He may have been the most important NBA free agent to change teams this summer, but the people of Cleveland were wary. As the Cavaliers announced the signing of Larry Hughes to a five-year, $60 million contract last Thursday at Gund Arena, several hundred fans, many on their lunch breaks, took turns grilling the 6'5"shooting guard. "What do you say to your critics who point out that you had your best year in a contract year?" asked one man. After responding that the ball didn't care about free agency when he shot it, Hughes did a slow burn as another fan mentioned his mediocre shooting (43.0%) with the Washington Wizards last season. "I'll get you two [points]," said the 26-year-old Hughes, "and I'll definitely not let the other guy get two or three at the other end, so that's a difference of four or five points right there." Hearing the combativeness in his voice, the crowd broke into applause.
Little did they know that Hughes had long before won over the franchise's most significant figure. Throughout 2004--05, All-Star small forward LeBron James had tried to persuade Hughes to come to Cleveland, where he could play Pippen to James's Jordan. LeBron's appeals intensified during a late-season Wizards win in which Hughes scored 31 to damage the Cavs' playoff chances. "We talked about it that whole game," says Hughes. "He kept saying, 'Come play with me.' And I kept saying, 'Nah, I'm staying in Washington.'"
But that was before Hughes entered the game called free agency, in which he was but one of the players. There was the Wizards' general manager, who worried about the impact of another large contract. There was Hughes's 43-year-old agent, who saw his client's list of potential suitors shrinking rapidly. There was the Milwaukee Bucks' All-Star shooting guard, who threatened to beat Hughes in a sprint to join Cleveland. And there was the new G.M. of the Cavaliers, who was under enormous pressure to revitalize the franchise and please that most compelling player of all, LeBron James.
"Fifty-four," said Jeff Wechsler as he walked into Hughes's room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Coconut Grove, Fla.
"Fifty-four?" Hughes said.
"Nine million a year," said Wechsler, with a frown. "Fifty-four."
The prospect of earning $54 million over six years would have been beyond Hughes's wildest imagination when he was growing up in St. Louis, and his single mother was crying over the rising tide of medical bills for his younger brother, Justin. Now it represented the Wizards' initial offer--or the minimum Hughes stood to make.
Shortly after midnight on July 1, the first day that free agents could begin to negotiate deals, Hughes had received exploratory calls from a half dozen NBA teams. While the Miami-based Wechsler let each of the suitors know that Washington was Hughes's first choice, their hot pursuit was no surprise: A first-team All-Defensive player in 2004--05, Hughes led the league in steals (2.89 per game) and averaged career highs in points (22.0), rebounds (6.3) and assists (4.7). That night he and Wechsler dined at the Ritz with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld and director of basketball administration Tommy Sheppard, who thanked Hughes for helping to lead the team to the playoffs for the first time in seven years. At the end of the meal Grunfeld shook hands with Hughes and said with a smile, "Now Jeff and I are going to beat each other up to get a deal done."
That wasn't far from the truth. From the start, Wechsler and Grunfeld had different views of how to negotiate. Wechsler wanted Grunfeld to preempt the bidding and put forward his best six-year deal. But having already committed to pay forward Antawn Jamison $13.8 million and point guard Gilbert Arenas $10.2 million next season, Grunfeld was concerned about payroll flexibility. He made his $54 million offer, stressing that he would raise it if the market dictated it. Wechsler was upset. "By the time I get upstairs, I'm going to get the same money for five years that you're offering me for six," said Wechsler. "I have no obligation to come back and get a counteroffer from you."
As Wechsler sat at a table in Hughes's room and called around the league to gauge his client's options, Hughes gleaned from the crawl on ESPN that the Bucks were offering their free-agent shooting guard, Michael Redd, $90 million over six years. That was when Hughes began preparing to move his wife and three children to a new city. "I really thought the deal would be done that night [with Washington]," says Hughes. "Fifty-four million, that's a lot of money. But then you start to break it down and see that there are other options."
In Cleveland the next day 38-year-old Danny Ferry was finishing his first week as the Cavaliers' G.M. After much agonizing, he had left his position as director of basketball operations for the champion San Antonio Spurs to try to rebuild the team he'd played for throughout the 1990s. He thought he had the ingredients to succeed: a new, aggressive ownership group; some $28 million in salary-cap space; and the 20-year-old James. But because James can become an unrestricted free agent in '08, Ferry also had to quickly assemble the complementary pieces that would turn the 42-win team around and entice LeBron to stay.
As Ferry extolled the virtues of Cleveland in calls to the agents of potential acquisitions, the Cavs' rookie coach, Mike Brown, sat day after day with his feet propped up on a table, keeping his lonely general manager company. When Ferry wasn't on the phone or pelting Brown with paper wads to make sure he was awake, the two were hashing over the list of free-agent possibilities. They focused on the four elite shooting guards: Hughes, Redd, the Seattle Sonics' Ray Allen and the Phoenix Suns' Joe Johnson. "Those were the best players in this market, and it was also a position of need for us," says Ferry. "Every day we went through a ranking of those guys, and it moved around each day."
On July 5, Allen agreed in principle to a five-year, $80 million deal with Seattle. (While players and teams could negotiate terms of a contract, the papers could not be signed until the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement went into effect, on Aug. 2.) For Wechsler, a protégé of David Falk and a veteran agent at the sports-management group SFX, this was bad news: The Sonics had expressed interest in Hughes if they couldn't keep Allen. For Ferry, however, the signing was a welcome development. He hadn't viewed the 30-year-old Allen as the ideal long-term running mate for James, and Seattle was now one less destination for the two guard the Cavs had finally targeted, Hughes.
Brown left Cleveland that day and spent the afternoon at Hughes's home in St. Louis, where he ate a meal cooked by Larry's wife, Carrie, played with their kids and met Justin, 19, who underwent a heart transplant in 1997. Justin's health had forced Larry to become the man of the family at an early age. He had spurned scholarship offers from some of the nation's top schools to stay at home, signing with Saint Louis University. To help his mother, Vanessa, cover Justin's medical costs, Larry had turned pro after just one season, going to the Philadelphia 76ers in '98 as the No. 8 pick.
Hughes's first four years in the NBA were a struggle. Though Vanessa and Wechsler kept preaching patience, Hughes agitated for a bigger role in Philly, which dealt him to Golden State midway through his second season. After failing in their attempt to make Hughes a full-time point guard, the Warriors allowed him to leave as a free agent in 2002. That's when Wechsler and Hughes turned down more money for a shot at an even bigger payoff down the road: Instead of accepting offers of roughly $34 million for six years, Hughes signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Wizards. The plan could not have worked out better. Hughes regained his confidence in Washington, and because he'd been with them for three seasons, the Wizards could go over the salary cap and offer more than any other team to re-sign him. There was only one problem: Washington didn't seem too interested in doing that.
Grunfeld had raised his six-year offer to $60 million on July 5, indicating he could go even higher. But with Hughes's options shrinking, Wechsler warned Grunfeld that he couldn't wait. While eight teams (including Washington) had the cap space to sign Hughes to a big contract, he wasn't interested in joining one that was rebuilding, which eliminated the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats and New Orleans Hornets. Seattle was out of the running after agreeing to terms with Allen. The Los Angeles Clippers told Wechsler that they intended to split their cap space between two players, which meant that they were unlikely to outbid the Wizards. Wechsler had also learned from Milwaukee G.M. Larry Harris that even if the Bucks didn't re-sign Redd, they would not pursue Hughes, instead shifting small forward Desmond Mason to shooting guard.
While Milwaukee's offer to Redd was $20 million more than Ferry could pay him under the salary cap, Redd remained interested in the Cavs. He was a Columbus native who had starred at Ohio State, and he had scheduled a July 6 recruiting visit to Cleveland. Realizing that Redd's signing with the Cavs would leave Washington as Hughes's only viable option, Wechsler had to work fast. On the afternoon of Redd's arrival the agent reached a preliminary understanding with Ferry on a deal. "We had a very nice dinner with Michael," Ferry says. "But at the end of it I told him, 'We're moving forward in a different direction. We have a guy [Hughes] who really wants to be here and we're excited about that.'" Redd returned to Milwaukee and accepted the Bucks' offer.
Hughes's salary opens at $10.3 million, and he can earn $10 million in bonuses over the length of the deal based on the team's victory totals, boosting its potential value to $70 million. The Cavs preferred that structure because the incentives--if earned--won't show up on the cap until next summer, which left them with more room to re-sign center Zydrunas Ilgauskas (five years, $52 million) and add free-agent forward Donyell Marshall (four years, $21 million). They also kept cap space to sign a point guard or another big man.
The day after Hughes reached an agreement in principle with Cleveland, Grunfeld called with his final offer: $72 million over six years. Wechsler and Hughes each informed him it was too late. Grunfeld used the $12 million he would have paid Hughes next season for three players: free-agent guard Antonio Daniels and two Los Angeles Lakers--small forward Caron Butler and guard Chucky Atkins--acquired for forward Kwame Brown in a sign-and-trade.
Before he left on a tour of Asia last week, James expressed excitement about the arrival of a young yet experienced sidekick. "His numbers are huge," James said, "but what makes him special is that he's a creator and he's willing to do anything, at anyplace, on the court."
Nothing less will satisfy Cleveland fans. To them, Hughes will justify his salary only if he helps propel the Cavaliers deep into the playoffs. "I was looking to be really wanted and looking for a place to call home," says Hughes. "Now let's play."
Can Anybody Beat the Heat?
Miami has made bolder moves than any other title contender--and more may be on the way
MAKE NO mistake: The Heat is going for it. By acquiring forward Antoine Walker and point guard Jason Williams on Aug. 3 in a record 13-player, five-team trade, Miami conjured up images of the NFL's old Oakland Raiders, who turned reputed malcontents into stalwarts. While Heat coach Stan Van Gundy noted that Miami had already had success in this regard (see Lamar Odom, Rafer Alston), Walker sounded eager to get with the program. "I've never come into a season and said, Our goal is to win a championship," he says. "This is an opportunity I don't want to let go."
If he makes good on his promise to defer to stars Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade--rather than overdribble and jack threes, which he did repeatedly with the Celtics--the 6'9" Walker can serve Miami well at both forward slots, scoring, creating shots for others and grabbing rebounds (career: 8.7 per game). Last season Williams's negativity divided the Grizzlies' locker room, but when he's under control, he can be an electrifying playmaker: Over the last three years he has averaged a gaudy 3.5 assists per turnover. And while Miami president Pat Riley gave up three swingmen in Eddie Jones, Rasual Butler and Qyntel Woods, he also got small forward James Posey, who showed flashes of being a defensive stopper and potent transition scorer with Memphis. With an eye toward winning the franchise's first title, Riley said, "This had to be done."
At week's end the Heat was the only bona fide contender to have made ambitious roster moves. The champion Spurs had done little other than sign 6'10" Argentine forward Fabricio Oberto. The Pacers had welcomed back Ron Artest from his 73-game suspension. The Suns had acquired power forward Kurt Thomas from the Knicks in a deal for swingman Quentin Richardson but might let guard Joe Johnson go to the Hawks in a sign-and-trade. And the Pistons had stood pat since hiring coach Flip Saunders to replace Larry Brown.
Riley vows that he isn't done. In opting out of the final season of his contract to sign a five-year, $100 million deal on Aug. 2, Shaq agreed to a $10.6 million pay cut for next season; that means Miami can use its $5 million mid-level exception without paying a luxury tax. The Heat will wait until Aug. 15 to see if veterans Michael Finley, Allan Houston and Doug Christie are waived under the NBA's new "amnesty" provision, which allows teams to shed big salaries. For the second year in a row the most intriguing off-season buzz is coming out of South Florida. --I.T.