Deron Williams has moved on from his ugly divorce with the Brooklyn Nets, moved into a healthier and happier honeymoon with his hometown Dallas Mavericks. He is enjoying the game again, something he nearly forgot was possible during a failed run with the Nets in which he was unable to carry an organization on a pair of brittle ankles and shattered confidence.
Leaning back to have bags of ice wrapped around both knees after a recent morning shootaround, Williams reluctantly reflected on a place he couldn't wait to escape – even if it meant leaving millions on the table.
"It took a lot out of me, man, those three years. Some of the hardest in my life," Williams told Yahoo Sports of his time in Brooklyn. "Made me question if I even wanted to play basketball when I was done with that contract."
The pressures that Williams put upon himself, and the ones that were thrust upon him to be a franchise player in the league's most unforgiving market have been swapped for peace of mind. It’s now a situation in which his only task is running a team and the reward is regular visits from family and friends who knew him as a kid from The Colony, Texas, long before basketball ever felt like business. Before it could cause any misery.
As he prepares for his first game back at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Williams isn't upset by the prevailing sentiment that he was unable to handle playing in New York.
"It’s cool. There’s a lot of people, I guess, who aren’t built for New York," Williams told Yahoo. "New York is not for everybody."
Williams and the Nets were both ready to be free of one another by the time they agreed to a buyout agreement last July. So desperate for a star, the Nets – and their flamboyant, billionaire owner Mikhail Prohkorov – went all-in on Williams with the belief that he would eventually play the lead role on a championship team.
The Nets sacrificed valuable draft picks to acquire and appease Williams, invested in exorbitant contracts on past-their-prime legends and had nine-figure luxury tax payments before finally writing Williams a $27.5 million check to go away. Williams was unable to live up to his end of the bargain because of a body that regularly betrayed him and a sour attitude that made the relationship untenable.
The comforts of home and the absence of the nightly scrutiny and blame have been liberating for Williams. His production is similar to the past few years in Brooklyn, but those numbers are tolerable as part of an ensemble as opposed to a leading performer. And, Williams has been exactly what the Mavericks had hoped, managing to stay relatively healthy for a team that has been better than expected in the always tough Western Conference.
"It’s been great. To be a part of this organization. The team has been great. Being home in Dallas, it’s been great for myself and my family. I'm definitely enjoying it," Williams told Yahoo. "I enjoy playing with these guys. It’s a great group. It reminds me of my teams in Utah the first couple of years where we like being around each other. We do a lot of stuff off the court together. Like a college atmosphere. It’s loose. It’s fun. I have the ball in my hands a lot more. I have a better rhythm here. Those things all contribute to better confidence out there."
Considered on par with – and, in some circles, better than – Chris Paul as the game's best point guard when he arrived in a stunning deal with New Jersey in 2011, Williams had declined so much in the end that Nets coach Lionel Hollins sometimes didn't even consider him the best point guard on the team last season, starting Jarrett Jack instead. If he could go back and change anything about his time with the Nets, Williams said he would change "everything."
"I wish I wouldn’t have been hurt. I wish I would’ve played better and people didn’t feel like I was just stealing money. That’s the last thing I want people to feel like," Williams told Yahoo. "It didn’t work out the way anybody had hoped."
Williams made three All-Star appearances, including one in New Jersey, before signing a five-year, $99 million contract in 2012 – the same summer he won his second Olympic gold medal. But all the Nets received in return was one playoff series win, two first-round exits and several headaches. Williams became another star player who melted under the glare of the bright lights.
"Like I said, I knew things would’ve been different if I wouldn’t have been hurt. And wouldn't have had four coaches in three and a half years. Wouldn't have had to learn a new system every six months," Williams told Yahoo. "But things happen for a reason. It’s all God’s plan. That part of my life is over. And I can focus on this. It's a new chapter in my life. I’m excited about this."
The Mavericks were the first team to reach out to Williams after his split with the Nets. Desperate to save face after the DeAndre Jordan fiasco and in need of a point guard after rolling snake eyes on a gamble for Rajon Rondo, Dallas gave Williams a two-year, $10 million contract that allowed him to comfortably slide into the role as complementary player on a team that orbits around future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki.
Coach Rick Carlisle also offered a system in which older point guards have thrived and some much-needed stability for the 31-year-old after going through coaches Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Jason Kidd and Hollins with the Nets.
"I wanted to be somewhere where my coach was going to be there. It wasn’t going to be up in the air, year after year. You see here, he’s not going anywhere," Williams told Yahoo, nodding in the direction of Carlisle. "I’ve heard a lot of great things about him as a coach, and that was a big part of it. The system has definitely been great. Still learning but it’s definitely helped me, helped my confidence."
Four months after the Jazz traded him to the Nets, Williams was in the Mavericks' victorious locker room, hugging Kidd and Jason Terry while wearing a red Texas Rangers cap following Game 5 of their eventual NBA Finals win over Miami. The thought of playing – and winning – at home entered his mind in that moment because Williams was set to enter free agency the following year. He listened to a pitch from Dallas but chose to stay with the Nets. Considering how well his time in Dallas has gone so far, Williams won't spend much time wondering how his situation might've been different had he come sooner.
"You know, you can always think, what ifs? But you never know. I probably still would’ve been hurt. Still would’ve had to have ankle surgeries on both ankles. So you never know," Williams told Yahoo. "Being hurt takes a toll on you. You’ve got expectations being put on you. 'Missing' posters being put up all around New York. It’s just a lot of pressure there. Not only from the outside, but pressure I put on myself. But I feel like there is not much pressure now."
With his newly shaved head and clearer mind, Williams isn't concerned with looking back or trying to reclaim any past glory. "It’s easy now. I’m past that point in my life where I care about All-Star games. Honestly, I’d rather have the rest during All-Star break anyway," Williams told Yahoo. "It’s about winning. It's about having fun. It’s been a while since I had fun playing basketball. I’m just relishing this opportunity to have fun. I’m just glad I’m here and feeling better about everything."
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