The Right Idea: The instinctual reaction of most close followers of the Grizzlies will be to kill this move. But before we go that route, let's establish a few things.
First, the Grizzlies are one of the few teams in the league that are carrying only two point guards on their roster. And given that one of those is a late-first-round-pick rookie, in Greivis Vasquez, currently sporting a 36% shooting percentage and a 7.96 player efficiency rating (15 is league average), and given that, rightly or wrongly, the team isn't willing to give O.J. Mayo spot minutes at the position, clearly this is an area of potential need.
I like Vasquez. I think he's been a viable back-up point guard for the Grizzlies this season and I think he could develop into one of the better back-up points in the league with his combination of size, court vision, and gutsy play. But the idea of adding a third point guard to the roster — as insurance and to give the coaches an alternative to a rookie providing middling production — makes plenty of sense. If that player can be an NBA veteran with playoff experience, all the better.
And Williams, recently waived by the Orlando Magic, is probably the best veteran free agent point guard available. Given where Williams, at 35, is in his career, perhaps that says more about the other options than about Williams. Where are Anthony Johnson or Mike James? (Not a rhetorical question; I don't know.) Could they help more?
The Wrong Reason: One of the problems with the Williams signing, of course, is how and why it's happening. If this were a case of the team's coaching staff and front office identifying a need, determining that Williams is the best available option to fill that need, weighing the potential downside, and deciding that this is a move worth making — you know, the way real teams are supposed to operate — then it would not be met with nearly as much controversy.
But as we all know, what's driving this move more than anything is that owner Michael Heisley is a personal fan of Williams — just as he was a personal fan of Allen Iverson. The Grizzlies were interested in keeping floor-spacing center Josh Davis on the roster heading into the season, had scouted D league point guards around the time they ended up waiving Acie Law, and could have added to their depth with a first-round pick last summer that they ended up selling to the Dallas Mavericks. Good luck convincing Heisley to spend at the margins for unsexy assets like those. But J-Will? Sure! Love that guy! Watch Heisley show up at the arena with a big diamond stud in his ear again, like he did once before in tribute to J-Will.
So, even if this move ends up working out — and it might — it will rightly leave a bad taste in the mouths of astute team watchers as yet another example of organizational dysfunction that starts at the very top.
The Risk: Beyond what it says about the team's decision-making structure, the main reason this movie has drawn resistance is concern over how Williams' volatile personality will impact team chemistry that seems to be humming at the moment. There's a history here, beyond just memorable antics aimed at media or civilians. J-Will's departure from the Grizzlies was not a smooth one, neither was his recent departure from Orlando, where he objected to sliding to the bottom of a four-man point guard depth chart, behind Jameer Nelson, Gilbert Arenas, and Chris Duhon. Is his potential value really worth the risk of putting his personality in this locker room?
The Verdict: I'm surprised to report that the more I think about this move, the less concerned I am about it.
I actually have a decent amount of faith in head coach Lionel Hollins and the team's locker-room leadership core — which at the moment, I think, means Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Tony Allen — to minimize the downside of adding Williams to the team.
If Hollins has proven anything in his tenure as Grizzlies' head coach, it's that he is not weak. If he doesn't think Williams can help the team, he won't play him. And if Williams becomes unhappy with his role and causes problems, I don't think Hollins will tolerate it, regardless of the owner's crush on his new acquisition. I think the Iverson saga showed us that.
Did the Iverson situation foul up the team for a while? Yes. But Williams isn't Iverson. He lacks the personality and ability to generate the same level of controversy. Given where Williams is in his career and how Mike Conley has played this season, no one but the most ardent J-Will fan or most unreasonable Conley hater is going to even consider Conley's place firmly atop the point-guard pecking order a question.
And so it will come down to Williams or rookie Vasquez for the 10-12 minutes a game behind Conley. Can Williams earn those minutes? Sure. His 8.61 PER for Orlando this season is pretty shoddy, but is still slightly better than Vasquez's. Add in Williams' experience and superior outside shooting, and he could easily be a better immediate option. And if Williams can return to his level of play as a reserve for the Magic last season — 12.92 PER, 38% three-point shooting — then he'll definitely be an upgrade.
Defensively, Williams will be a downgrade from even the slow-footed rookie Vasquez, and that end of the floor is probably where the team needs help at the position the most. Vasquez will be a better defender than Williams generally, and his size allows him to move off the ball defensively and allows the team to put Tony Allen on point guards when they're on the floor together.
So I think it's a toss up, but adding Williams to the mix at least gives Hollins more options at the position.
I won't be surprised to see Williams playing productive minutes for the Grizzlies late in the season and even in the playoffs. If that happens, it'll be a good story and his inherent fan-favorite mojo will kick in. But if he can't help, he won't play. And if he balks at that situation, then I don't expect Hollins or this team to allow it to become a problem. Ultimately, I'm not really that worried about it.