FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – There is no debate. Or is there?

“I traded for Jason Williams because we needed a starting point guard,” Heat President Pat Riley said Friday.

That trade, of course, was back on Aug. 2, when Gary Payton still was perceived as a big-ticket item in free agency, one seemingly beyond the Heat’s grasp.

Now Payton is here. And now the issue could be how Williams reacts to the latest in a career-long string of challenges.

During his final year with the Kings, Williams often lost out on meaningful late-game minutes to Bobby Jackson.

Then, over the past three years in Memphis, those same crucial minutes often were spent on the bench in favor of Earl Watson.

Now a future Hall of Famer is waiting in the wings.

“I don’t think your best players or most talented or most versatile players will necessarily start,” Riley said the day after signing Payton.

While that might have worked with Riley’s championship Lakers, when Kurt Rambis, clearly an inferior talent, started ahead of Bob McAdoo, this is a different era.

Starters now are greeted by fireworks, lasers, video tributes, semi-naked dancers. Reserves are mumbled into action during stoppages.

While Williams, at 29, clearly has the younger legs, Payton, at 37, hardly enters Stan Van Gundy’s training camp at a comparative disadvantage.

Last season, with both playing as starters, Payton averaged more points (11.3 to 10.1), rebounds (3.1-1.7), assists (6.1-5.6) and steals (1.14-1.06), shot far better from the field (.468-.413) and slightly better on 3-pointers (.326-.324). Granted Payton did it in an average of 33 minutes a game to 27.5 for Williams, but that also spoke to the confidence from their respective coaches in Boston and Memphis.

With Williams under contract for three more years at more than $24 million, and with Payton on a one-year deal at the $1.1 million minimum, there are far too many considerations for the front office to encourage open competition.

Riley said the right thing last week: “It’s whatever Stan wants and whoever he sees is in the best interest.”

But it’s about more than that. It’s about Riley, from the top of the organization, making it work with a rotation of those who have almost exclusively played as starters most of their careers, be it Payton, Antoine Walker, James Posey or even Alonzo Mourning.

Riley, in fact, sounded none too pleased to learn Walker recently told ESPN.com, “I’ve never come off the bench in my career, so I’m not even looking at that as a possible option.”

“There’s not going to be any issue about who starts, who plays at the end of the game,” Riley said. “The less they talk about it, the better it will be.”

Should Walker emerge as starting power forward, Udonis Haslem likely would thrive off the bench, a role from which he emerged two years ago as a rookie.

Should Walker start at small forward, Posey already has proved a capable reserve.

But the Williams situation is different. Too many games have been played in recent years with the former Gators guard looking over his shoulder. By not bringing back incumbent starter Damon Jones, the Heat seemingly defused that issue. Now, with Payton in place, a player who has not played as a reserve in more than a decade, how can a healthy debate not ensue?

“To me,” Riley said, “Jason Williams is probably the guy we’re going to start.”

So, in essence, Williams’ Heat tenure begins punctuated the same way his Grizzlies tenure ended – with a question mark.


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