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The Cavs found the perfect complement for their star when they dealt for Mo Williams last summer
THE CAVALIERS were among the busiest window-shoppers at the NBA trade deadline last Thursday, investigating potential deals for everyone from Richard Jefferson to Marcus Camby to Shaquille O'Neal. But the Cavs felt comfortable standing pat because they had already made the most beneficial move of their season, acquiring point guard Mo Williams from Milwaukee in a three-team trade last summer.
Over his first five seasons, with the Jazz and the Bucks, the 6'1" Williams was often dismissed as a shoot-first point guard, but that was exactly what Cleveland was seeking to space the floor for LeBron James. At week's end the Cavs (43--11) were on pace to win 19 more games than they did a season ago largely because Williams was averaging a career-best 17.6 points to go with his 4.2 assists, emerging as a solid No. 2 in both categories to James.
As a result, Williams earned his first invitation to the All-Star Game (albeit as an injury replacement for Jameer Nelson of the Magic), where he looked entirely comfortable amid the more familiar names, making five of 10 shots for 12 points in 17 minutes. "It doesn't seem like anything fazes him," says Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. Says the 26-year-old Williams, "What I play for is the big stage. I love the moment when all the pressure is on you."
Williams draws strength from having taken an uphill journey to stardom. After averaging 16.4 points as a sophomore at Alabama, he expected to be a top 15 pick in the 2003 draft. When he plummeted to the second round (No. 47 overall) he played his way onto the Utah roster in training camp and earned the respect of coach Jerry Sloan with hard work each day at practice. The following year the Bucks signed him to a three-year, $5.4 million free-agent contract; then, based largely on his accuracy from beyond the arc—he's a career 37.1% three-point shooter—they re-signed him to a six-year, $52 million deal in 2007.
Before Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on Feb. 2, a rivalry was developing among the point guards of the East's three leading contenders. Nelson, Williams and Rajon Rondo of the Celtics all entered the league as undersized and undervalued draft picks, and each has created an important leadership role in a relatively short time. "All three are tough enough to defend the bigger point guards and not be taken advantage of on the block," says Brown. "People questioned Mo's toughness in Milwaukee, but they forget that Jerry Sloan is not going to have anybody who is not tough, and at Alabama, Mo was known as a defender. Their toughness is what makes those guys special."
The importance of point guard leadership was underscored when Orlando made one of the few meaningful moves at the trade deadline, acquiring Rafer Alston from the Rockets to serve as Nelson's short-term replacement. After suffering embarrassing losses to Indiana, Denver and New Orleans, the Magic worked with the Rockets and the Grizzlies to land Alston, giving up big men Brian Cook and Adonal Foyle along with a first-round draft choice in separate deals.
Alston should fit right in with his Eastern peers: He has had a distinguished career with five teams after dropping to the second round of the 1998 draft. A self-made NBA point guard is well-equipped to become a team leader with backbone, asserts Williams. "I look back at my draft class and the players [picked ahead of me] and what they're doing now and what I'm doing," he says. "Yeah, I laugh."