For more than five years, Deron Williams was the face of the Utah Jazz. He was named to two All-Star teams and led the franchise to four playoff berths, including a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2007.
The Jazz were hopeful he would end his career in Utah, but his time there came to a surprising and abrupt end.
Williams, who is coming off his best game since last February's stunning trade, will return to Salt Lake City for the first time Saturday night when his New Jersey Nets visit the Jazz.
Williams, selected by Utah (6-4) with the third pick of the 2005 draft, was traded to New Jersey on Feb. 23 for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, two first-round draft picks and $3 million in cash. Jazz CEO Greg Miller said he made the move because of a "gut feeling" that he wouldn't be able to sign Williams to a long-term deal when he became a free agent in the summer of 2012.
The Jazz were a perennial contender with Williams, but his reputation took a hit when Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan retired one day after clashing with him during a game. Williams, who averaged 17.3 points and 9.1 assists in 439 games with Utah, was traded two weeks later, but Miller insisted Sloan's retirement and Williams' trade were not connected.
Jazz officials also stated the trade didn't mean the team was rebuilding. That seemed a bit unrealistic at the time, but Utah is off to a surprising start to 2011-12.
The Jazz took the Los Angeles Lakers to overtime on Wednesday, but came up short in a 90-87 loss, snapping a five-game winning streak. Al Jefferson had a chance to put Utah ahead with 1.9 seconds remaining in the extra session but Andrew Bynum blocked his shot. Kobe Bryant then hit two free throws for the final margin.
"We're coming, we're getting better,'' coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We played against a good team. They were a little bit better but our effort was great.''
Paul Millsap had a season-high 29 points for Utah, which lost for the first time in six home games.
"We kept playing hard, didn't give up,'' said Jefferson, who was held to 11 points on 5-of-17 shooting after a season-high 30-point effort against Cleveland on Tuesday. "It's one of those games at the end of the day we wish we could have won, but we could walk out with our head up. We played hard until the end. We just got to get ready for New Jersey.''
The Nets (3-9) got off to a rough start to the season but hope Friday's 110-103 win over Phoenix can trigger a turnaround.
Williams had 35 points, his most since coming to New Jersey, and 14 assists and matched a season low with two turnovers to help the Nets snap a three-game skid.
"I kept my turnovers down today,'' he said. "I scored, I assisted, I did a better job of leading the team. That is what I have to continue to do.''
Williams hadn't been enjoying as much success in his first 10 games, averaging 16.9 points on 35.4 percent shooting with 8.2 assists and 4.6 turnovers. His frustration boiled over in Wednesday's loss to Denver when he drew two technical fouls within seconds and was tossed.
He's using that ejection as motivation.
"I just wanted to play better,'' Williams said. "I got thrown out of that last game and needed a little spark. I used that to my advantage to get my head back and get back to playing good basketball.''