- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2005

We now have a figure on the price of loyalty with Larry Hughes.

His loyalty was purchased for about $2million a season, only half of which is liable to end up in his pocket after taxes and the high cost of doing business in the NBA.

His departure already has been termed a “business decision,” which is only partially correct.

It also was a short-sighted decision on the part of Hughes because it assumes the new ownership of the Cavaliers suddenly has a clue and that LeBron James is in it for the long haul.

Hughes also demonstrated a remarkable lack of pride in allowing himself to be third on the free agent table of the Cavaliers, courted after both Ray Allen and Michael Redd elected to stay put.

The swiftness with which Hughes made his decision suggests his devotion to the Wizards was made out of paper instead of iron. He played the mercenary for what amounts to a few extra dollars, joining an operation that has been noteworthy only because of its late-season collapse and pursuit of Larry Brown.

His prior comments now appear duplicitous.

All along, Hughes told the Wizards and the city that he was committed to finishing what the team had started last season and that his time on the free agent market was mostly an exploratory exercise that easily would be resolved.

He said he did not want to leave Gilbert Arenas or Antawn Jamison or a franchise that encouraged his development and stuck with him following his questionable level of commitment near the end of Michael Jordan’s midlife crisis.

And then along came the skeptical proposition of the Cavaliers.

His loss lets the air out of the good feelings enveloping the Wizards.

Finally, after a generation’s worth of nonsense, they were on the right path. And now? Who knows?

Unless Ernie Grunfeld can pull a competent frontcourt player out of his bag of personnel tricks, the Wizards suddenly do not look like an automatic playoff team next season.

Fair or not, the loss of Hughes sends an unsettling message to a city that embraced the team last season.

It was a city that celebrated the elimination of the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, as if the Wizards had won the NBA championship.

Grunfeld is obligated to change tactics after indicating that re-signing Hughes was his No.1 priority this summer.

The new spin — and there is some basis for it — is that re-signing Hughes would have tied up too much money on the perimeter and limited Grunfeld’s ability to land a frontcourt player.

And until Hughes took a hike, the absence of a genuine scoring option in the low post was the team’s most glaring deficiency.

As uplifting as the team’s performance was last season, there was a sense the Wizards would not advance to the top tier of playoff teams until someone more capable than a role player was patrolling the three-second lane.

Grunfeld has been incredibly productive the last two summers, and he went into this one thinking the team’s foundation was largely complete. The team’s core was young and vital, plus playoff-tested, merely in need of a piece or two.

Now Grunfeld is dealing with his first setback on Fun Street, with the Wizards sentenced to a period of uncertainty.

Grunfeld has some unexpected money to toss around and some catching up to do.

He also has the element of Kwame Brown as an added inducement.

His counter move is essential to lifting the sudden pall that has descended over the franchise.

This is his time, his challenge, his burden.

The departure of Hughes may be best in the end — after all, the team already has a glut of jack-it-up shooters — but only if Grunfeld acquires a player who measures up to what was the Big Three.

We know that player is not on the roster.

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