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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?" 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."