The number always overshadowed the names—$190 million worth of grand expectations, a lavish investment in instant gratification.

That was the price the Brooklyn Nets would pay, in salaries and luxury taxes, after acquiring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last summer in a bold play to become title contenders.

The dream died Wednesday night in Miami, in Game 5 of the second round, five weeks and 11 victories shy of a championship. Nets officials insist the investment is not yet a bust, that Pierce and Garnett could return next season, that Brook Lopez could return to health, that the championship window is still open, if only by a few inches.

None of that is certain.

Pierce could leave as a free agent, perhaps to join old friend Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. Garnett could retire, and just might if Pierce were to leave. If the two proud former Celtics walk away, then the Nets will have broken the payroll record—and given up three first-round draft picks—for nothing.

But the fixation on the price tag, and even on the trade itself, obscures the Nets' greatest problem—­a previous, equally costly investment that has gone bust:

You remember Deron Williams?

You could be forgiven if you didn't. Williams was a dud in the playoffs, particularly against the Heat. He scored zero points in Game 2, nine points in Game 3 and 13 points (on 5-of-14 shooting) in a Game 4 loss that pushed the Nets to the brink of elimination. Williams' postseason field-goal percentage: 39.5.

The Nets imported Pierce and Garnett for their wisdom and their fire, but no one expected the two aging vets to carry the offense. It is Williams who was acquired to be the face of the franchise, the engine of the Nets offense, and he has utterly failed in that role.

No matter how many tens of millions they spend, no matter how many flashy trades they make, the Nets will never be a serious contender unless Williams regains his All-Star form.

"Deron's the X-factor," said one Nets official. "More than anybody."

Since Williams' celebrated arrival in 2011, the Nets have made two trips to the playoffs, one ending in the first round and one in the second, for a postseason record of 8-11.