Jason Williams worked out for the Magic as a free agent last Tuesday, at the team's practice facility, one-on-none so the Orlando decision makers could see how he moved after a year of self-inflicted exile.
Williams against himself.
Just like Williams against his history.
Just like Williams against his calendar.
Just like Williams against his potential.
Williams was far from game shape, but he had good mobility and said all the right things about wanting to be there. He signed a week ago to get back into the league with a title contender a few miles from his home. Orlando got a backup point guard with a title on his résumé in a low-risk deal believed to be one season at $1.3 million, the minimum for a player of his experience. The defending Eastern Conference champions also added another subplot to what was already a crackling offseason
This could turn out to be a nice story -- Williams back after a year off, back with the team in his adopted hometown, back with a chance to pursue another championship to go with the title he won as a Heat starter in 2006.
More than that, it will be an important moment toward any outcome, with a major part of the Magic season -- and by extension the East and the entire league -- potentially riding on Williams' ability to not play like a soon-to-be 34-year-old who has been dogged by injuries and absent from an NBA court for about a year and a half.
That's a lot to put on a reserve, but this is not just any reserve situation. The Magic relied heavily on Hedo Turkoglu to handle the ball last season, and he's in Toronto now after being acquired in a sign-and-trade deal. The Magic relied heavily on trade-deadline acquisition Rafer Alston to handle the ball last season, and he's in New Jersey now after being traded in the Vince Carter deal.
Two of the three players who initiated the offense for a conference champion, whether as the point guard or, in Turkoglu's case, a versatile small forward, are gone. Even if starter Jameer Nelson reclaims his form from early last season, before a shoulder injury derailed an All-Star first half, that's a lot to replace. And Orlando just tapped into a strange set of circumstances to do the replacing.
"I think it's realistic to say he'll come back and play well," general manager Otis Smith said of Williams, who has averaged 11.4 points and 6.3 assists in his 10-year career. "We're not expecting him to carry the load. That's not what we have in mind. If we were needing him to play 35, 40 minutes, then we wouldn't feel as optimistic. But we have Dwight [Howard]. We have Rashard [Lewis]. We have Jameer. We have Vince. We don't need Jason to carry the load. I don't see it as that kind of concern."
Williams was a logical pickup in many ways. At the end of the Magic's summer spending spree, he came cheaply. In a season when the Magic are expected to drive hard for a title, he has Finals experience. He was such a logical pickup that the solo workout last week was more formality than needing to win over the front office.
"To be honest," Smith said, "I just wanted to make sure he didn't pass out. Which he didn't."
What a strange turn of events. Williams signed with the Clippers last August as a backup to Baron Davis, then bailed on the team just before training camp. Without warning, he retired, ostensibly to spend more time in central Florida with his growing family.
It took a few months before he wanted to play again, after which the NBA, in a rare move, said Williams would either have to get approval from the Board of Governors to return during the season or wait until the summer, and only then with the Clippers having the initial shot to sign him. Williams applied for reinstatement in February and was denied, with some teams possibly concerned that he would have cut ties with the Clippers in order to sign with a championship contender.
That's the history, that's the calendar. He last played at least 70 games in 2004-05 with the Grizzlies, last played at all April 16, 2008, with the Heat. He missed at least 20 games in two of his last three seasons. The stats from 2007-08, the closest thing to a recent gauge: 67 games, 8.8 points, 4.6 assists, 38.4 percent from the field, the third consecutive season of decline in shooting percentage.
The potential is tougher to pin down. Maybe the year away has made Williams fresher, healthier and hungrier. Maybe the year away, his age and the fat medical file mean he will be creaking through 2009-10 and that Anthony Johnson, a veteran point guard still in the fold, will become invaluable in relief. There's no way to know.
The certainty is that the Magic's busy offseason -- they traded for Carter, matched Dallas' offer sheet to center Marcin Gortat and signed forwards Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes while losing Turkoglu -- just got even more interesting. Jason Williams is trying a comeback while they're trying to win a title. These are five-on-five stakes.