NEW YORK — On June 28, 2005, two identically talented point guards were separated by one spot in the NBA draft. Despite their different upbringings, one in Salt Lake City, the other in New Orleans, they shared some invaluable traits: They were both born to assist—and to shoot and score and dominate their position.
Paul and Williams rose together, became All-Stars and Olympians together and for a time competed for the imaginary title of Best Point Guard on Earth.
Then their paths diverged, radically—Paul soaring into MVP territory while Williams slipped into a downward spiral, his profile diminished by injuries, discontent, a trade to a then-feckless Nets team and more injuries.
But for a time Thursday night, the gap dissipated and the rivalry reemerged.
Williams crossed over Paul, sent him flying in the wrong direction and drained a three-pointer. Paul answered with a baseline jumper over Williams. Williams fired back with another three-pointer. Paul crossed over Williams, stepped back and hit a short jumper. Williams crossed over Paul and burst into the lane for a runner as the “Broook-lyn” chants descended over them.
When the duel was over, the Nets had a 102-93 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, and Williams had a 15-5 record against his longtime friend.
“It’s a totally different team with D-Will over there,” Paul said. “He looks healthy, he’s playing.”
The Nets’ personality and their expectations were redefined by the trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But team officials have always known their fate would rest with Williams—his health, his playmaking, his bravado.
“They go as he goes,” Paul affirmed, after watching Williams collect 15 points, five rebounds and four assists in just 27 minutes. Paul had 20 points and two assists, but Williams owned this night.
“It’s great going against him,” Williams said. “He’s one of the best point guards in this game, one of the best players in this league, and so it’s a challenge every time I step on the court against him.”
For the first time this season, the Nets (8-14) have reason for optimism, with a season-best three-game winning streak and a thriving Williams running the show again after missing nine games with an ankle injury.
Williams returned Tuesday and promptly lit up the Boston Celtics for 25 points and seven assists, allowing Pierce and Garnett to enjoy a 104-96 victory over their former team. On Thursday, they enjoyed a victory over their former coach, Doc Rivers, whose new team is considered a title contender in the West.
Garnett had a one-word answer for the Nets’ sudden reversal of fortunes, following a stretch in which they lost nine of 11 games, many by embarrassing margins.
“Deron,” Garnett said. “Deron’s play is just dictating how we’re coming out and starting games. He’s pushing the pace, he’s directing, he’s leading. He’s being Deron Williams. I really feel like that’s the difference.”
Pierce said, “We look like a whole different team now with him out there.”
Skeptics, including disillusioned Nets fans, have rightly wondered whether this Williams would ever return, and whether this franchise had tied itself—via a five-year, $100 million contract—to the wrong player.
A wrist surgery ruined Williams’ first half-season with the Nets (then in New Jersey), in 2011. His second season was ruined by a horrid roster, more injuries and perhaps the continuing effects of that wrist injury. Last season, it was chronic ankle problems and an untimely weight gain prior to the season.
The Nets won 49 games anyway, but it was not until after the All-Star break, after Williams lost about 18 pounds through a “juice cleanse,” that the old Deron Williams returned: spry, quick, explosive, assertive, confident.
Over the season’s final 28 games, Williams averaged 22.9 points and 8.0 assists, while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 42 percent from the arc. Those are elite numbers, All-Star numbers, rival-to-Chris Paul kind of numbers.
Paul averaged 16.9 points and 9.7 assists last season, made first-team All-NBA for the second straight season and finished fourth in the MVP voting. Williams was left off the All-Star team for the first time in four years, certifying his fall from grace.
The two point guards arrived in the NBA as virtual equals, Williams going third overall to the Utah Jazz and Paul fourth to the New Orleans Hornets. They differed in style—Williams was taller (by three inches), stronger and the better shooter, while Paul was quicker and the more clever passer—but both were considered can’t-miss stars.
Paul won Rookie of the Year on a near-unanimous vote. But for the next few years, scouts and commentators fiercely debated who was the better point guard, a theme that became so prevalent that both Paul and Williams quickly grew annoyed at the topic, which was revisited each time they played one another.
“Right now I would rank Williams ahead of Paul,” an anonymous scout told Sports Illustrated in March 2007. “Williams is always pushing the ball back at you, he takes the big shots in crunch time, and he's more versatile, especially as a scorer. Williams shoots the three, which is something Paul doesn't do. Plus, Williams (at 6'3", 210 pounds) is bigger and more physical than Paul (6 feet, 175). Utah has had injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer, but the team hasn't folded. It's because Williams has become their rock.”
By 2008, Paul was ranked as the NBA’s top point guard by NBA general managers, in their annual survey, with 89 percent of the vote. Williams won the poll in 2010, with 50 percent of the vote, before falling into the abyss.
Williams did not even crack the poll in 2011, 2012 or 2013. A Sports Illustrated ranking last spring listed Williams as the NBA’s eighth-best point guard, behind Paul, Parker, Westbrook, Rose, Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo and Stephen Curry.
Healthy at last, surrounded by talented veterans, comfortable in his environment, Williams, steadier and wiser at age 29, may finally be ready to fulfill his promise and reclaim his lofty status.
Paul has a firm grip on No. 1 for now, but if the debate begins anew, Williams will at least have forced his way back into the discussion.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.