Deron Williams Returns But Was He Really Here?

Deron Williams will be a stranger tonight. He will wear the uniform of the Dallas Mavericks. He will walk into Barclays with a beard that covers his face but not his Brooklyn wounds; he didn’t make it here. He failed. He was given up on. He was maligned and vilified in the press. No amount of covering up with facial hair or jersey change will change the truth of falling from grace.

But, Williams will have a sort of sly grin as he takes the court. Yes, the Nets fired him, so to speak. But his new team, the one of his birth, the Mavericks, are in the playoff chase. They are not a great team by any standard of measurement but they are not a bad team either. They are treading water in the underachieving Western Conference which means they are in NBA no-man’s land, not bad enough to improve through the draft but not good enough to get a top four seed. For Williams, that’s good enough because no one is expecting him to be something he is not. He doesn’t have to lie anymore.

Williams isn’t Chris Paul. He isn’t Russell Westbrook. He isn’t Tony Parker. His innate competitive edge hovers around 70, not 100 plus. He’s good playing for Dallas with zero expectations and minimal critique. When he leaves Brooklyn tonight, Deron Williams will be happier for it.

Deron Williams played last night against the Toronto Raptors. It was a game the Mavericks lost amidst the hype of Dirk Nowitizki passing Shaq on the All-Time scoring list. (Nowitzki came up 10 points short). Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was so incensed by his team’s effort, he went to the I’m-going-to-trade-some-people card if the Mavs don’t attack their road games with more energy. Was he talking about Williams?

Last night’s box score was one of the worst for Williams who is having a decent year (14.8 points, 5.8 assists). He had 7 points and 6 assists in 23 minutes. In the road game before Toronto, Williams had 8 points and 6 assists. A disturbing Maverick trend, but one the Nets are so familiar with is tilting the axis.

In Williams last three games, against the Pacers, Grizzlies and Raptors, he is shooting 32% and 29% from three, the type of numbers that made the Nets want to exile him. Of course, the Nets had other reasons too. He wasn’t good in the locker room. He didn’t get along with the coach. He couldn’t handle the pressure of New York.

The irony in all of it was that Deron Williams was supposed to be a Hall of Famer. He was supposed to be on the level with Chris Paul. When he was at Utah, he had dominant years with assist percentages hovering near 50%, and 18 and 19 points per game averages. He was the Jazz offensive leader, scoring in the paint, stepping back behind the line and drilling jumpers, dishing dimes. He was an Olympian.

After his first full season in Brooklyn, everything changed but the contract didn’t and Williams was always viewed through this prism, a max player who got his money and then didn’t deliver. Intrinsically, it’s not who he was. He didn’t have the intangible leadership qualities that define max players and some nights, as Rick Carlisle may be noticing, he played with zero interest and effort. More importantly, Williams didn’t have the psyche which allowed him to compartmentalize and separate the money from the performance. It got to him, this concept of your worth being what you are paid, and what you are paid must stand up to what your on-court performance is.

It’s easy to go back in time once the present has revealed the mistakes but Jerry Sloan had his issues with Deron Williams for a reason. And so did Avery Johnson. Lionel Hollins fell into the trap as well. It doesn’t say a whole helluva lot because a lot of strong-willed talented players have coaching issues. But Deron Williams didn’t produce when he was on the floor, he didn’t lead. The Nets were sold damaged goods in Williams. They received 65% of who he was at his height. It quickly devolved from there.

Williams was drafted one pick before Chris Paul and although a draft is only a beauty contest where guessing is the rule of the day, the careers of Paul and Williams have always been side by side mirror images. You explain one by examining the other.

Chris Paul has never been to a conference final and he owns up to that bit of failure. But in always coming up short, Paul gave everything in leadership and in on-court dramatics and heroism, and in blood. Deron Williams, not so much. Accountability has never been a strength. He could never get the mental game right. Or maybe, just maybe, the Sloan system in Utah William thrived in was singular. He was going to struggle everywhere else.

Deron Williams recently admitted his experience with the Nets made him want to quit basketball altogether. It says something about Williams ability to manage and balance adversity. He’s not the first NBA player to go through tough times. Furthermore, who wants a max player willing to quit? Fortitude and consistency should have been floating around in his brain. Quitting should never have been an option but like a lot of the Deron Williams narrative, he was never what you thought he was. He was never mentally tough, never a warrior.

“New York is not for everybody”, he recently said.

What he meant is that the constant judgment and then vilification once you cannot fulfill promises based on a $100 million dollar contract is only for the stubborn and willful and hyper-competitive among us. The Brooklyn Nets found out the hard way Williams is not that kind of human.

Sports media glorification is front loaded. It gives the benefit of the doubt to one type of player but not all NBA athletes revere winning at the cost of everything else. All aren’t competitors, through and through, who willingly take the game and what they do in it as a life or death imprint, a test of will and fortitude and struggle, a manhood challenge. All players aren’t crazy hard, don’t have a win or else mantra.

Winning is good. Being comfortable is better. That is the Deron Williams the Brooklyn Nets didn’t understand. Or know. Until it was too late.

photo via llananba