Deron Williams and Dwight Howard had dinner together last Wednesday in Orlando, and in some people's eyes the guys' night out could only have been motivated by Williams' desire to convince Howard to join him as a member of the Nets.
It's entirely possible — likely, even — that the dinner conversation eventually turned to the friends' futures. Both are free agents at the end of the season, and the Nets have made no secret of their desire to pair Williams and Howard for the franchise's move to Brooklyn next year.
It's less likely that sometime after the waiter had cleared the plates, Williams turned serious and imparted this advice to Howard: Be careful what you wish for.
When the 2010-11 season opened, Williams, like Howard now, was a superstar in a small market. He was the best player for the Utah Jazz, a perennial playoff participant in supposedly the least-cool city in the NBA. Although Williams never said so publicly, numerous reports cited his private wish to get out of Salt Lake City.
The Jazz, hoping to avoid a circus like the one that was building just across the Rockies in Denver with Carmelo Anthony, gave Williams what he wanted. In February he was shipped to New Jersey for rookie forward Derrick Favors, point guard Devin Harris and two first-round picks.
Like that, Williams went from a 31-26 team that held the eighth position in the brutal Western Conference to the Nets, who a year earlier had come close to setting a new record for futility by winning 12 games. But the present wasn't the concern. Williams was in a major media market where another star could join him and, if no one did, he still held his free agent rights for 2012.
If the Nets and Williams' progress since then were plotted on a graph, though, it would not be a steadily rising line. Instead the line would stay relatively flat for a while before plummeting through Monday, when the Nets were 1-4 and already dead last in the Atlantic Division. Williams and the Nets visit the Celtics in the TD Garden on Wednesday night.
Williams, who was averaging 21.3 points and 9.7 assists for Utah at the time of the trade, scored just 15 points per game last season after the trade. His assists went up to 12.8 per game, but his shooting went into a free fall across the board; his field goal, 3-point and free throw percentages all tumbled.
An injured hand contributed greatly to the falloff, but that can't be used as an excuse. Rather, for a player hoping to sign a massive contract next summer, a injury-related dip in performance is very much a factor to consider.
In the early going this season, with center Brook Lopez sidelined for five to six weeks with a broken foot, Williams' production has cratered. He has his lowest scoring average since his rookie year, is averaging fewer than half as many assists as he did for the Nets last season and is saddled with the lowest shooting percentage of his career. He is hitting his free throws again, which is a good sign, but he's also getting to the line less frequently than ever before.
This is the downside of a player exiting a familiar, comfortable situation for a foreign one where the grass seems greener. For LeBron James and Chris Bosh, their moves resulted in an NBA Finals appearance. For Williams, even the playoffs seem like a distant goal.
Williams' fate isn't poetic justice, because that would imply he did something wrong. While it's never fun for a player to force his way off a team, it can be just as unfair when a team sends a beloved player out of town. In the same week Williams was traded, for instance, the Charlotte Bobcats dealt All-Star forward Gerald Wallace to Portland. Wallace was in his seventh year with the Bobcats and had expressed a quaint desire to retire in Charlotte. Williams was just as loyal to the Jazz as the Bobcats were to Wallace — which is to say, not at all.
Soon the decision will be Howard's. Williams, at least, can get out at the end of the season if things don't get better, but wherever Howard goes, he will have to live with the result. As Williams well knows, the result is not always the one you imagined.