A couple of weeks ago, before the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline, Yahoo Sports NBA insider Chris Mannix reported that there’d been “rumblings” around the league that Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho might soon find himself on the outside of the organization looking in, with owner Michael Jordan and other team officials considering importing former Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to take the franchise’s reins. Those rumbles turned to roars on Tuesday, when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Hornets were “unlikely to bring back” Cho on a new contract next season, and that Jordan (who starred at the University of North Carolina) was “expected to pursue” Kupchak (who starred at the University of North Carolina) to team with assistant general manager Buzz Peterson (who roomed with Jordan at the University of North Carolina) in a remodeled front office. The Hornets made the first part official with a team statement on Tuesday; the Kupchak part, for now, remains unconfirmed.
Cho, 52, became Charlotte’s GM in June of 2011, only a few weeks following his firing from the same post with the Portland Trail Blazers after less than one year on the job. The former Seattle SuperSonics and Oklahoma City Thunder executive entered an organization about to reboot after a fleeting glimpse of success; the then-Bobcats had chugged through five years of post-expansion sludge to get north of .500 and into the playoffs under Larry Brown in 2010, only to sink back to 34 wins the following season, shedding the ever-irascible Brown in the process.
Cho knew the Bobcats were about to rebuild. His Blazers had just traded for Charlotte’s best player, chaos agent/franchise totem Gerald Wallace, at the 2011 deadline so that Charlotte could recoup a pair of future first-round picks, and his first order of business was flipping disgruntled star Stephen Jackson in a three-team draft-night deal that landed rookie center Bismack Biyombo to pair with top-pick point guard Kemba Walker. He likely didn’t know quite how had it would get before it got better — Charlotte went 7-59 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the lowest single-campaign winning percentage in NBA history — but he and the organization prepared to dig in for the long haul, planning to build on the foundation of the two top-10 picks to serve as the foundation of whatever came next.
It took a one-year false start — shouts to Mike Dunlap — but Charlotte did get things turned around. The Bobcats improved by 22 wins in 2013-14 under new head coach Steve Clifford. After that, Cho was bumped up over former president of basketball operations Rod Higgins to become Charlotte’s lead basketball decision-maker. The team has made the postseason in two of the last four years, including a 48-win 2015-16 season that marked the winningest season the rebranded Hornets had enjoyed since 2000.
The problem, though, is that Charlotte slumped back below .500 and out the playoffs last year, and are on pace to do the same this year; the Hornets entered the All-Star break at 24-33, 5 1/2 games out of the eighth seed in the East. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 12 percent chance of cracking the top eight; Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN aren’t even that optimistic, each pegging Charlotte’s playoff chances south of 4 percent. They’re 17th in a 30-team league in points scored per possession, 14th in points allowed per possession, and 19th in net rating. They’re a bad-to-average-at-best team.
Well, actually, that’s only part of the problem. The bigger issue: that Charlotte’s a very expensive bad-to-average-at-best team. This year’s Hornets cost Jordan $117.2 million in salary, the 10th-highest total in the NBA. Next year’s model has just as much on the books, thanks to several decisions made under Cho’s leadership — premium-price re-ups for veterans Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, contract extensions for former top-five picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller, the summertime addition of Dwight Howard — that have larded Charlotte’s cap sheet and left it lagging on the court. (Those questionable signings don’t include perhaps the biggest swing-and-miss of Cho’s tenure — the gamble on Lance Stephenson that quickly went bust — though, as Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer wrote last month, it’s not clear whether that one was Cho’s call.)
Even dangling All-Star point guard Walker couldn’t get the Hornets any traction in trade talks, leaving Charlotte in desperate need of improvement but seemingly devoid of avenues through which to pursue them. Which points to another trouble spot on Cho’s resume: Charlotte’s recent draft history.
After a cruel bounce of the ping-pong balls landed 2012’s top prize, Kentucky superstar Anthony Davis, in Louisiana rather than North Carolina, the Hornets opted for fellow Wildcat Kidd-Gilchrist over Florida’s Bradley Beal at No. 2. Kidd-Gilchrist’s a very good and energetic defender when healthy, but Beal has developed into an All-Star who’d have looked awfully nice next to Kemba in the backcourt. A year later, Charlotte opted for Zeller out of Indiana — again, a solid and helpful player — at No. 4, which was far from indefensible at the time, but looks much rougher in hindsight when C.J. McCollum, Steven Adams and Giannis Antetokounmpo would all come off the board in the next 11 picks.
The story has repeated each year. Noah Vonleh at No. 9 in 2014, with Dario Saric, Zach LaVine, T.J. Warren, Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris in the next 10. Frank Kaminsky at No. 9 in 2015, with Myles Turner, Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre in the next six (to say nothing of the reported chance to secure as many as six draft picks from the Boston Celtics for the rights to the ninth selection). Trading their 2016 first-round pick, No. 22 overall, for Marco Belinelli, who left after one year. And — in a move that’s probably particularly painful for Hornets fans right now — taking Malik Monk at No. 11, two spots before the Utah Jazz landed Donovan Mitchell.
Yes, that sort of 20/20 hindsight cherry-picking is inherently unfair. Teams and executives make evaluations and choices based on the information they had at the time; if everybody knew Giannis was going to be Freaking Giannis, he would’ve gone first, not 15th. Player development isn’t a given, and you can’t fairly assume that every guy who’s gone to be great would’ve been equally great in every situation. Lots of other teams and scouts liked Monk over Mitchell, and it’s certainly still possible that the just-turned-20-year-old Monk becomes an excellent player for the Hornets in the years to come.
Fair or unfair, though, this is how it goes. Your decisions may have been reasonable in context and based on a sound process, but those choices and their results eventually coalesce into a body of work. In seven years under Cho, Charlotte has drafted one All-Star (Walker), developed almost no other players of note, and locked itself into a roster that seems to have no path to meaningful contention. Whether Kupchak (or whoever Charlotte eventually lands) can find one remains to be seen, but the sum of Cho’s C.V. left Jordan unconvinced he deserved to keep charting the course.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –