A Case of Dollars and Sense

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, July 9, 2005

The reaction throughout a town tired of a quarter-century of dysfunction was predictable and understandable: How in the world could the Washington Wizards let Larry Hughes leave? How could they say so publicly that they were going to show him the money, then essentially get outbid by a conference rival with no history of scoring free agents? Wasn't Hughes the only defensive-minded player among the starters? Didn't he just average 22.5 points in the six-game playoff series victory over the Bulls?

Of course, the mood here among basketball fans ranges from annoyed to outraged. Hughes, still just 26 years old, was one of the Big Three, along with Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, and now he's gone. This seems like more of exactly what the Bullets/Wizards have become known for, right? They screw up. They tease. They undermine their own progress every time and therefore the credibility of the franchise, whether we're talking the draft, free agency or trades. And this simply fits the pattern of their sorry recent history, doesn't it?

Well, probably not.

Oh, losing Hughes is a setback, no question.

But Hughes, good as he is, isn't a franchise player, and $14 million a year is awfully close to max money, franchise player money. At $14 million, Hughes would make $3.4 million, on average, more than Arenas, who is the Wizards' best player. If we're playing virtual GM, I'd have stopped around $12 million a year, which is where the club's GM-in-reality, Ernie Grunfeld, stopped.

As somebody who has very often ridiculed the Wizards for being penny-wise and dollar foolish, I'm not sure I want to go down that road in this particular instance. Paying nearly half your salary cap to the starting back court on a team still in need of a marquee power player is very, very risky if we're talking serious championship contention in 2007 or 2008. At $14 million, you wince and say, "Larry, it was fun . . . Jarvis [Hayes], get in there."

And if you're Hughes, you're going to earn between $13 million and $14 million a year (for a total of $65 million to $70 million) for the next five years playing (presumably) next to LeBron James in Cleveland. Who doesn't see the attraction in that?

Hughes doesn't address Cleveland's need for a deep and accurate shooter to play alongside LeBron, not when Hughes is a 27 percent three-point shooter. But the Cavaliers, having been rebuffed by Ray Allen, Joe Johnson and Ohio native Michael Redd, needed a big-splash signing to appease not just LeBron but a suddenly nervous fan base worried by the growing rumors that the savior is soon off to New York if the club doesn't surround him with good players quick and in a hurry.

Hughes, financially, was sitting in the perfect situation at the perfect time.

But that doesn't mean the Wizards were in the same situation and had to up the ante.

Maximum and near-maximum contracts for players who simply aren't franchise-best players have become a pox on NBA teams. In fact, the one-time opportunity to waive a player for luxury tax purposes in the newly bargained labor agreement is an acknowledgment that max-deals too often backfire in two or three years.

Specifically, I'm talking about Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antoine Walker, Jalen Rose, Keith Van Horn, Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway (among others), all of whom have been traded and none of whom is worth building around. Throw in Damon Stoudamire and even my man Michael Finley, who both haven't yet been moved but could be, and you see why Grunfeld had to put a price on how much he liked Hughes.

To be a legitimate maximum-salaried player, you need to carry your team, like Allen does Seattle, like Redd does Milwaukee.

Arenas carries the Wizards, and he isn't even a max-salaried player.

Those of us who remember how the Bullets refused to pay Juwan Howard the $24 million he asked for, only to have to pony up $105 million two years later, had every reason to conclude the Wizards came late and low with the first offer, that Hughes and his representative felt the Wizards didn't act like a big league ballclub, which many an agent has said over the years.

But indications are that wasn't the case. Those close to the negotiations swear the Wizards' initial offer to Hughes was $54 million, an average of $9 million, and that club officials said that was the team's first offer, not its last. When Cleveland threw out the big number, the Wizards came back with $12 million a year for a six-year total of $72 million. Hughes felt it was too late, that Cleveland was more generous more quickly.

I understand Hughes being attracted to $2 million more per year and the opportunity to play with LeBron.

I understand Grunfeld wanting not to be in a salary cap bind in two years, and wanting not to pay Hughes more than Rip Hamilton and Manu Ginobili, better players at the same position.

Really, this boils down to giving Grunfeld the benefit of the doubt. Nobody else over the years with the Wizards earned that. Grunfeld helped set up a Knicks finalist (1994), then got Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell for a second appearance in the NBA Finals (1999). Grunfeld pulled Arenas out of thin air. Grunfeld knows how to make a deal.

Please, nobody should mention Sprewell or Allan Houston. Both are done as major players. But Cuttino Mobley isn't done. He's 29 years old. He hit 38.3 percent of his three-pointers, though he isn't the rebounder or passer Hughes is. Oh, Mobley is a free agent, too. Somebody else who might soon be free is Finley. He definitely has some mileage at 32. But he still makes 37 percent of his three-pointers and might be available for $5 million or less if he and the Mavericks part company via that one-time luxury tax amnesty.

And there's still the matter of dealing Kwame Brown, who in my game of virtual GM simply has to go bye-bye. If Kwame can fetch Mobley and a first-round pick, then good. Or Michael Sweetney and a first-round pick, then good. One thing's for sure: It's easier to find a good player who plays two-guard, Hughes's position, than any position on the floor. So, whether it's Hayes moving into the lineup or a free agent coming in, it's up to Grunfeld, who is also armed with the knowledge that the Wizards were a respectable 10-11 in the games Hughes missed this season.

But the burden of proof is on Grunfeld and the Wizards to demonstrate that this setback is something the club can overcome, and not just another in a long series of moves that have left so many skeptical.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company