EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Billy King slumped into a seat at the round table in his office, took a long gaze toward the grease board hanging on the wall and sighed. "I still have to look to see that it says 'Deron Williams.' "(notes) For months, the New Jersey Nets' general manager had relentlessly pursued Carmelo Anthony(notes) to move his name out of the board's column of 2011 free agents and over with the list of Nets names and salaries.
"I always thought that if I got [Anthony], it would lead to my point guard," King said this week in his office. "And I've always leaned to [Williams] a little more than the other one [Chris Paul(notes)] that people were talking about."
King and assistant GM Bobby Marks had concocted hundreds of multiteam trade possibilities on the walls, forever searching for a scenario in which talks between the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets fell apart and the Nets could undercut the Knicks for Anthony. When the Knicks finally cut a deal with the Nuggets, it wouldn't be long until one of King's closest league friends, Utah Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor, called with condolences on losing out with 'Melo.
Well, they started to talk about deals. Andrei Kirilenko(notes)? Devin Harris(notes)? They tossed out possibilities but nothing fit. And then King raised Williams' name with a laugh, and O'Connor didn't dismiss the idea. Soon, they were talking seriously. Within 24 hours, New Jersey had a transformational point guard on the grease board and the floor and &ndash ultimately, the Nets hope &ndash on the recruiting trail.
Along with Rod Thorn's deal for Jason Kidd(notes) in 2001, this has the chance to be one of the most important trades in the franchise's history. And maybe King has set in motion the recruitment of Dwight Howard(notes) to Brooklyn in 2012.
Convincing Williams to sign a contract extension in the summer of 2011 could go a long way toward selling Howard on joining him a year later, when the Nets are expected to move into the freshly minted Barclays Center. The Nets have $21 million in salary-cap space slotted for the summer of 2012, and a talented, young center in Brook Lopez(notes) to offer in a potential sign-and-trade deal with the Orlando Magic.
For the Nets to have even a puncher's chance at Howard, they must be on schedule to move out of Newark for the 2012-13 season. Howard needs to see a shiny new edifice to call his own, and he needs Williams committed to the cause. Even that guarantees nothing except getting the Nets into the derby. Several teams – including the Magic and Dallas Mavericks – are determined to package Howard and Williams together as well.
Once Williams sees the new collective-bargaining agreement, he'll have a clearer idea of how much it could cost him to leave as a free agent in '12. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has briefly outlined his vision to Williams and told him that they would talk in greater detail soon. Still, the message is unmistakable to him: Whatever you want here, it's yours.
"When the owner says he's going to spend money and put people around you, that's definitely appealing," Williams said.
The Nets are pitching an open canvas to Williams: From the roster to the new arena, design it as you wish.
"With Deron, we can ask, 'Who do you want to add in '11 or '12?' " King said. "I can't think a lot of guys of his caliber were traded to a team that's going into a new building. So when we start showing him locker-room plans, he may say, 'Have you guys thought about doing this?' Or 'have you guys thought about doing this in the new practice site because I wished we would've had that in Utah.' "
The Nets need to be careful with Williams. Already, they're moving fast to push him as the franchise's face. With the Nets’ CEO breathlessly declaring in a release that they're "activating" Williams in Newark and soon Brooklyn as the centerpiece of marketing campaigns, they had better be careful not to overly heighten expectations with him. Williams has had 47 assists in three games and yet the Nets are still winless with him. One basketball official who has worked closely with Williams has a warning for the Nets: Be careful with D-Will because less may be more with him.
"He's not a Hollywood guy," the official said. "This isn't 'Melo. He's a private person. He's not going to love the red carpet. He'll act like he loves it, go along, but that's not necessarily what he wants. I just hope they don't try to ask him to compete with Amar'e [Stoudemire] and 'Melo from a marketing end. … He wants to win and he'll do anything to win &ndash that's his priority."
The Nets will study Williams closely, getting a feel for his wants and needs, but King understands most of all that his job is to surround him with talent. "Winning trumps everything," Williams said. "I don't care if you put me in North Dakota."
If the Nets end up with Williams and Howard, they'll take them against any duo in the sport. For all the angst over Anthony, the Nets ended up with a complete basketball player in Williams. He touches games in every way – passing and defending, scoring and rebounding. King considers all the frustration over the Anthony talks, and perhaps it was some kind of penance – a prelude – to the brief, painless process to acquire Williams.
"I don't know how many times I told [Denver GM] Masai [Ujiri], 'I'm done; I'm out,' " King said. "I'm yelling at him, I'm hanging up on him. I'm sending crazy emails at six in the morning. 'I'm out. Don't call me.' And I wouldn't call him for a week. … And then a text would come … "
And King would be right back to the big board in his office, desperate to find a way to get 'Melo in '11 and his point guard in '12. Only, they ended up with Williams on a shorter contract. And now, the Nets have less than a season and a half to make something happen with him.
For now, they're showing Williams that he's no longer limited to the constraints of a structured, staid Jazz franchise. Make no mistake: The Jazz won. They won a lot of games. Only now, Williams gets to take the Nets out of the shadows of Newark and into a bold move to Brooklyn. He gets a chance to recruit a big, big franchise star to come with him in 2012. As much as anything, it's a wide-open canvas on which a point guard can create.
"[Players] can now have a conversation with Deron," King said. "We've got a team that's going to be doing this: Deron, Mikhail, Avery [Johnson], Jay-Z, Brook. There's a group that's going to do this – like Dwyane Wade(notes) in Miami. Pat Riley and [Heat owner] Micky Arison didn't just get LeBron and Chris Bosh(notes) to come there. I'm sure Dwyane Wade spent a lot of time to get them down there. I'm sure Amar'e – whether he denies it or not – spent a lot of time talking to Carmelo to come join him."
Now, it's Deron Williams' and New Jersey's turn. And yet, before Williams can sell everyone else, the Nets need to sell him.