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 prot�g� 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."