In the spring of 2009, Deron Williams was the best point guard in the NBA. His 21.1 PER, his 10.7 assists per game, his ungodly assist percentage of 47.8, his 19.4 points per game on 47% shooting, and his leading his team into the playoffs said so. Williams had the advantage over every other point guard he faced. He was bigger and stronger. He could take smaller guards in the paint, overpower them and score, often drawing a foul. He could drive and blow by and finish in traffic. He could drain a long two-point shot or a three, mostly uncontested because of actions in the paint that left him wide open. He was the leader of the Utah Jazz. If Jerry Sloan made the Jazz go on the bench then Deron Williams was their energy drink, the best player, and by everyone’s account, marching towards a Hall of Fame career.
This is the script. Hall of Fame talent who are Olympians devolve because of old age, too many miles on the body, legs that precipitate slowness, a loss of athleticism and small, nagging injuries. All-Star players rarely fall into the group of he used to be this, now he is that. Their talent is too extreme to just disappear into the vault of ordinariness. Because extraordinary is their middle name, and it is a defining part of who they are and always have been, their body falls in line with their psyche, consistently obedient. In this the math is fair. It takes ten to twelve years before things start to slow and by then the numbers and career has already been well established.
Dwayne Wade. Kobe Bryant. Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce. Tim Duncan. They all had their games change once they became thirty plus, either because of repetitive injuries or because they are too damned old to play a young man’s game. Deron Williams is the one Olympian who became old when he was young. He was cursed in reverse.
In a regular season game with Kobe Bryant on the floor, Deron Williams looked like he was 10 years older. And he played that way too. His season is a testament to his slow and sudden withdrawal.
But, oh I remember the spring of 2009. I remember Deron Williams. I remember 41 minutes and 26 points and 14 assists, and in a tie score in the 4th quarter, Williams dished a pass to Carlos Boozer and then to Ronnie Brewer to put the Jazz up by four. Two mid-range shots later, taken by Williams, sealed the victory over the Rockets.
I remember 24 points and 11 assists at OKC, nearly matching Kevin Durant’s 24 and 12. I remember 17 assists in the playoffs one night and 35 points the next.
It would be a Chris Paul moment in 2009. Williams wouldn’t get out of the first round, but it had less to do with him and more to do with the Lakers and their march for championship number 15. In fact, Williams was the best thing about the Utah Jazz and even after elimination, no one would have denied him a place in the hierarchy of the NBA.
With hindsight brilliance, it’s easy now to say Williams never should have left Utah, he never should have created tension with Jerry Sloan where he was the one blamed . He never should have created tension in New Jersey with Avery Johnson where he was the one blamed. It happened in Brooklyn too, he created tension and he was the one blamed by Paul Pierce. That responsibility lies with Williams and he has to take ownership of it. But I can’t get out of my head two things: the way it used to be and how it is now.
It’s not the Kobe Bryant 20 year in the league not much left in the body pathological dissolution that haunts Williams who wears a beard that makes him look even more like a stranger. Deron Williams is only 31 years old. How is it possible then this is all we have? How can he be 31 and have left so much on the table, so much unaccomplished?
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The player Williams will forever be compared to because Chris Paul was the player selected after Williams was taken #3 in the 2005 draft, the player he was supposed to be better than is still doing Chris Paul things. The Clippers have yet to rise to the heights of a dominant team with a player like Paul guiding them, but they are in the middle of it, year in and year out. Paul is still getting his 17 points and 10 assists. Like Williams, Paul has had injuries. He has had knee injuries and groin injuries but through it all he’s never forgotten he is one of the baddest point guards in the NBA.
Deron Williams though is invisible, not the same man, not even close.
When Williams is playing a very inexperienced and often struggling but still talented player in D’angelo Russell the contrast it stark enough to trigger the brain. It makes you think once upon a time that was him, Russell was Williams. Once upon a time Deron Williams had his entire future ahead of him. So much was expected of the 3rd pick in the 2005 draft, the sure thing, the once better than Chris Paul player. So much was not delivered.
He burned his way through two franchises and three coaches and a lot of playoff agony to get here, not to mention a bunch of ankle injuries. Deron Williams willingly returned to the center, the root of the tree, where he started it all. No more cruelty in the headlines, no more New York sarcasm or plain out mean jokes. Here, he is surrounded by acceptance and appreciation. Home is like that, is special, there is forgiving and forgetting.
Here, it doesn’t matter that Deron Williams was supposed to be in the Hall of Fame. No one holds it against him that he crashed his legacy against a brick wall. Or that he will never meet the expectations of his talent. All that matter is he is back, in Dallas once again.
Different is not better. Different can be worse. Or, it can just be different.