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March 2, 2017
BOSTON — Right down to his skill set, pedigree and experience, Deron Williams is the exact type of player LeBron James has begged the Cleveland Cavaliers to acquire: a reliable playmaker who puts James’ mind at ease, lessens his load and reduces his minutes.
When you factor in the names James dropped during his infamous postgame vent session in January—guys like Ray Felton and Michael Beasley—Williams is more than James requested. Now 32 years old but still good enough to start for many teams, Williams fills a gaping hole on Cleveland’s roster.
“He’s gonna be our backup PG and he’s gonna run the show,” James said Wednesday morning at Cavaliers shootaround. “We have a two-man group with Ky and D-Will now, and those guys are gonna run the show and…put guys in position to be successful.”
Cleveland also recently added combo forward (and former No. 2 pick) Derrick Williams and center Andrew Bogut (a former No. 1 selection) to its roster. The team is suddenly deeper, more talented and multi-dimensional than it was last season when it won the NBA title.
But Deron Williams is the jewel of the bunch. He made his debut Wednesday night—his first live action since Feb. 15—against the Boston Celtics, tallying four points, two assists and two rebounds in 24 minutes. With seven seconds to go and the Cavs down two, Williams missed a corner three after the Celtics doubled LeBron on the right wing. Cleveland lost 103-99.
“D-Will hadn’t played in two and half weeks. It was a great first game for him, just trying to get his legs back up underneath him,” James said after the game. “But he’s gonna need a couple weeks. I think he exceeded…he told me he was gonna play 10-12 minutes, he ended up playing 23 minutes, so we kind of fast-tracked his legs. He’s gonna be in the ice tub for the next day and a half.”
From 2008-2010, he was the only player in the entire NBA who tallied at least 4,000 points and 2,300 assists, per Basketball-Reference. He was unstoppable through his mid-20s, a mid-range assassin who thrived as an iso-scorer and knew how to put teammates in opportunistic situations.
There were impressive campaigns after Utah traded him to New Jersey, but that deal, coupled with nagging injuries to his wrist and ankles, soured his image and diminished his on-court performance. Williams’ third act in Dallas was unspectacular but solid. Today, he’s overqualified for the role Cleveland needs him to fill.
But with championship aspirations on everyone’s mind, neither he nor his new team care about reduced shots or the amount of time he’s projected to spend on the bench.
“It’s not like I came in here expecting to start,” Williams said. “It’s not like they told me I was gonna start, so I don’t see it being a problem.“
Cleveland was desperate for someone with Williams’ level-headed expertise. Last week, the only true point guard behind Kyrie Irving was rookie Kay Felder, a 5’9″ southpaw who is shooting below 40 percent from the floor.
The Cavaliers have been outscored by 3.3 points per 100 possessions in the 136 minutes Felder has shared the court with LeBron, per Basketball-Reference.com. Having some experience off the bench will help.
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“When we get 10-, 12-point leads, to be able to bring a veteran point guard into the game and to be able to sustain the leads and run the right sets, what we’re looking for, when to pick the speed up, when to slow it down,” coach Ty Lue said at shootaround. “Just having him around is gonna be big for us.”
But Williams is capable of so much more than operational management. He started 40 games for the Dallas Mavericks this season and averaged 13.1 points and 6.9 assists (his most in four years) per night.
According to Synergy Sports, there are 43 players who’ve logged at least 500 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Williams is more efficient than everyone, averaging 1.13 points per possession.
He’s more than a trustworthy backup; he’s a bonafide weapon. And it’s reasonable to expect even better things on a per-minute basis thanks to all the talent and clearly defined roles on Cleveland’s roster. Not to mention, this gives Williams his best shot at a title since his 2006-07 Jazz lost in the Western Conference Finals (4-1) to the eventual-champion San Antonio Spurs.
“I just feel like I can help this team win, and whatever my role is, that will figure itself out over the course of the next couple months, in the regular season and on into the playoffs,” Williams said. “I haven’t really talked about a number of minutes or anything like that, but, just, I know I can help this team win.”
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According to Williams, Cleveland had interest in his services over the summer. Acquiring him now, however, without giving up assets in a trade is a far more desirable route. And even though they’re considered heavy favorites to make it to the Finals, the Cavaliers had to lessen the load on their two best players before the playoffs started in order to repeat as champions.
The easiest way to do that without falling from their perch is to get Williams as comfortable as possible, as quickly as possible.
Assistant coaches Damon Jones and Larry Drew are helping familiarize him with Cleveland’s system, and before his Wednesday night debut against the Boston Celtics, the Cavs loaded up five sets on an iPad for Williams to absorb in his new role as commander of their second unit.
He’ll likely hit big shots, carve up defenses in the pick-and-roll and get the ball moving on LeBron-less units that log an assist on just 50.7 percent of their baskets. But Williams will also have an unseen impact that can’t be analytically measured.
“Last year, in the playoffs, it was primarily LeBron and Kyrie handling the ball, but to ask guys to do that for 82 games, it’s just a lot,” Richard Jefferson told Bleacher Report. “Getting them off the ball, getting them a couple easy buckets, I think that goes a long way in helping guys stay fresh and helping guys handle the wear and tear of the season.
“Now the playbook opens up, because before, LeBron was having to bring the ball up, kick it to the wing and then if it’s a post-up play, he’d have to post up.”
After their loss against Boston—a game in which Williams shared the floor with Irving for eight minutes—Lue spoke about how his new backup point guard has already helped.
“I wanted to get another ball-handler on the floor,” he said. “So we can get Kyrie off the ball, bring Kyrie off screens, move him, and then run into pick-and-rolls so Avery [Bradley] couldn’t just get into him and wear him down. And it worked for us, so that’s the big difference in our team now.”
Sooner than later, Williams will be able to initiate offense with Irving, James and Kevin Love on the court. Defenses will have to worry about defending even more dimensions of an offense that already ranks third in and is scoring over three more points per 100 possessions than it did in James’ first season back, per NBA.com.
“You’re just happy to be on the end of receiving somebody like that,” J.R. Smith told Bleacher Report. “So it helps us, and it hurts a lot of people. Trust me.”
All stats are accurate as of March 2 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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