had nine wins, tying them with the 76ers of 1972-73 for the fewest victories in a year. Still, LaPhonso Ellis wishes he could extend his team's hapless season. His ruptured right Achilles tendon has finally healed, his timing is coming around, and, since he will be a free agent this summer, he wants to improve on the worst stats of his six-year career (13.8 points a game on 39.9% shooting through Sunday).
There's also the matter of earning that 10th win. "I've tried to isolate myself from all the hoopla, but it's hard," Ellis says. "I don't want Denver's name to be associated with something so negative. The urgency to win is there."