When the currently out-of-work Williams announced his deal with Istanbul club Beskitas, the instinctual reaction was to chalk it up as a labor victory for the players. I don't need you to get paid, he seemed to be saying to the owners. But as FIBA and the Nets and all of us had time to think about it, the narrative became less fixed.
It was Stephen A. Smith who raised the first alarm, and that's not surprising. For Smith's faults, he has the players in his ear like no one else. Smith went overboard, as he does, when he wrote that Williams is "coming across as a filthy-rich scab looking to do nothing else aside from bloating his bank account." That's the Stephen A. bluster coming across, but someone else thinks there's truth there.
"It's not good," one player told [Smith] on Thursday, demanding anonymity before saying a word. "Williams' move makes sense if you're about getting that cash. Nobody can blame him for that. But when you're talking about these negotiations, it's suppose to be about unity."
There's the rub; Williams is taking care of himself and his bank account, but he's in the very rare position to be offered a contract commensurate with his lifestyle that contains an absolute opt-out clause. Very few European teams have the deep pockets of Beşiktaş, and very few players are good enough to warrant a similar deal. So Williams is availing himself of an option not open to his fellow union members, perhaps leaving behind a sense of urgency toward negotiations.
On November 15, the players will miss their first NBA paycheck. There are those who care very much about that date, even if Deron Williams no longer does. That's the unity Stephen A.'s anonymous player was speaking of, and this was an unsettled issue that the Players Association had to spin back in their favor. Sure enough, last night Billy Hunter and the NBPA released a memo supporting Williams unequivocally. It's full of chest-puffing boilerplate like this:
"Deron explored the alternatives available to him and ultimately did not hesitate to avail himself of the best option with which he was presented, signing with Turkey's Besiktas. Following the lead of our other All-Star players who have come to the bargaining table and supported the union's efforts since negotiations began, and the many All-Stars who have come before them that sacrificed so that we may prosper today, Deron again demonstrates that NBA players will not be intimidated by the league's hard-line tactics."
The message is unmistakable: The players stand behind Deron Williams, and Deron Williams stands for the players. But this isn't necessarily true — Williams could never claim to speak for a group so numerous and so diverse. In terms of ability to wait this out, he's closer to an owner than a player making the minimum.
But there are more than just two sides at the bargaining table here. - we saw it when a group of 70 "mid-tier" players wanted to join in the antitrust suit against the NFL. The original suit had been brought by Brady et al; the highest level of stars. Stars who have different worries than the rest of their union.
But Deron Williams doesn't represent the top tier of players either. They each have their own individual wants and needs. Maybe Amare Stoudemire wants the NBA to get back to work as soon as possible; maybe Kobe Bryant thinks it might be fun to go overseas; maybe Dwyane Wade doesn't care either way. So Williams taking his future in his own hands isn't a symbolic victory for the owners, or the players, or even just the superstars. To answer our headline question: Deron Williams wins if Deron Williams goes overseas.