It wasn't that long ago that Deron Williams was smack in the argument over who was the NBA's best point guard. This was when Williams was running Jerry Sloan's offense in Utah, with Carlos Boozer as his pick-and-roll partner. For awhile, most of these debates came down to Williams or Chris Paul and since Williams tended to get the upper hand in their head-to-head meetings, it wasn't hard to make a case on his behalf.
The perception of Williams, if not his performance, changed last season when he was traded from the Jazz to the Nets. First, there was the reason for the trade, which reportedly had something to do with becoming disgruntled with Sloan, one of the league's sacred cows. Then out of necessity, Williams became a different player with the Nets. Whereas Williams had more support and played in a well-balanced system in Utah, he was asked to do not only all the playmaking in New Jersey, but also the lion's share of the scoring. His usage rate soared north of 30 percent, while his efficiency tumbled below the league average.
Nevertheless, Williams' skills are as sharp as ever and with just a player option standing between him and the open market, he's on the verge of becoming the most coveted free agent in the land. It's not a slam dunk that Williams will turn down that option, by the way. First of all, it's $17.8 million dollars. That's a lot of certainty to walk away from. Also, he may survey the landscape and decide there will be more and better suitors if he waits another season. His decision on the option is one of the great intrigues of the coming offseason.
For any player weighing his options, there are four basic criteria: 1. Chance to win; 2. Money; 3. On-court fit; and 4. Off-court fit. We can't get inside the head of any player, so when we speculate on where he may be playing next season, we're basing it on what we know about the player, on and off the court, from an observational standpoint. We take that information and imagine how the NBA puzzle is going to re-organize for next season, and see what fits, and what doesn't. The consensus seems to be that Williams will land in one of two locales, but is the consensus correct?
Forget about these teams--he ain't going to any of them: Boston Celtics, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards.
Really, not much explanation is needed here. These teams either already have a point guard, don't have the cap space for a player like Williams or are too early in the rebuilding process to attract a player of his ilk.
Atlanta Hawks: We went through this exercise with Steve Nash last week, but Williams would be a massive upgrade for a team that needs to shake things up. The Hawks don't have the cap space to sign him outright, but they have some sign-and-trade options that might be enticing to both teams. Unfortunately, the new CBA makes the sign-and-trade option less appealing for Williams as it would limit him to a four-year deal.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are an intriguing fit because the addition of Williams, along with a re-signing of restricted free-agent-to-be Roy Hibbert, would put them squarely in the championship conversation. Indiana has some cap flexibility as well. However, for them to land a max player like Williams, they'd have to renounce virtually all of their potential free agents. And even if they did that, they'd still have to do some tap dancing because of Hibbert's cap hold of around $6.6 million. Even with the hit to Frank Vogel's depth, a starting five of Williams, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West and Hibbert might be worth the trouble. Plus West will be off the books by the time George needs to be extended.
Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers' cachet in the league puts them above one star on just about every potential major player move. Obviously, this would have to be a sign-and-trade deal. If the Nets can't retain Williams, would they take back Pau Gasol? Doesn't seem likely. And would Williams want to take less than the max to share the ball with Kobe Bryant?
New York Knicks: Williams said he liked the New York area but for this to happen, it's going to be based on a sign-and-trade involving Carmelo Anthony. Not happening.
Orlando Magic: Who knows what the Magic will look like next season? If Orlando were to hire Sloan and the problems between him and Williams were overstated, then perhaps he'd welcome a reunion with the coach that got so much out of him for so long. He'd surely love to play alongside Dwight Howard but if that happens, it probably won't be in Orlando.
It's not going to happen, but one can see how it might make sense.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers could amnesty Elton Brand to very nearly free up enough space to land Williams, though they have a $6.1 million cap hold on Spencer Hawes to consider. If Philadelphia were to pursue this angle, another Williams could come into play. Lou Williams has an early-termination option for the $5.3 million left on his deal. If he exercises that, the Sixers could renounce their rights to him and have plenty of money to sign Deron and still retain Hawes. With young players like Hawes, Evan Turner, LaVoy Allen and Nikola Vucevic around, not to mention veterans Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala, you're looking at really good base of talent. The Sixers would have to figure out what to do with Jrue Holiday, but that could be managed.
Phoenix Suns: With young pieces like Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Robin Lopez on hand, plus plenty of potential cash to spend, you can't rule out Phoenix as a landing spot for Williams. However, the overall direction of the Suns in unclear, and coming off such a poor season in Jersey, it doesn't seem like Williams would want to roll the dice on this situation.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers have the cap space available, and could team Williams with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum as part of their new big three. Portland is an alluring city, tremendous fan support and a rich NBA tradition. You can't rule them out on any major player. Plus, after Greg Oden, the Blazers deserve a break.
Utah Jazz: Recently, Williams was asked why he was still working out in the New York area, and he mentioned that he doesn't have a home anywhere else except in Salt Lake City, and he doesn't have any furniture in that one. If Williams would agree to a sign-and-trade, the Jazz could package Devin Harris and Paul Millsap to send back to Brooklyn. Or even better, perhaps the trade could be enlarged to include Al Jefferson. Williams could return to a familiar city and team with a nice young core in Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Gordon Hayward. Plus, he'd have a place to ship all his furniture. Yeah, it's a long shot.
It's not hard to craft a scenario where this would work.
Dallas Mavericks: Williams is a Dallas native and the Mavericks are one of the league's best-run franchises with a proven commitment to winning. Dallas could free up enough cap space to sign Williams by amnestying Brendan Haywood and renouncing Jason Terry and Jason Kidd. Kidd might be willing to re-sign anyway and at this stage of his career, he'd be an ideal third guard. Terry would be missed, but Williams would take over his clutch-shooting role. But there is something missing. Dirk Nowitzki and Williams could do great things together but to get to championship level, then a player like Howard would need to round out the top three. And the Mavericks frankly don't have the assets to get that done. Not now. Williams might choose to sign with Dallas anyway. Would he be better off picking up his option for next year to see what unfolds? If so, the Mavericks could potentially clear away all salary obligations beyond Nowitzki, if they can find a taker for Shawn Marion. Then Williams and Howard could be hitting the open market at the same time. They might not able to both sign for the absolute max, but that didn't stop Chris Bosh and LeBron James from joining Dwyane Wade in Miami. If Williams really wants to be part of a new super trio in his hometown, he might well be better off playing out the string in Brooklyn.
Clearly worth a shot.
Marriage made in NBA heaven.
Brooklyn Nets: When you pare down the list, you can't help but agree with the consensus: There really are just a couple of likely landing spots for Williams. Certainly a return to the Nets is one of those possible choices. Williams has claimed to like living in New York, and the Nets can offer him the most years and guaranteed dollars--$25 million more of the latter at the bottom line. However, the Nets have gone 29-62 since trading for Williams. They've got to prove that they can upgrade the roster. Perhaps they get lucky in this week's lottery but if they don't land in the top three, then that pick goes to Portland. If the Nets were to land Anthony Davis, that would be a good starting point. Lottery luck is responsible for many an NBA championship squad. The Nets could re-sign Brook Lopez, whose defensive shortcomings would be much less glaring alongside Davis, and Gerald Wallace. Suddenly, a nice balance starts to emerge, with Lopez serving as the interior scoring option, and Williams sharing the perimeter load with MarShon Brooks and Anthony Morrow. But has Williams already seen too much? Howard supposedly wants to play in Brooklyn, but do the Nets have enough assets to send back to Orlando? It's hard to see that happening but, then again, the Magic's options may be extremely limited.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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