When the Mavericks signed Deron Williams last July, they fulfilled a dream free agent scenario three years later than originally hoped.
The point guard who arrived in Dallas was a different player than the guy who averaged around 21 points and 9 assists over the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, when the team made him a free agent target. Williams' production had suffered from nagging ankle injuries. And his rep in the New York area took a beating when fans and media thought he failed to live up to a $100 million deal he signed to stay with the Nets.
Dallas had no illusions about getting an All-Star point guard last summer but Williams often showed flashes of why he was such a prized free agent target just a few seasons ago. He often looked like the ideal complement to Dirk Nowitzki and core players like Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews and was one of the league's top clutch performers.
Among his season highlights was a game winner with time expiring in a Jan. 5 home game against the Kings, when the Mavericks battled back from seven down in the final 1:20 of the second OT. He combined with Nowitzki for 71 points in a critical March 20 home win against the Trailblazers to keep the team's playoff hopes alive. In the final three minutes with the score within 5 points, he had a net rating of 10.5 and a 56.6 true shooting percentage.
When he was productive, the Mavs did well. The team was 10-5 in games where Williams scored 20 or more points. They won only three times in the 16 games where he failed to reach double digits.
But he wasn't especially efficient outside of clutch minutes, and metrics like ESPN's Real Plus Minus suggested Williams was average at best for his position last year (that metric assigned negative scores to Tony Parker, Jeremy Lin and Kyrie Irving if that tells you anything). Unfortunately, as in Brooklyn, D-Will's health remained an obstacle to finding any kind of sustained success. He was slowed by a knee injury after the season opener. He missed time later with a hamstring strain.
But with the Mavericks' battling for a playoff spot until the final game of the season, Williams somehow made it back on the court after suffering a sports hernia in late March. He put up 23 points and 6 assists in a win in Salt Lake City to secure the team a postseason berth. No fan could question his toughness after he played hurt to help push his team into the postseason. Eventually though, aggravating that injury and an abdominal strain was enough to keep him out of all but a minute and a half of the final three games in the opening round loss to Oklahoma City.
As ESPN's Tim MacMahon reported April 29, Williams will opt out of the final year of his deal with the team this summer, making him a free agent. The second year of his contract would have paid him $5.6 million. According to MacMahon, there is mutual interest in working out a new multi-year deal.
Williams' status presents the Mavericks with something of a dilemma -- maybe the biggest of their own free agents. Giving Chandler Parsons a maximum contract this summer will be a no-brainer, as will whatever deal it takes to keep Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas for another two to three years. The same can't be said for a 31-year-old guard who has played in 70 games only once in the past six seasons.
The Mavs front office will have real age and durability concerns. But it's not as if there are a lot of other compelling options on the free agent market. Mike Conley is an All-Star caliber player who will command a max deal. If Dallas was able to land him in free agency and retain Parsons, they'd have little money left to fill out the rest of the roster. The options after that aren't inspiring for a squad looking for a starting point guard. And if the Mavericks pursue Conley and miss, they risk losing their own free agent as well.
And there isn't anyone on the roster now who would be ready to step into the starting role should Williams leave. J.J. Barea had his best season ever as a Maverick this year but his size and streaky shooting don't make him a compelling option as a long-term starter. Raymond Felton became a productive member of the rotation in his second season in Dallas but he's at his best playing off ball, as is Devin Harris.
The Mavericks may look at the other free agent options and decide they're better off sticking with Williams and keeping a stable of point guards options on the roster in case the injury bug bites again. But the team will have to figure out how many years and how much guaranteed money they want to commit to a player whose best years are behind him. If Dallas renews its pursuit of Dwight Howard this summer as well, that question will be a big factor in filling out next year's starting lineup.
And Williams will have to weigh how much he values the comforts of home and a system that fits his strengths after several brutal seasons in New York.