Both played in smaller markets with almost star power forwards and decent centers (Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur in Utah with Williams; David West and Tyson Chandler in New Orleans with Paul) and little else.
Both were consistent 20-point scorers and 10-assist point guards who took their teams to the playoffs without superstar teammates.
It was easy to see why they were the de facto top two in the discussion.
For a while, there was even a contingent who argued Williams was the best in the NBA. He still holds a career 14-5 record against Paul, and has outshot him from the field and three-point range in their 19 contests.
But in 2013, there aren't nearly as many fans or analysts rallying behind Williams.
In the past few years, Williams was traded from a perennial playoff team in the Western Conference to the team playing second fiddle in New York, and a budding crop of other extremely talented point guards started stealing headlines for themselves.
Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving are at the head of the generation moving D-Will to the edge of the NBA's top-tier point guards. Since Williams left Utah, Rose has won the NBA MVP, Curry broke the single-season record for hitting three-pointers and Irving does stuff like this.
Though the younger guns look primed to take over the future of the league, Williams and Brooklyn Nets billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov may not be ready to step aside.
It's not difficult for me to imagine Prokhorov jamming to a Russian translation of Jermaine Dupri's "Money ain't a thing." He is pouring an unprecedented amount of dough into his franchise over the next couple of years and surrounding Williams with the best supporting cast with which he has ever played.
After adding Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko this offseason, the Nets will be handed a bill from the league for $75 million. It will be the most money that any team has ever paid in luxury taxes. The New York Times' Howard Beck reported that, "$75 million is more than double the total taxes paid by all 30 teams combined in the 2011-12 season."
With Pierce and Garnett on the wrong side of 35 and Joe Johnson (another massive contract the Nets acquired under Prokhorov) on the wrong side of 30, the über-expensive Nets' title window may already be closing. An NBA championship is about the only thing that could make a payroll of nearly $200 million in salaries and taxes combined worthwhile.
That pressure to win will settle on each of the new Nets in one way or another, but the majority of the burden will be on the point guard's shoulders.
Whatever the last few years did to his standing among the league's best point guards, Williams is still the top player on his team. In the 2013-14 season, he'll be flanked by the best offensive options he's ever had to distribute the ball.
Start with the immediate upgrades at both forward positions. Pierce and Garnett are future Hall of Famers who were one and two in both scoring and rebounding for a playoff team last year. Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans are borderline starters.
It's obvious to most that Pierce is better than Wallace, but the size of the gap may surprise you.
Pierce was twice as efficient, a significantly more consistent shooter from all over the court (true shooting percentage factors in three-point range), a slightly better rebounder and twice as good at distributing the ball.
For the purposes of this piece, let's focus on the upgrade in scoring and playmaking.
Imagine for a moment that you're an NBA point guard with the ability to get to the rim and draw help on defenders. What sounds like the better option? Trying to finish the play yourself or kicking the ball to an open or slashing Gerald Wallace, who shot less than 40 percent from the field last year?
Option No. 2 from the above scenario sounds a lot better when you replace Wallace with Pierce.
Pierce will impact Williams' assist totals simply by being available. He may create a lot of his own shots, but he also demonstrated a knack for moving without the ball and converting open looks made possible for him by Rajon Rondo in Boston.
As a playmaker, Pierce showed his worth last year after Rondo went down with a season-ending injury. After the All-Star break, he averaged nearly six assists a game. Like Williams, Pierce can draw more defenders than just his own. Unlike Brooklyn's other wing Joe Johnson, Pierce is willing to pass out of tough spots. Williams might get a bucket or two a game playing off Pierce.
The difference in offense at the other forward position is even greater. I'll let you take a wild guess which shot chart belongs to Kevin Garnett and which one belongs to Reggie Evans:
Again, it's not that Garnett is a better option to pass the ball to than Evans. It's that he is actually an option, and a very good one, even though he's 37.
NBA.com's shot charts light up green when a player shoots better than the league average from an area. As you can see, Garnett is still one of the best midrange shooters in the league. There are more drive, draw and kick opportunities for Williams.
Garnett won't always be on the floor for offense because Evans is still one of the best rebounders in the NBA and led the team in that category last year, but Brooklyn added depth that will allow for its offensive weapons to be on the floor at all times.
Take Terry, for example. He may have had a down year in Boston last season, but he's still a career 38 percent three-point shooter and fourth all-time in baskets from out there while Pierce is fifth. Andray Blatche averaged double-figures off the bench for Brooklyn and Kirilenko averaged over 12 points for Minnesota last year.
It's easy to demonstrate that Williams will be surrounded by capable scorers whenever he's on the floor, and I barely mentioned returning shooting guard Joe Johnson (who hit 38 percent of his threes last year) along with Williams' favorite target in Brooklyn, center Brook Lopez.
People like to focus on Lopez's shortcomings as a rebounder, which is fair until it comes at the expense of recognizing the impact he has in the other two-thirds of the game, offense and defense.
In a league that has shifted away from traditional centers over the last 10-15 years, Lopez is now a rare breed—a seven-footer with touch and good old-fashioned post moves around the rim.
With a wealth of perimeter shooters like Pierce, Garnett, Terry and Johnson on the roster, Lopez should have plenty of space with which to operate on the block after receiving post entries from D-Will.
Speaking of spacing, how do teams defend Brooklyn's pick-and-roll in 2013-14? If Williams gets a high screen from Lopez while the starters are in, he's got at least six options: drive, pull up, dish to a diving Lopez, kick out to Pierce or Johnson on the perimeter or find Garnett in the short corner or high post.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. And we'll have to see the players actually on the court in real-game situations to know what kind of chemistry they might have.
The men tasked with fitting all these pieces together is first-year (and first-time) head coach Jason Kidd, and of course, Williams.
Concerning Coach Kidd, it will be tough, but he won't be alone. Brooklyn hired Lawrence Frank, who coached Kidd in New Jersey during some of the future Hall of Famer's best assist years, to be one of his assistants.
It will help to have a team full of veterans as well. Pierce and Garnett have already shown they can humble themselves for the greater cause of the team. They won a title in Boston the first year the "Big Three" were together there. Terry and Kidd won a championship together in Dallas.
Concerning Williams, his success will depend largely on what kind of role he chooses for himself. If he can get some solid mentoring from Kidd and mold his game after the way his new coach played during the prime of his career, he could have an MVP-caliber season. It would be the kind of season that would thrust him back into the conversation of the NBA's best point guard.
D-Will has shown he has the ability to be a great leader and distributor (especially when he was in Utah), and now he finally has some teammates upon whom he can rely.
Can Deron Williams Be the Best Point Guard in the NBA?
There will still be times when he needs to take over. That's just what you have to do when you're the best player on your team, but those times should occur less frequently this season.
With all the additional offense in Brooklyn, I expect Williams' scoring average to dip just a bit to around 17 or 18 points a game, and his assists average to approach 12.
Combine those numbers with a 50- to 55-win season, and Paul may find himself once again trailing the player selected one pick before him in the 2005 NBA draft.