The late ‘90s was an indelible time for me. I was ignorant to what was going on politically or socially. I knew Bill Clinton was the President but had no idea what the big deal was with that blue dress. The only thing I was concerned about was that the NBA was an amalgamation of some of the best players to have ever played in the league, and that my Utah Jazz were on top.
The magic of the Utah Jazz was not defined by John Stockton’s nine assist-leader titles or Karl Malone’s two MVP awards. Even the Jazz’s two trips to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 can’t even begin to describe what made that Jazz team so special to me. The real reason is because it’s the first time I ever remember feeling passionate about something. And it was just a coincidence that this also happened to be the connection my father and I needed. Our relationship has grown complicated and complex over time, but this is when I remember our father-daughter bond at its purest. The times watching Malone and Stockton with my dad are some of my happiest childhood memories.
So when Malone split for the Los Angeles Lakers in search for a championship and Stockton retired in 2003, a part of me ached more than the typical ardent Jazz fan. Even though my obsession with the NBA had waned by that time, it hurt to see the Jazz play without those guys. Was it possible for Utah to recapture any of that magic again?
Deron Williams gave Jazz fans a reason to think so. Williams was drafted third out of the University of Illinois in the 2005 NBA draft and paired with Carlos Boozer, Jazz fans thought they were seeing Stockton-to-Malone 2.0. After four years of failing to make the playoffs, Utah finally had reason to believe it could find its way back to the upper echelon of the NBA. A trip to the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 cemented that conviction. That season, Williams averaged 16.2 points, 9.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds a game. He was considered one of the best two point guards in the league. The other: Chris Paul.
Nearly seven years later, that question has turned into a rhetorical one in that it needs no answer. It is so obvious that Paul’s game and Williams’ game are oceans apart. Paul has led his Clippers team to a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Semfinals. Paul made his series debut in Game 3 after sitting out the first two to nurse a strained hamstring injury. Before that, his play was nothing short of brilliant. In the series against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, Paul averaged 22.7 points, 7.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds. Despite playing on just one good leg for most of Game 7, Paul delivered the heroics when his team needed it, sinking a game-winning shot over Tim Duncan with one second remaining.
Paul does what Williams was supposed to do in Brooklyn. Williams’ move from Utah to Brooklyn seemed to mark the start of his decline. It’s not like he didn’t have quality players around him. In 2013, the Nets acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry in a trade with the Boston Celtics. When that happened, team owner Mikhail Prokhorov thought he had finally found the right mix of veteran players and young stars to be real contenders in the East. This year, Williams had the likes of Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson around him, but it’s hard to say whether having him as the team’s point guard has made the Nets any better. Williams isn’t a facilitator the same way Paul is. He isn’t even the same player that he was in Utah, certainly a litany of injuries hasn’t helped. In his career with the Jazz, Williams averaged 17.3 points and 9.1 assists a game. He was the kind of player to build a franchise around. But even aside from injuries, something didn’t transfer to Brooklyn when Williams moved to the Nets.
“Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate,” Paul Pierce said in an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan last month. “But I felt once we got there, that’s not what he wanted to be. He just didn’t want that. I think a lot of the pressure got to him sometimes. This was his first time in the national spotlight. The media in Utah is not the same as the media in New York…I think it really affected him.”
Pierce has a point. I was in Utah covering high school and college sports for The Salt Lake Tribune during the height of Williams’ career. I helped cover the Jazz’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2007. The electricity that buzzed through EnergySolutions Arena (the former Delta Center) — the same kind I experienced through a TV screen with my dad at my side when I was a little girl — was back again. Utahns believed Williams would lead them back to their former glory days, and the media hardly criticized him. The spotlight he experienced in Utah was always a benevolent one. The pressure to do the same in New York seemed to be just too much for Williams.
It’s almost hard to believe there was a time when Deron Williams was widely considered the better point guard, his playoff success in Utah a big reason for that. But, the career trajectories of Williams and Paul have diverged sharply since, and it has never been more apparent than this year. While Paul has led his franchise to a commanding lead over Houston in the West, Williams sputtered into the off-season. Even though he had an impressive 35-point performance in a 120-115 overtime win over the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in Game 4, Williams had just five points on 2-of-15 shooting in Games 2 and 3 and was benched for the entire fourth quarter in the latter game.
Williams couldn’t repeat the same kind of heroics in Game 6 to extend the series. He scored 13 points and his four assists were negated by his four turnovers. There is something ironic about seeing Williams put up mediocre stats while his former Utah teammates, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, produce the kind of numbers the Nets were hoping Williams could. Millsap and Korver have flourished since leaving the Jazz. They scored a combined 45 points in the Hawks’ 111-87 win in Game 6.
Will Deron Williams ever get back to the level that Chris Paul is on now? Is it possible for him to become an elite guard in the NBA again? Probably not, Williams is 30 (as is Paul). And the late 20’s to early 30’s seem to be the peak intersection of success for great NBA point guards, when their athletic gifts, perhaps encroaching a downward turn, meet the veteran savvy of close to a decade of experience running a team. Steve Nash won two MVPs at the ages 32-33, Isiah Thomas back-to-back championships at 28-29, while John Stockton earned his only two All-NBA First Team nods at 32-33, just to name a few.
Williams seems to have fallen irretrievably past this intersection already. The injuries have made him look years older, but Chris Paul hasn’t been without his share of dings. Paul has just seemed to bounce back unfettered each time. Both players started on small market teams, then moved on to bigger stages, Williams to the East, Paul to the West. But only Paul has thrived. The bright lights of LA have been a natural fit. Paul is a born spokesperson, whether it be for State Farm or the NBA Players’ Association. Deron Williams, we’ve learned, is just not that guy.
It’s worth asking if Williams ever really wanted the spotlight, at least in the way New York presents it, harsh and overbearing. Or would he have been better suited staying in a smaller market like his predecessor John Stockton, a man who quietly broke assist records without this kind of overexposure? Deron Williams gave us a brief glance of what that might have looked like years ago, which only makes it that much harder to watch the player he has become now.