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NBA Free Agency: Revisiting the Cavaliers signing of Larry Hughes

If the Cavaliers are going to invest in free agency, it will have to be in 2013 or 2014, before the extensions to their young stars start to kick in. Whoever the team signs, Cavs fans will hope and pray that the signing turns out better than Larry Hughes. So what went wrong there?

Mike Zarrilli

Being from Toledo, where hometown sports allegiances can be a little ambiguous, I grew up choosing my favorite teams a little differently than most kids. If I had an uncle that lived in a certain city, I would adopt a team from that town. I started reading the Sports section of the Toledo Blade around age 4 (I was a strange kid) and would call uncles from Tampa, Chicago, St. Louis, Miami, Los Angeles, and Denver quite regularly, anxious to show that I knew something about where they lived, and have a way to get to know them. My Uncle Matt living in St. Louis led to a love of the St. Louis Cardinals, and, for a time, Larry Hughes, a product of the city who then played for St. Louis University. When the Cleveland Cavaliers signed Hughes to a 5 year, $70 million contract in the summer of 2005, I was ecstatic, for reasons that had very little to do with basketball. I knew he was from a very tough neighborhood, had worked hard, and was going to be able to take care of his family. I was pretty sure he was a good player, too.

Well, it didn't work out. The Cavaliers thought they were getting a great scorer and defender to complement LeBron James. He could, theoretically, lessen the burden on James and diversify the offense. Even at the signing, there were some signs that there might be cause for worry. From Chad Ford's news article from ESPN reporting of the signing:

For the Cavs, Hughes gives them a great scorer and defender to put at the two alongside LeBron James. Hughes is a fantastic ball handler and rebounder for a two-guard making him -- like LeBron -- a very versatile piece in the puzzle. However, he's not a perfect fit in Cleveland. Hughes is not a good 3-point shooter (a big need for the Cavs), has a history of injuries and has been inconsistent throughout his career.

Still, Hughes was coming off a season in which the Washington Wizards had surprised the NBA, he averaged 22 points per game, and caused all kinds of havoc on defense creating steals. Michael Lee, covering the Wizards for the Washington Post, described the signing from the perspective of Washington fans:

Less than two months after the conclusion of their best season in 26 years, the Washington Wizards were dealt a devastating blow when Larry Hughes informed the team that he won't return. The free agent guard, coming off the best season of his career, has agreed in principle to a five-year deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and will sign with the team when the NBA's moratorium concludes on July 22, his agent, Jeff Wechsler, said yesterday.

His first season in Cleveland was a bit of a dud. Due to injury, he played in only 36 games. This would ultimately become a theme of his tenure in Cleveland. 2006-2007, though, was a tantalizing look at what might have been. That Cavaliers team made the NBA Finals, in large part because of Hughes moving from shooting guard to the point guard spot. At the time, LeBron James was a 32% three point shooter, and Hughes wasn't much better at 32%. Add in the previous point guard, Eric Snow, and you are looking at a team that desperately needs three point shooting. At the time, LeBron was hesitant to go into the post, and didn't have the requisite mind or ability to play consistent minutes at power forward. This meant that Hughes moving to the point allowed Cleveland to bring a shooter onto the floor.

The difference was immediate and exciting and really fun. Remember when Daniel Gibson went absolutely nuts in the Eastern Conference Finals? Hughes' slide over to point guard was a huge part of why Gibson was able to get on the court. An early Cavs blog, Cavalier Attitude, documented the transition of Hughes from the beginning:

Ever since installing Larry Hughes at the point on March 3rd against Toronto, the Cavs are a perfect 7-0. Even more impressively, they've had some of their biggest offensive explosions during this stretch, something that was a pipedream a few months ago when the stagnant offense prompted discouraging remarks by Hughes and LeBron James about head coach Mike Brown.

Hughes himself, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, was originally giving the right answers when asked about the switch, but you could see warning signs even when he was trying to be diplomatic:

It was an easy transition; I've always been used to having the ball and making decisions. Coach [ Mike Brown] told me he wanted to have the ball in my hands earlier in the shot clock so I can make more plays for my teammates. As a point guard I can get any shot whenever I want it. I don't have to worry about when I'm going to get the ball, so I don't press as much.

Hughes transition to the point position meant less minutes for Eric Snow, and more time at shooting guard for Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson. Hughes was a good rebounder for a shooting guard, and a great rebounder for a point guard. While neither Gibson nor Pavlovic were good, they were able to hit open shots, which quite simply was something that the Cavaliers didn't have before. Reducing Snow's time also led to a back court in Gibson and Hughes that was versatile and could handle most NBA guards. Mike Brown was effusive in his praise of Hughes during this stretch:

"He has been everything we could have asked for," says Brown. "He gets to the free throw line. He doesn't turn the ball over. He plays defense. He does a good job settling down our ballclub. I have no complaints with Larry Hughes."

Cleveland got beat, and beat bad, by the Spurs in the NBA Finals, but the team had played at a pretty high level for the last two months of the season. Well, things went to hell pretty quickly. He was simply playing terrible basketball offensively, chafed at his role in the system, and had lost a step defensively. Meanwhile, he still had two years left on a massive contract. His shot selection was so bad, and his shooting percentages were so low, that a website called had been created. By this point, all of the good feelings I had felt when they signed Hughes were gone. I remember wondering how he could make it to the NBA Finals in a role, be making all that money, and still complain. An article from niketalk just before Christmas 2007 outlined the problems:

The relationship between the Cavs and Hughes has not gone well. Hughes was GM Danny Ferry's biggest signing, but Hughes' two-plus seasons have been riddled with injuries. When healthy, Hughes has not been comfortable in the Cavs' offense, which takes away from his strength as a slasher. He's instead asked to take outside shots, which is not one of his strengths.
Last season, Hughes was moved out of position to point guard. This year, at his insistence, he was moved back to shooting guard but now comes off the bench. He is shooting a career-low 33.8 percent from the field.

Hughes was subsequently traded, and the Cavaliers improved dramatically. Cleveland gave the eventual champion Boston Celtics everything they could handle in the playoffs before Paul Pierce beat LeBron James to a loose ball and ended a valiant Cleveland effort. The next season, Cleveland won 66 games.

I don't know if there are easy lessons to be learned from the Larry Hughes saga. Signing a free agent because you have the cap space and are worried about being able to re-sign your star player might be valid reasons, but you have to take into account fit with the team. A major reason Cleveland won 66 games was their ability with Mo Williams and Delonte West to put two above average three point shooters around James. Prior to the Hughes trade, this was nearly impossible. Attitude also seems to matter. Larry Hughes may not have been concerned about being the top option offensively, but he clearly didn't feel like the Cavaliers were catering to his strengths. The Cavaliers have their young core in place, and will perhaps add to it through the June draft. Making sure the pieces they add buy into Coach Scott's system, and understand their role with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters on board, will be essential.