CHRIS GRANTLAND: MEETING MO WILLIAMS AT THE CROSSROADS

There is a moment when the past meets the future and we are there, all at once.  That was Tuesday night in Cleveland, the only place that it could happen.

THE HEAD COACH AND BACKUP POINT GUARD OF THE NBA 2009 EASTERN CONFERENCE ALL STAR TEAM. 

(David Liam Kyle, NBAE/Getty Images)

 

In August 2008 Mo Williams was acquired by the Cavaliers in a three team trade which sent Damon Jones and Joe Smith out of Cleveland.  The trade is one of the greatest moves that Danny Ferry made during his tenure as the Cavaliers General Manager and is likely in no small part of the reason that Ferry won the NBA Executive of the Year Award in 2009.  Williams developed as a Milwaukee Buck, was 26, and was moved in a trade that was largely viewed as a salary dump.  He was coming from a relatively undistinguished career as a Buck, having only made the playoffs once, age 23 for then Head Coach Terry Stotts.  5 games against the Detroit Pistons, about 15 minutes a game and only that one game where he went 9-10 from the floor and helped the Bucks to avoid a sweep, to look back on.

But Mo Williams became a Cavalier, and Mo Williams was an All Star in 2009.  The record shows that, for two years, Mo Williams was one of the greatest shooters in Cavaliers history.  That he shot from the free throw line almost as well as any Cavalier ever, approaching and even briefly eclipsing venerated sharpshooter Mark Price’s impossible percentages.  That he converted 3-pointers at an incredible 43.6% in 08-09 and 42.9% in 09-10 for the Cavs.  Hitting shots at this rate, he made 183 3-point shots in 08-09 then 159 in 09-10, by far the greatest 2 season total in Cavalier history.  Mo Williams was hitting at this rate shooting more than 5 3-point attempts a game.  By comparison, in 9 years as a Cavalier, Price averaged 3.4 3-point attempts per game, and only attempted 5 per game in 2 of those 9 seasons.  The fact that Mo Williams shooting can even be mentioned in a comparison with one of the greatest shooters in the history of  basketball alone attests to his prowess through those two seasons.  Mo Williams was money.

It was Mo Williams that, down 2 games to 1 in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, declared the Cavaliers the best team in basketball, and offered a playoff series victory guarantees:

"Guarantee we're going to win the series? Yeah, yeah," he said. "We are down 2-1. But there is nobody on this team and definitely not myself that says we are not going to win this series.”

Perhaps the use of the double negative guarantee was a hedge.  The amount of respect that Mo Williams gets for his All Star Season of 2008-09 is underwhelming and for his entire Cavalier career is largely defined by that series.  Williams shot only 40.8% from the floor in the playoffs in 2009 after shooting 46.7% all season.

That series was as far as Williams would go with the Cavaliers.  The next season was blown up by LeBron James’ Celtics series antics, with a mysterious elbow injury, with staring into space and launching jump shots instead of playing offense.  But Williams was on the floor when the team quit on its coach and its city down only 6 with over a minute left in the final game Game 6. 

Williams was there.  Williams was on the floor while Mike Brown’s arms were flailing.  It was a pixilated Mo Williams walking the ball up the court, right to left with no sense of urgency on a national television monitor.  Williams was a key player on a Cavaliers team that was widely believed to be a title contender.  He and Delonte West formed an unlikely tandem in a backcourt that seemed somehow perfectly paired, yet there he was, in the end, the real end.

Williams wallowed in the summer of 2010 as much as any basketball player.  In the fall he appeared for Cavaliers training camp overweight, out of shape and having contemplated retirement in the offseason.  In the winter he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a draft pick that would become Kyrie Irving.  He spent that last partial season as a ghostly reminder of missing championship aspirations, of lost chances.  Of failure.

Failure which lingers, which casts a shadow, and which feels like a living virus that has survived into today, Tuesday night against Mo Williams new team, the Portland Trailblazers.  Williams is teamed with Terry Stotts again, the Trailblazers head coach who has taken the team to 21-4 coming into this game.  This Blazers team, they look invincible.  They push the pace.  They make shots from anywhere.  They are skilled inside and outside and move on the floor as a team.   

Williams is integrated into a position which is intended to maximize his abilities as a shooter and as back-up point guard to young Damien Lillard, who will battle Kyrie Irving in this game.  He is, just 3 days from his 31st birthday, in essentially the same role he played for Stotts as a Buck bringing scoring off the bench, and also at times playing with Lillard in a 2 point guard setup, allowing Lillard to play off the ball.

With 4:45 left in the first Quarter, Mo Williams enters the game.  When he does, he is greeted by a roar of cheers from Cleveland and the shadow of failure seems to be in full recession. 

Just 25 seconds later, after Williams comes in to spell Lilliard, after a Batum free throw and a Tristan Thompson right handed jump shot, Dion Waiters has checked in and is on the court.  The crowd’s response to Waiters coming into the game seems tepid after Williams ovation.  But it also seems tepid considering that Waiters shooting has been red hot.  He has shown flashes, sparks of the player he was once at Syracuse, one who could take over games, one who can be the best player on the floor, who can make all his shots, who can carry a scoring load.  Some of these flashes have kept the team in games they would not be in without him, his effort and his ability.

Two and a half quarters from now, this is exactly what will happen.

LET HIM KEEP PLAYING BASKETBALL.  (David Liam Kyle, NBAE/Getty Images)

Rumors have circulated Dion Waiters this season like a cruel stench which he has repeatedly attempted to waft away.  They are routine for this game:  He is on the court in full sleeves before every home game, shooting into and through a sweat.  He lines up at the left arc.  He lines up at the free throw line.  He takes turn-around jump shots.  Then he returns to the locker room and answers questions about trade rumors.

“Let 'em keep writing” – Dion Waiters responds.

This latest rumor is that Waiters himself has requested a trade to Philadelphia, where he is famously from.  The rumor has come in though a Bleacher Report piece that claims a direct quote from someone close to Waiters.  It is the combination of multiple trade rumors which have begun to circulate regarding the Cavaliers, the Bulls and the Sixers.  Loul Deng and Evan Turner have been mentioned as trade targets.  Now, this source claiming that Waiters wants to be the leader of his own team, not one where he plays second to Kyrie Irving, not one where he comes off the bench as an option.

Stott’s mentions pregame that the Blazers concerns include the aggressive play of both Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters.  Anyone watching this game to see what Dion Waiters is doing is watching him grow into something that could be a primary offensive weapon, if not for a full game, then for a stretch of an NBA game.  Anyone who watched this game has seen that.

The Blazers record is evidence that objectively, they are the better team coming to play tonight.  The Cavaliers have played other good teams closely, notably the Miami Heat just Saturday night, but lost when the Heat found a gear and a focus that the Cavaliers could not match, either by ability or experience.  The Cavaliers had a lead in the 4th quarter of that game, which could not be closed out.

The Trailblazers have pushed the pace of this game hard.  They are taking long shots which hare leading to a rebounding advantage.  They have made adjustments to the way they are guarding Andrew Bynum under the rim which are effectively denying him the ball by fronting him with Robin Lopez instead of playing him from behind.  But the Cavaliers are making their shots and shooting at a better percentage than the Blazers.

The Cavaliers start the 4th quarter down by four, 92-88.   It is Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters in the backcourt, joined by Matthew Dellavedova in a three guard lineup, but it is Dion Waiters handling the ball.   Williams and Lillard are attempting to counter this three guard lineup, but they are unable to score for the first three minutes of the quarter. 

It is during this time that Dion Waiters explodes.  Neither Mo Williams, nor anyone else can stop him.

Possession after possession, he drives, he shoots, he scores.  His scoring seems interrupted only by an Earl Clark jump shot.  The Earl Cark jump shot comes as the result of Waiters tiping a defensive rebound to Varejao that pushes the ball up the court.  Waiters is slow coming back down the court and is only at half court when the shot goes up. 

But from the release, from the time the ball leaves Clark’s hands, Waiters raises his arms at half court.  That ball will go in.  Waiters knows that ball will go in.

Waiters energy, which leads him to snatching an offensive rebound purely owing to effort and desire, is punctuated by the points.  The Cavaliers are in the game in another game against a superior opponent.   About halfway though the quarter, Irving returns to the game.  There are 3 minutes of pause as the offense transitions.

During this time the power Waiters harnessed and unleashed dissipates.  Irving will recapture it himself, bringing the team back to a tie at 116 points by the end of the 4th quarter, but this game is lost in that transition.  Waiters and Irving are both playing on the wings and Jack is unable to distribute.  He drives and misses, he shoots and misses.

The notion that Irving and Waiters could not play effectively as teammates is completely and utterly dispelled in this quarter.   Waiters is improving quickly.  He will demand more attention in the perimeter and everywhere else.  Irving’s drives, his shots will come more easily.  And they immediately do. 

In a flurry of offense, Irving has shot and drives have taken the Cavs to this tenuous tie with 7 seconds left in the game against the team with the best record in basketball right now.

Mo Williams knows it.  Dion Waiters feels it though and down into every fiber, every piece of bone, every cell.  Nothing will satiate but winning.  Close is not anything.   Great shooting nights and great shooting seasons mean nothing.  Progress itself is meaningless without the objective measure of a win.

When Damien Lillard shot with .4 seconds seems to roll up into the air and down through the net to give the Blazers that dreaded 119-116 lead, when the horn sounds and before the referees convene to allow one last Cavalier shot, Waiters is demonstrably upset.  He does not take losing well.  He does not accept losses.  He is the guts and the power and the muscle. 

Waiters, the Cavaliers, they are not who we thought they were or even who they actually were a month and a half ago when this started and are far from who they were 3 years ago when Mo Williams and the Cavaliers first started rebuilding together.

It’s a complex chemistry of desire, effort, talent that is struggling, soon to be born, but still waiting through the pinhole of watching the final .4 seconds:  Irving catches the ball, 40 feet from the basket, and quickly launches the ball toward the rim where it floats to the back of the rim, bounces and rolls away.

 

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