- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 9, 2005

The Washington Wizards no longer have a Big Three after Larry Hughes agreed yesterday to join LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a deal that will pay him approximately $14 million annually for the next five years.

Hughes, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison carried the Wizards into the NBA playoffs last season for the first time since 1997. He turned down a six-year, $72 million offer to remain with Washington.

“Larry is going to sign with Cleveland as soon as the moratorium ends,” Hughes’ agent, Jeff Wechsler, said last night.

Players officially can sign with teams beginning July 22.

Hughes, 26, had a breakout season in 2004-05, earning NBA all-defensive first team honors while averaging 22.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and a league-leading 2.89 steals. He helped the Wizards win 45 games — 20 more than the previous season — reach the playoffs and win a postseason series for the first time since 1982.

“He rejected our final offer, which we regarded as very fair and very meaningful,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. “We have a lot of outstanding players on this team, including All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, and we will add players that will continue to make us a very competitive ballclub. Our goals remain the same, which is to be a perennial playoff contender.”

Because league rules prohibit Grunfeld from commenting extensively on negotiations, he didn’t offer much when reached by phone last night. However, a club source said the team was prepared for Hughes’ departure and now will proceed with “Plan B.”

According to the source, the Wizards now are actively looking to deal forward Kwame Brown, a restricted free agent, in a sign-and-trade arrangement. The source said “at least nine teams” have contacted the Wizards about Brown’s availability, most notably the New York Knicks.

“We’re going to explore all of our options,” the source added. “We’ve got the mid-level exception and the million-dollar exception.”

The Wizards’ final offer would have made Hughes the second-highest paid member of the team on an annual basis. Arenas is scheduled to make a tad more than $11 million next season and Jamison $15.1 million.

One major concern for Washington was investing too much money in perimeter players. Had they agreed to match the Cavaliers’ offer, the Wizards would have more than $40 million committed on the perimeter.

“When you look at it that way, no matter how well Larry played for them, you simply can’t commit that type of money to perimeter players,” one Eastern Conference general manager said. “In that sense, I understand their rationale for letting Larry go.”

Teammate Etan Thomas, who signed an extension for approximately $40 million over six seasons last year, said he would miss Hughes but understood why his former teammate opted for Cleveland.

“If he can get more somewhere else, I can’t really fault him for that,” Thomas said of Hughes, who was acquired by the Wizards in 2002. “This is a business, and he made a business decision. He had to do what was best for him. It’s great for him but bad for us to lose a player of his caliber, but that’s the business.”

Going into free agency, Hughes generally was rated no lower than the third-best available shooting guard, with Seattle’s Ray Allen the best and Hughes and Milwaukee’s Michael Redd interchangeable at No. 2 and No. 3.

Allen re-signed with Seattle for five years at $80 million, and Redd accepted a deal to re-up with the Bucks paying him between $90 million and $96 million over six seasons.

Cleveland first went after Allen. After he came off the market, the Cavaliers turned their attention to Redd. However, Redd is said to be happy in Milwaukee and probably was made more so when the Bucks used the top pick in the draft on Utah’s Andrew Bogut. The Bucks also have learned that the spinal injury that has sidelined promising point guard T.J. Ford, the eighth overall pick in 2003, is not career-threatening, as once feared.

The Cavaliers also were said to have interest in Phoenix’s Joe Johnson. However, Johnson is a restricted free agent, and the Suns have said they are prepared to match any offer.

With the guard market drying up, the Cavaliers, who began free agency with about $21 million committed to contracts for next season, decided to open their vault to Hughes.

The Hughes deal did not come without reservations for the Cavaliers. According to a Cleveland source, the Cavaliers had “some durability questions” regarding Hughes, who has averaged just 62 games over the last five seasons.

Although Hughes had maintained he wanted to remain with the Wizards, he was not satisfied with Washington’s original offer, which sources said was for five seasons and $54 million. After that offer was made, things began to heat up between Cleveland and Hughes.

Recognizing that Hughes was serious about playing for Cleveland, Grunfeld made the six-year, $72 million offer yesterday morning. Hughes rejected it, and now the Wizards have a huge vacancy on their roster.

Washington currently has seven players signed. When the new salary cap of nearly $48 million is announced later this month, the Wizards will be close to $10 million below the cap.

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