Wearing a bright red Texas Rangers cap, Deron Williams was impossible to miss as he made his way through the victorious Dallas Mavericks locker room, hugging Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, after Game 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals. Williams had joined the desperate-for-a-star New Jersey Nets in a blockbuster trade only four months earlier but he almost seemed destined to one day play for his hometown team, which would win its first championship two days later in Miami.
Four years later, Williams and the Mavericks have fallen far enough in prestige and relevance that they are coming together at the perfect time for each other. Williams’s game declined so badly that the desperate-to-cut-spending Brooklyn Nets paid roughly $27.5 million for him go away and the Mavericks plummeted into a desperate state to salvage one of the franchise’s more embarrassing offseason sagas.
Williams was a three-time all-star and two-time Olympian once considered on par with Chris Paul before injuries, a sour attitude and an inability to embrace the challenges of playing in New York caused him to plummet from the discussion as one of the league’s best. At times last season, Nets Coach Lionel Hollins didn’t even consider Williams to be the best point guard on his team and started Jarrett Jack instead.
After slaying the super team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with Dirk Nowitzki and a crew of ornery veterans, the Mavericks didn’t bother to make a serious attempt to repeat. Instead, ambitious owner Mark Cuban let many of the core members of that team leave and futility attempted to build his own superstar alliance. The Mavericks whiffed on attracting the best players in free agency in each of the past three summers — including Williams in 2012 _and came up empty in a gamble for Rajon Rondo. Those bold, risky efforts have served only to waste a few of Nowitzki’s final productive seasons.
Dallas thought it was moving toward once again becoming one of the best teams in the Western Conference after supposedly landing DeAndre Jordan on the third day of the free agent recruiting period. But Jordan later reneged on his commitment, leaving the Mavericks at the altar to go back with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Jordan’s reversal was also crushing because it came too late for the Mavericks to start a possibly lengthy rebuild. Dallas had to save face by giving Wesley Matthews a $13 million raise on his free agent deal and making a trade with Milwaukee for center Zaza Pachulia. By adding Williams — whose release by the Nets was announced Saturday and is expected to sign a two-year, $10-million contract with the Dallas once he clears waivers — the Mavericks have addressed their need for a point guard as they seek to find a clear direction with Nowitzki’s career approaching its end.
This roundabout Williams-Mavericks merger has shown the challenges teams face while pursuing a star and the even more difficult burden for players to maintain stardom. Nets owner Mikhail Prohkorov went all-in to build a championship team around Williams. They sacrificed some valuable draft picks, invested in exorbitant salaries and nine-digit luxury tax payments, and finally had to realize that Williams wasn’t worth the price tag or the headache. He only made one all-star appearance for the Nets, none since signing a five-year, $99 million contract three years ago.
Williams’s presence caused more agony than glory and the past four seasons with the Nets and yielded the same results that Dallas experienced over that span — a lottery appearance, two first-round exits and one playoff series win — though it was much more expensive. Brooklyn is now celebrating the savings from a buyout agreement that will allow them to chase another star — Kevin Durant, possibly — or take a completely different approach to team building with nearly $39 million in salary cap space projected for next summer.
The expectations for Williams are much different than when he was a free agent and resisted a pitch from the Mavericks to lead the Nets sojourn through Brooklyn. The kid from The Colony, Texas, is not being asked to be a franchise savior, only a serviceable player on a team that is now too proud to intentionally tank.
Likewise, the Mavericks aren’t being looked upon as a serious contender in the Western Conference anymore — a reality that has been difficult for them to grapple with since winning that title. They provide Williams with an opportunity for career rejuvenation, not a ring. Cuban, perhaps not convinced that Williams was seriously interested in coming to Dallas as a free agent, didn’t even bother showing up for the recruiting his visit. But now Cuban feels the need to have him around so that Williams and the Mavericks can resurrect some of what has been lost since he shared in one of the best moments in franchise history.