Larry Hughes proudly held up his Cleveland Cavaliers No. 32 jersey and didn't hold back yesterday when he explained his reasons for leaving a playoff team in Washington to join forces with LeBron James. At a news conference in Cleveland, Hughes, in his gravelly monotone, sounded upset that the Wizards would allow someone they deemed "the top priority" of the offseason to walk away.
"I didn't feel like I was their free agent," Hughes told reporters in Cleveland. "I had to go looking around for offers. I didn't feel like I should be in that situation. So, I was able to move on with no problem."
After averaging career highs of 22 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and a league-leading 2.89 steals last season, Hughes signed a five-year deal worth about $60 million with the Cavaliers. The deal could reach about $70 million with incentives, and will earn Hughes $10.3 million in his first season.
A source speaking on condition of anonymity said Hughes told those close to him that he would leave if the Wizards didn't present an offer comparable to the six-year, $65 million contract Gilbert Arenas signed as a free agent in 2003.
When the Wizards made an initial offer of six years, $54 million, Hughes was believed to be upset and began looking elsewhere. The Cavaliers quickly swooped in, sending Coach Mike Brown to Hughes's home in St. Louis for a sit-down lunch with Hughes and his family.
Hughes had made up his mind that he would sign with the Cavaliers before the Wizards made a final offer of $72 million over six years.
"This is an opportunity that I couldn't pass up," said Hughes, adding that James had been recruiting him throughout the regular season. "Coming from the situation I was in, I just felt like this is better for me."
When told of Hughes's comments, Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld said: "We made Larry a significant offer, but he elected to sign with another team. We wish him the best. We're moving forward and we're excited about the players we added to our team."
The Wizards have added three players to their roster -- Antonio Daniels ($5 million) Chucky Atkins ($4.5 million) and Caron Butler ($2.5 million) -- for the price it would have taken to retain Hughes.
Neither side appears to be looking back.
"I was really looking to being wanted . . . to have a place to call home and finish my career out," said Hughes, who will be joining with his fourth team since being drafted No. 8 overall in 1998. "[I] didn't think it was going in the right direction in Washington.
"Cleveland, I felt, had an opportunity to take it to the next level. I feel like coming to Cleveland from Washington, Cleveland's basically in the same place Washington is. That really was the deciding factor. I didn't want to go to an organization that was trying to hold things together to just win basketball games. Here, we're putting pieces together so we can advance to the playoffs."