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Deron Williams’ value to the Mavericks is tough to define

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The Mavericks starting point guard was a bit of an enigma in his first season in Dallas.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I remember it very clearly. It was back on March 3 against the Kings in a game the Mavericks just had to have — they were about to go nine straight games against playoff teams and the next two games against the Kings and Nuggets were crucial to provide some cushion before the onslaught to secure a playoff spot.

Instead, I watched as Deron Williams failed to dribble around anyone in the fourth quarter during a key possession. The same Williams that had a crossover so brutal just a couple years ago — he said he was the best point guard in the league during prime Chris Paul and still-with-the-Suns Steve Nash and nobody really got too worked up about it.

During that possession, Williams tried plenty of crossovers, but they were in slow motion. He couldn’t get around his defender as he went through is own personal roundabout without exiting. He shoveled the ball off to Chandler Parsons who hoisted a shot that had no chance. The Mavs would lose that game 104-101 and began a stretch of seven losses in eight games — a stretch that had the team teetering on the brink of disaster and under .500.

Williams finished that game 6-of-17 from the field. He’d go on to shoot 38.4 percent in March before suffering a hernia that made him miss eight of the Mavs’ final 11 games. This would be the part where Williams absence drove the Mavs into mediocre basketball hell, losing a first-round pick in the Rajon Rondo trade and not making the playoffs to boot.

Instead, the Mavericks won six of those eight games he missed. They made the playoffs.

Before the Mavs tipped off their series with Oklahoma City, one question raced through my mind: is Deron Williams good?

That seems crazy to think about. After all, we had just seen what a not-good NBA point guard looks like in Rondo. Williams had a nice shot, commanded the offense and boosted the Mavs anemic talent level. Right?

The raw stats look fine — about 14.1 points and 5.8 assists per game which looked like an oasis in the desert after the Rondo dumpster fire. The intangibles looked even better. After years of being dogged in Brooklyn as soft, Williams seemed to obliterate that label after toughing through a brutal injury to spark the Mavs to a Game 2 win against the Thunder, their only win of the series.

Not only that, Williams was not just a clutch player for the Mavs, but one of the most clutch players in the entire league. He led the league in clutch three-pointers made with 17. That was more than Steph Curry! Not only was it more than Curry and anyone else, he was 51.5 percent from three in the clutch and 50.6 percent from the field overall. No one else in the league even sniffed 50 percent overall and from three with at least 20 threes taken.

It was that clutch shooting I feel that hid the dark truth from everyone — Williams was painfully mediocre outside of clutch situations. Even with those insane numbers in the clutch and the huge amount of close games the Mavs played, Williams shot 41.4 percent from the field and 34.5 percent from three, both below average for the position.

Without that deadly crossover from his Utah days, Williams was a gunner from the outside and relied way too much on a midrange jumper out of the pick and roll. He shot just 36.3 percent out of the pick and roll with a turnover percentage of 18.9, which is just too damn high combined with the dreadful shooting numbers. That turnover percentage was worse than J.J. Barea and Devin Harris. Too often a Williams-led pick and roll would lead to an early shot clock heave that neutered the Mavs offense to a low-pass mess.

This beauty happened with zero passes once the possession crosses half-court and 18 seconds on the shot clock. This shot isn’t so bad in theory when you think about how bogged down the Mavs offense could get last season, but Williams hitting just 39 percent from mid-range wasn’t good enough considering the volume he took.

Williams had the fifth-worst true-shooting percentage on the team (53 percent), a blah net-rating of 0.4, hit just 36.2 percent of his pull-up jumpers which were the most type of shots he had all year and Dallas was technically better with him off the floor than on it (0.8 net rating off, 0.4 rating on).

Granted, the Mavericks did ask Williams for a lot after ankle issues sucked away most of his off-the-bounce juice. On a Dallas team desperate for any offensive creators, Williams plugged away and gave the Mavs the threat of a scorer on a team littered with non-creators and black holes. How much can we blame Williams pedestrian numbers on him or on a roster that made him play with layup-averse Zaza Pachulia, raw rookie Justin Anderson, low-efficiency chucker Raymond Felton, busted tire Wesley Matthews, half-a-season of gimped Parsons and the worst stretch four in the universe in Dwight Powell? The Mavs needed the threat of Williams as a scorer just as much as him being an actual scorer. His presence seemingly kept every other limited player from overstepping their role and being overexposed.

Yet despite that, you could still argue that Barea was the Mavs best point guard this year. The Mavs scored better when he was on the floor, Barea shot considerably better from all over the court and Dallas ripped off a crucial six-game win streak in Williams’ absence as Barea picked up Western Conference Player of the Week and turned into the better-shooting clone of Steph Curry. The Mavs had to have noticed because at one point reports came through that they were considering rolling with RAYMOND FELTON as this season’s starting point guard if catastrophe struck the off-season.

That made this summer all the more maddening. While it was clear the Mavericks could easily upgrade a position that gave them middling value, the actual prospects of doing it were high-risk, high-reward. The Mavs walked the tight-rope of trying to get a mega-upgrade in Mike Conley while the rest of the free agent point guard crop was a steep drop off. If not Conley and not Williams, the Mavs were looking at Felton, Jeremy Lin, Brandon Jennings, Austin Rivers, D.J. Augustin and — gulp — Rondo. Not exactly an inspiring list of players.

It was the ultimate conundrum the Mavs have failed at for the past five years: take the sure thing you know isn’t amazing but not horrible, or swing for the fences for an amazing upgrade while leaving the chance to end up even worse than before. Was Williams worth more simply because he was a known quantity that wanted to play in Dallas? I’d argue yes, considering the Mavs ability to land big-free agents.

It also undersells what Williams contributed to the Mavs outside of average at best offensive numbers — Williams was a pretty decent defender last year. He held opposing players to 43.6 field goal percentage, the Mavs defense was better with him on the floor than off and Williams has something no Dallas point guard has had since Jason Kidd: size.

Williams might not have the foot speed to chase Curry, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook around the perimeter but at 6’4 and good bulk, he had the strength to out-muscle most of his peers and contain dribble drives OK and contest well. The Mavs were never undersized at the point guard spot when Williams was on the floor and pairing him with Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Justin Anderson and Andrew Bogut creates the blueprint of a switching, aggressive defense. Don’t confuse Williams as some sort of stopper — the Mavs would regularly give Matthews and Felton the tougher point guard defensive assignments — but Williams’ size doesn’t hurt.

It’s a shame because the skills Williams does show off could let him be his most optimal in a late-era Jason Kidd type role. Kidd during his second stint in Dallas was basically an off-ball point guard, swinging the ball to the right place and becoming a deadly spot-up shooter. Williams size can allow him to defend shooting guards and play with another point guard who is more adept at knifing into a defense off pick and rolls and let Williams happily spot up around the perimeter or hit the open man when the ball is swung his way. Williams was a far better shooter when he was allowed to spot up — he hit 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season and he had a better spot-up effective field goal percentage than Dirk Nowitzki himself.

Tragically enough, Williams would have been a great point guard for Monta Ellis. Basketball can be brutal sometimes. C'est la vie.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to expect from Williams this year. With Parsons out and Barnes in, Williams will have even more pressure than ever to be a playmaker and scorer. The Mavs simply don’t have anyone outside of Nowitzki and Barea that can reliably create offense out of nothing. If Williams doesn’t improve with perhaps a less-talented offensive team, the Mavs offense could tank as they attempt to plug offensive holes with the hope of Seth Curry being more than a late-season wonder and the myth of Barnes’ potential.

I’m not sure if Deron Williams is all that good. I’m sure that I’ll be reminded of his average play again this season as he fails to create any separation from his defender and launch a lifeless pull-up 15 footer.

I’m also sure that the Mavs couldn’t risk finding out if they’d be better off without him.