For all the times they've crossed paths, weaving what is now an inseparable braid, there has never been a pull tab of trash talk between Deron Williams and Chris Paul. But now Williams is standing in the middle of a hotel ballroom, dressed in his Jazz road blues, waving his arms and shouting at Paul. A few days earlier, Paul had let rip on Williams in similar fashion. A juicy rift in the making? Nah. Neither actually heard the other; each was just following a photographer's instructions to go at his rival as if he were standing before him.
On the court, though, the battle has been joined. Over the past three seasons, the who-is-the-better-point-guard debate has grown in lockstep with their friendship. The more each tries to outdo the other, the more intertwined they become. Their solution has been to push it to the edge on the floor then laugh about it later. Paul teases Williams about his habit of calling Utah's "C" pick-and-roll whenever the team is stumbling. Williams cracks on Paul for hating cheese yet still loving pizza. And they complain to each other about players—Kobe and Michael Redd are the worst offenders—who greet them with a tap on the head.
"He knows everything about my game," says Paul, "and I know everything about his." They sensed it might come to this when they first squared off in a spirited Ping-Pong match four summers ago when they were counselors at a Jordan camp. They've since been playing an intense game of leapfrog. First drafted: Deron. Rookie of the Year: Chris. First to make the playoffs: Deron. First to be an All-Star: Chris. First to win a title: to be determined.
The rivalry is friendly and fierce. When the Jazz visited New Orleans last February, Paul shepherded Williams and Ronnie Brewer to his downtown condo to play cards. The next night, Paul went all-in with 24 points, 16 assists and five steals as the Hornets won—only the second time Paul's team has defeated his rival's. And when Williams finally hit the the 40-point plateau, the night after Paul did it for the first time, Paul asked him via text, "That's how you feel?" Williams' response? "I'm just trying to be like you."
Each certainly seems bent on beating the other at his own game. Scoring is effortless for Williams, but it is his playmaking that is turning Jazz starters—save himself—into All-Stars. He has even learned Paul's signature ball-spin trick, a dribble that looks for a split second like a bounce pass. Likewise, though dimes practically fall out of Paul's pockets, he drew the most oohs from teammates and fans in China when he froze the entire Australian team with a series of crossover dribbles and faked dishes before finishing with an uncontested layup. The gold medal they won together was the first title for either—high school, college or pro.
When it comes to getting attention, though, Paul is the clear No. 1. This is Williams' second national cover ever; Paul's been gracing covers for years, and he's shot three in just the past month. Paul would have been a unanimous pick for Rookie of the Year had a Jazz broadcaster not voted for Williams. Paul made last year's All-Star team and nearly claimed season MVP honors; Williams has yet to play an All-Star Game and finished 12th in MVP voting. Still, a case can be made that Williams is better. He has dominated head-to-head matchups, from college (when Illinois trounced then-No. 1 Wake Forest) to the pros (where the Jazz are 8–2 when both players are on the floor) to the All-Star Skills Challenge, which he won in record time.
No one knows better than the other how good his friend can be.
"People said he's not quick enough or athletic," says Paul. "Man, D-Will will dunk on you in a heartbeat." And Williams concedes you can't stop Paul's hesitation dribble. "The tendency is to stand up and relax," he says. "Then he goes by you." That's not to say the alternative is better.
"He actually likes you to back off," says Williams. "Then he can throw that lob to the rim for Tyson. It's really pick-your-poison." Paul feels equally at a loss against his pal: "I try to crowd him and live with jump shots. He's going to score, but when he gets everyone else involved, you can put your head between your legs and kiss your butt goodbye."
So they do talk trash, after all. Not to one another. For one another.
We surveyed scores of insiders and thousands of fans, and each group went with Paul (sorry, Deron). Let some of them tell you why.
Byron Scott, Hornets
"They can't be that close without some kind of tension. But when I talk to Chris about it, he says it's not there. I told him, 'I know he's your boy, but he also could be seeing what we're doing. He could be a spy.' CP promised me they don't talk about basketball."
Jerry Sloan, Jazz
"They're both terrific players, but we thought Deron was better suited for the way we played. We certainly are happy, but we probably would've been happy either way."
Joe Dumars, Pistons
"They are the best two young point guards in the league. In fact, I don't see how you can rank any point guard ahead of them. They have an ability not only to be great themselves but to make their teammates and teams better. If you and I are picking between the two, I'll take the one you don't take and be the happiest man in the room. They've excelled in areas that were once perceived as weaknesses—scoring for Chris, passing for Deron. That's special."
Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy
Until 2006, Isiah Thomas was the best pure point guard of my lifetime. He inspired teammates, ran impeccable fast breaks, beat everyone off the dribble. He took care of teammates the first 44 minutes and took over the final four. His competitive streak was so cutthroat, they left him off the Dream Team. I thought we peaked with Thomas. Then Chris Paul fell out of the sky. He's a classier Isiah with a better jumper. We are blessed. Comparing him with Deron Williams is like comparing Pearl Jam to Stone Temple Pilots. Don't waste your time.
Tyson Chandler, Hornets
"Deron probably plays Chris the toughest. He's a big, strong guard, and that's always going to be a problem. There's not a whole lot someone Chris' size can do with him."
Carlos Boozer, Jazz
"Chris Paul is a magician with the ball. At practices with Team USA, D-Will, J-Kidd, Kobe—nobody could stop him."
John Hollinger, espn.com
While you can't go wrong with either player, let's let last season's numbers decide who's better.
Paul scored 2.2 points more per 40 minutes, but Williams put up points more efficiently. Williams shoots better from the field and gets to the line on a higher percentage of his attempts; overall, his 59.5 True Shooting Percentage tops Paul's 57.6 (TS% adjusts FG% to account for three-pointers and free throws). Oddly, though, Williams has a big edge in beyond-the-arc accuracy, and Paul is far better from the line. So call it a draw.
Another close one. Both players registered assists on just over 35% of their team's possessions. Paul was one dime better per game because his team had more possessions.
Paul gets the nod on both sides of the ball. On offense, he turned it over just 7.8% of the time—one of the lowest rates among point guards—while Williams gave it away 11.4%. On D, Paul led the NBA in steals (more than doubling Williams' total) and averaged a board a game better than D-Will.
Paul is nearly a year younger than Williams, which should give him an edge. But Williams is three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, which might help him withstand wear and tear.