Dallas Mavericks point guard Deron Williams followed through on plans to opt for free agency this summer, joining an eager free agent class expecting to be showered with unprecedented contracts as the NBA salary cap jumps to $94 million.
Normally, declining a player option is a sign that a player is unhappy in his current situation. This summer, however, is abnormal, as teams are suddenly flush with about $25 million more to spend on their teams. That means every player with an opt-out clause has tremendous incentive to take advantage, Williams being no different.
Williams will turn 32 Sunday, days before he hits the market. He's a point guard who rose to the top of the league at that position, only to fall off when his teams couldn't get over the hill. He reportedly acted as a wedge to drive out longtime Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan, then he was traded to the New Jersey Nets, who moved to Brooklyn, gave him a fat contract, and paired him with an even fatter contract named Joe Johnson.
Williams hated Brooklyn. The Nets brought in over-the-hill veterans Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce (in exchange for their future) as well as Jason Kidd, who made an unprecedentedly quick turnaround from playing to coaching. Kidd and Williams never vibed, and Williams suffered nagging ankle injuries galore. The Nets last summer bought a miserable Williams out of his contract's final two years and set him free. He landed gracefully in Dallas, who needed a point guard after losing Monta Ellis and (getting rid of) Rajon Rondo. Dallas is a hometown team of sorts for Williams, who grew up in The Colony, Texas, before coming to Champaign.
Williams is looking for the last big-money deal of his career, and possibly his last contract, unless he wants to linger on cheap one-year deals hunting for a championship.
The most likely outcome of this foray into free agency is that Williams stays home. Williams turned down $5.6 million for the upcoming season, and he's definitely worth way more than that under a $94 million cap. Look for him to pull in $7.5 to $10 million a season. The Mavericks have always been major players in free agency, and look for that to continue. The only point guard out there definitely superior to Williams is Mike Conley, so if Dallas lands him, the equation could change for Williams, who likely still wants to start.
Other than some vague ties between the Illini and the city of Chicago, there isn't a whole lot pulling Williams in here. The only thought is that Chicago definitely does need a point guard unless it wants to trot out Jose Calderon to start the post-Rose era. Williams goes directly against Gar Forman's stated mission of getting the team younger and more athletic, but Forman's been known to contradict himself. Williams could be a mentor of sorts for Jerian Grant and Denzel Valentine, but ultimately there should be better fits for both parties.
This has the distinction of being the worst fit for Williams among the options I'll list. Hopefully, inside the Williams camp, this isn't really an option. But as Rajon Rondo hits free agency, the Kings don't seem awfully inclined to keep him. The nightmare scenario here is Dallas signing Conley, Memphis initiating a rebuild, and Deron being stuck with Sacramento as one of his few offers to start. If they show him big money, they could offer to pair him with DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and a thicket of young assets. This team would not make the playoffs by any means, but you can imagine the conversation pretending that it would.
Is the Mike Conley era over? The last six or so years in Memphis have been retread after retread, to diminishing returns. As the combination of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol not only becomes older but also becomes more symbolic of an antiquated style of play, there is increasing incentive for Memphis to abandon the Grit N Grind core in favor of starting anew, lest they continue the depressing trend of always being there in April and gone by the end of May. If Conley leaves and the Grizzlies seek a patch to give it another year, then Williams is a likely candidate. Williams has never been known for defense, so the fit would be shaky.
This depends pretty much on how Daryl Morey feels about Williams. The Rockets definitely need a point guard, and have resisted time and again the temptation to pair Rondo with Dwight Howard. Howard looks to be heading into free agency, which allows Houston to adopt more of a small-ball identity, which Morey likely welcomes. Williams is good enough to allow franchise centerpiece James Harden to play off the ball, and a good enough shooter to concede ball-handling responsibilities to Harden for stretches. Defense isn't a huge factor in Houston obviously, and it makes sense after the Ty Lawson experiment to go after someone a little less ball-dominant. This would allow Williams to stay close to home in Texas, and head coach Mike D'Antoni employs a quick, fun system in which Williams could thrive. D'Antoni also saw Williams's best years up close when he coached in Phoenix. There's also the fact that Houston and Dallas love stealing free agents from one another.
Ultimately, the most likely scenario here is an open and shut return to Dallas. Williams found his love of basketball again there, and he's likely to not want to risk going somewhere he regrets. Of course, we're hitting a free agency period that's going to shake up the landscape of the NBA, and anything could happen. Hopefully wherever he goes, he continues bouncing back and establishing himself as a reliable veteran point guard and maintains status as a starter in the league. He and Meyers Leonard bear the responsibility of keeping the Illini torch in the NBA until Malcolm Hill has a dominant season and gets drafted next year. Knock on wood.