Last season Larry Hughes signed a five-year, $60 million contract and was expected to be the primary compliment to LeBron James. Then he played a couple of months and hurt himself, although no one should have been surprised: through his first eight seasons in the NBA Hughes has played in only 73% of the games, mostly due to injury. In the last four season Hughes hasn’t played in more than 67 games and last season he only played in 36. So Hughes missed a large portion of the season, as he’s prone to do. In his place Cavaliers’ coach Mike Brown started playing number of other shooting guards. First was Sasha Pavlovic. Then came Luke Jackson and Damon Jones, with a dash of Stephen Graham and Ira Newble. Then Sasha Pavlovic again. After about six weeks of the revolving door that was the Cavs’ shooting guard position it became clear that changes needed to be made. So GM Danny Ferry traded Mike Wilks and cash to the Seattle Sonics for Flip Murray. Murray quickly became the starting shooting guard, a position he held for the rest of the season.
Now Murray is gone. Hughes is avoiding Chinese finger traps and, one hopes, living in a well-padded first-floor room in the middle of Nebraska. Sasha is hiding from sidelines and Dwayne Wade. Jackson is living in the room next door to Hughes and, one hopes, not lifting anything heavy or, if he is, is using his legs and not his back. Stephen Graham is probably wondering what the deal is with the new guy, Eddie Basden, a shooting guard, who the Cavs acquired from the Bulls this off season and who will challenge Graham for a spot on the roster. And then there is Shannon Brown, the Cavs’ 2006 first-round draft pick, also a shooting guard, who is probably doing push ups and box squats and generally being the Most Diesel Cavaliers Shooting Guard Ever (Ricky Davis he is not).
With 6.5 potential shooting guards on roster (Damon Jones is .5), the pool of available players is quite deep (although Jackson is more of a small forward and Jones more of a point guard, so they won’t be given much attention right now; click here for my thoughts on Jones).
But can any of them play?
Let’s start with Larry Hughes. When he wasn’t injured Hughes was a below-average player last season. His Wins Score per minute was only .097. (The average guard has a per minute Win Score of .130) A player who posts such a low Win Score certainly isn’t worth $60 million, so what in Hughes’s past convinced GM Danny Ferry to give him so much money?
Here are Hughes’s Win Scores since he joined the Washington Wizards in 2002.
As you can see, Larry Hughes was really good in one season and below-average in the rest. In fact, in no season other than 2004-05 has Hughes been even an average shooting guard (though he was close in his rookie year). For his career his Win Score per minute is .123, with a career low of .089.
What happened in 2004-05?
For starters, Hughes had the best shooting year of his career. In 04-05 his true shooting percentage was a robust .523, .30 points above his career average. His points per shot average was also the highest of his career, at .914. He was an aggressive scorer that season as well, earning .417 free throws per field goal attempt, well above his career average of .35 (NBA average is .33). All told, Hughes averaged 22 points per game, well above his career 15.2 ppg average.
Hughes also set career highs in rebounds (328) and was an All-NBA First Team defender (the only guard to make the list). He not only lead the Washington Wizards in steals, he also set a career high, with 176. 176 was 53% more steals than he has ever had in any other season and 81% more than his average season. His previous career high, set in 1999-2000, was 115.
About the only area in which Hughes didn’t excel that season was in three point shooting. Though he made the second-most threes of his career—59—he did so while shooting abysmally from downtown: only 28.2% (his career average is 28.1%). Fortunately for Hughes he shot 47% on two-point shots, his highest career percentage. Hughes outperformed himself by a considerable margin in his last season as a Wizard. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2004-05 was his contract year.
So Ferry signed Hughes to a large contract that off season seemingly on the basis of the outstanding season Hughes had and with indifference to his career numbers.
Given his history one would expect that Hughes improves next season as he regresses back to his norm. He has displayed the ability to be a very successful shooting guard in the past, but there is no reason for Cavs fans to think that Hughes will be the same player he was in 2004-05 with the Washington Wizards. More likely is that Hughes will have a season comparable to the season he had in 2003-04, which was an average season for Hughes, but still a below-average season for a shooting guard.
How important Hughes is to the Cavaliers is up to debate. Hughes played in only 28 regular season games last year and the Cavs still won 50 games. In the games in which Hughes played the Cavaliers were 18-10, a winning percentage of .643. In the 54 regular season games in which Hughes did not play the Cavaliers had a winning percentage of .593. The Cavaliers with Hughes were a little bit worse than the Cavaliers without Hughes, but the difference is quite small (then again, so is the sample size).
In the upcoming season the extent to which Hughes is productive will depend a good deal on the role he plays for the team. His first priority should be shooting far less from three point range than he did last season, during which 16% of his shots were three pointers. Nothing in Hughes’s past suggests that he’ll have success as a three point shooter next year. In his previous few seasons the number of three point shots Hughes attempted increased significantly over his first few seasons. Prior to 2003-04 his career high in attempts was 125 (99-00). In his last two seasons in Washington he attempted 221 three pointers in only 122 games, or about 149 attempts per season. Last season he was on pace for 173 attempts in 82 games. But over the last three seasons he shot only 30%, just 2 points above his career average. The volume of attempts each season more than doubled from the first five years of his career but the increase in shooting percentage is well within the seasonal variability. In other words, shooting more did not help Hughes shoot more accurately. Unless Hughes completely overhauls his shooting form—which is unlikely—he probably will shoot about 29% from three point range next season. Rather than rely on Hughes having an outstanding year from inside the arch to obscure his poor shooting from downtown—which is what happened with the Wizards in 2004-05—the coaching staff ought to force Hughes to attempt fewer threes.
Hughes’s poor shooting from long distance raises another concern a lot of fans have about Hughes. Namely, Hughes is an inefficient scorer. Last season his points per shot attempt—.878—was below average for shooting guards—.974. In 2004-5, when he averaged 22 points per game and prompted Ferry to offer him $60 million, he only scored .914 points per shot. His 22 points per game, then, were not the result of superior shooting ability but of a combination of many shots and a lot of free throws. If the Cavs signed Hughes to be the perimeter shooter who’d be take a lot of the open three pointers LeBron James generates then the front office made a terrible error in judgment. Hughes is simply not that sort of player. The more Hughes shoots from the outside, the less efficiently he scores. The less efficiently he scores, the less productive he is.
For Hughes to contribute more than the average shooting guard it will require Mike Brown to use Hughes in such a way that his strengths are maximized and his weakness are minimized. The first aim should be to reduce the number of jump shots Hughes attempts. Hughes doesn’t shoot well enough to warrant the amount of jump shots he takes. The Cavaliers would be better served to allow Damon Jones or LeBron James to take Hughes’s share of jump shots. I can’t repeat it enough: Hughes is not a shooter. In fact, if Hughes is on the floor with Damon Jones the Cavs have two players who are, in their own ways, utterly unsuited to play the positions they do. Damon Jones is a point guard who is poor in the open court and in the half court doesn’t create many assists or grab many rebounds. Larry Hughes is a shooting guard who can’t shoot but who rebounds better than the average shooting guard and can dish out as many assists as a point guard. Together Hughes and Jones compliment each other very well. If they are on the court at the same time Mike Brown ought to have Hughes facilitate the offense and focus on grabbing rebounds and Jones shoot the ball and score the points. If Eric Snow plays with Larry Hughes then the Cavs won’t have a shooter on the court unless Donyell Marshall is in the game. In such a case Hughes needs to be used as a slashing, drive-to-the-hoop guard who runs off of screens and executes the pick-and-roll with the big men.
As strange as it sounds, if Hughes keeps hoisting shots like a shooting guard he won’t be a good shooting guard.
And what about Hughes’s defense? Individual defense is hard to quantify. Larry Hughes’s steal total in 2004-05 (176) certainly made him valuable on the defensive end of the floor. That total was not only high in absolute terms but also in terms of steals per minutes. Hughes’s steals per minute in 04-05 was .075, or more than twice as good as the average shooting guard (.035). But his career average is .055 and his average in the last three seasons is .056—and this includes 04-05! Hughes’s steals totals, in other words, vary greatly from season to season, although he has always been above average. To put .035 and .055 and .075 steals per minute in perspective, over the course of 2000 minutes Hughes will, on average, produce about 1.34 more wins than the average shooting guard. At a rate of .075 steals per minute Hughes will produce about 2.68 more wins than the average shooting guard. 1.34 wins is quite a bit, but when the top players in the league produce over 20 wins per season 1.34 is not that much. In the last three seasons Hughes has averaged 1938 minutes per season. The most productive players in the league average more than 2000 minutes, which is partly why they produce so many wins (in addition to, you know, skill). Hughes’s defense is above average, but if he’s not on the court his above-average defense doesn’t do a whole bunch for the Cavs.
If Hughes is not on the court—and it’s entirely reasonable to assume that Hughes will miss a portion of next season—then the Cavs will probably turn to Sasha Pavlovic. This is where things get ugly. Last season Sasha had a Win Score per minute of .031, which is spectacularly miserable. Again, the average guard has a per minute Win Score of .130. Sasha was just not good. Any hope for next season?
If his previous seasons are any indication of future performance then there is little hope that Sasha will amount into anything approaching earshot of average. And so it is with every other shooting guard on the Cavs’ roster. Flip Murray’s Win Score per minute last season was .041, so he was an improvement over Pavlovic, but when Detroit offered him $3.5 million over two seasons to backup Richard Hamilton the Cavs’ front office was wise to let him go. Eddie Basden, who played only 144 minutes last season, and Stephen Graham, who played 116 minutes, aren’t worth the effort. Suffice it to say that both are fighting for a chance to, among other things, be included in this analysis next season.
Without further ado, then, here are the Wins Produced of the shooting guards last season.
Much like the point guards, the Cavs received very little production from the shooting guards last season. With such little production from the guards, it’s almost hard to believe that the Cavs won 50 games. LeBron James and the front court are that good. This off season the team acquired Basden, who might not make the final roster, and David Wesley, who last season produced .203 wins and had a Wins Produced per 48 of .004. Wesley was not good, plain and simple, although he was better than most of the Cavs’ shooting guards and, as such, could contribute to the team. If you care about the battle for third-string shooting guards on NBA teams then get your blow horn and foam finger ready because next preseason is going to be a doozy. I expect that only one of the following three players will make the roster: Basden and Graham and Pavlovic. Pavlovic is the leader in the clubhouse because he can be traded for more than either Basden or Graham and right now is the most talented of the lot. No matter what, though, Pavlovic will not be a Cav after this season as his rookie contract expires in the summer of 2007 and will not be renewed. If the Cavs can trade Pavlovic before the start of the season then they ought to since Basden and Graham are both younger and far cheaper than Pavlovic and only marginally less productive. With the deluge of inadequate shooting guards on roster someone (or two, maybe three) has to go. Then there is Shannon Brown, who has more potential than any of the shooting guards (Hughes included). If he develops a consistent jump shot, works on his ball handling, and demonstrates that he can play good defense, he could see significant time on the court next season, probably at the expense of Eric Snow and Damon Jones. A back court of Brown, Hughes, and James would give the Cavs a fearsome trio of athletic, young, and talented players.
WHAT WE’LL SEE NEXT SEASON: Larry Hughes will shoot many threes and miss so many that continued shooting of such long range shots will quickly become prohibitively burdensome. If Hughes attempts 70 three point shots by 2007 his Win Score will not be close to average. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hughes and Jones are used together in the manner I describe above, with Hughes being a primary ball-handler and Jones as the shooter. Consequently, Hughes will also revert into more of a slashing, aggressive player; I expect he’ll take fewer mid-range jump shots, replaced by layups and/or foul shots. Until he gets hurt, that is. I expect this to happen. Such is the Hughes Paradox: unproductive if he stays away from the basket, unhealthy if he gets near the basket. Let’s hope that Hughes’s lithe frame enables him to avoid some of the contact that comes with aggressive drives to the basket. When Hughes doesn’t play Wesley may find his way onto the court. If this happens let’s hope he isn’t on the court with Jones as this would give the Cavs the two shortest shooting guards in the league and no point guard. Pavlovic will be traded at some point. Prior to that he won’t be productive, assuming he’s not traded before the start of the season. Basden/Graham won’t play more than 150 minutes next season. Brown will begin the season as the backup shooting guard. If either Jones or Hughes stumble expect to see Brown take their minutes. If Brown develops a consistent jump shot he’ll see a lot of playing time—at least 1500 minutes—but I don’t see this happening. He’ll score like a Ben Gordon (in bunches) but with a bit more efficiency. He’ll finish the season with seven SportsCenter-worthy dunks over players at least six inches taller than he is.