Rich Cho Isn't the Man to Lead the Hornets

Rumors that Kemba Walker is available to trade have led some fans calling for the Charlotte Hornets to fire GM Rich Cho. But trading Walker is just the logical result of Cho's entire tenure as GM.

When news broke last week that the Charlotte Hornets were open to trading Kemba Walker, fans were shocked. Willingly sending out an All-Star that loves the city and is on pace to be the franchise’s all-time leading scorer by the end of the season while on one of the league’s best contracts is unthinkable. It’s so unthinkable, in fact, that the idea had some fans calling for general manager Rich Cho’s head.

That makes sense. Trading Walker by itself isn’t a fireable offense, but it wouldn’t be Cho’s only misstep. In truth, the only reason to trade Walker would be to launch a full-fledged rebuild. That rebuild would only be necessary because of the missteps made that led to the Hornets being a team full of bloated contracts without a bright future. Those are Cho’s mistakes, and shipping Walker out would be an attempt to fix them.

Charlotte has a tough decision to make, one that will decide the future of the franchise. That decision should not be made by the current front office.

Cho spent the early parts of his NBA career as an assistant in the Seattle SuperSonics’ front office. Known for his analytical mind, he was part of the front office that drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden and helped usher in success as the team relocated to Oklahoma City. Despite a reputation as more of a cap expert than a talent evaluator, Cho turned that success to a GM position with the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers fired Cho 10 months later, citing a lack of chemistry between him and the rest of the front brass. Less than one month after that, Cho would join the Hornets as their new general manager. In the seven years since, Charlotte has made two playoff appearances, both first-round exits. The team currently sits at No. 11 in the Eastern Conference, five games back from a playoff spot.

With Charlotte, Cho’s draft record is mixed at best: the Hornets got Walker in his first draft, but it’s hard to say how much of that was his doing, considering he had been on the job for just nine days. And beyond Kemba, there hasn’t been a real success for Charlotte in the draft. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller seemed like quality picks at the time and have turned into valuable players, but neither is a star. Noah Vonleh was a high-upside pick – though he joined an already-crowded frontcourt – that was traded after just one season. It’s too early to judge Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, but the latter seems to be a second-round steal.

The worst pick of Cho’s tenure has to go to Frank Kaminsky. Charlotte infamously turned down the Boston Celtics’ offer of several – possibly as many as four – first-round picks to move down seven spots to pick 16, where it’s possible Kaminsky still would’ve been available. The pick of Kaminsky was a strange one for a team that still had a crowded frontcourt, and while players like Justise Winslow and Devin Booker were available. Even if Cho and company had their hearts set on a big man, Myles Turner and Trey Lyles were both more intriguing options than Kaminsky. Even as the former Wisconsin Badger continues to improve in Charlotte, it was a bad pick.

That draft record – one great pick, several mediocre-to-good ones, and a terrible one – isn’t exactly inspiring for a team consistently in the lottery. That’s especially relevant if the team decided to trade Walker and rebuild through the draft. But it’s not the only area that Cho falls short in, either.

While the beginning of Cho’s tenure was marked with intelligent free agent signings, the more recent returns haven’t been as pleasant. Particularly, the summer of 2016 was a rough one. Coming off of a playoff appearance, the desire was to run it back with the same team and see if they could make it further. Nicolas Batum agreed to a near-max contract that is now among the worst in the league. Marvin Williams, an aging stretch-four, got $54.5 million over four years. The Batum contract was justifiable at the time, but the Williams deal was always too much.

With the limited cap space allowed by those contracts, the Hornets managed to put together a team without a single suitable backup at point guard. Michael Carter-Williams has been a complete bust and Julyan Stone has played seven games. And between Treveon Graham as the lone small forward to back up MKG and Zeller’s seemingly-constant injuries, Charlotte’s roster is devoid of meaningful depth beyond Jeremy Lamb and Kaminsky. That depth is even more impressive considering Walker’s $12 million per year is one of the biggest non-rookie deal bargains in the entire league. Paying your star such a small amount and still managing to have no cap space is no small feat, but Cho and company have pulled it off.

As for the so-called Trader Cho’s supposed strong suit, the results on the trade market have been mixed. Sending the rights to Luke Ridnour and a second-round draft pick to pick up the then-23 high-upside prospect in Jeremy Lamb was a great move, and it’s worked out wonderfully. Sending a first-rounder to the Kings in exchange for Marco Belinelli a year later was bad. Cho managed to a bit to make up for that and another bad trade (Roy Hibbert’s expiring deal and Spencer Hawes’ bargain contract for four years and $50 million dollars of the second-best Plumlee brother) by sending Plumlee and Belinelli to Atlanta in exchange for Dwight Howard.

Even trading Vonleh and Gerald Henderson for Nicolas Batum, who became one of the team’s best and most important players, wasn’t perfect: Vonleh was a high-upside rookie that was never given a real chance in Charlotte. Batum was a talented but often-disappointing player that had one year left on his deal. If the Frenchman wasn’t an instant success in Charlotte, it would’ve been an abysmal swap. As it stands, the team traded an intriguing prospect and a fan favorite for one great year from Batum, one mediocre one, and now a year of an almost comically-bad contract.

Breaking down the major moves Cho’s made in Charlotte casts him in a slightly better light than just looking at the big picture. It's also fair to say that Cho's role in team-building is complicated by working with a hands-on owner like Michael Jordan. But despite the issues and complications, even the kindest view of his tenure in Charlotte is a series of solid and unspectacular moves and a few bad choices, all of which have combined to create a mediocre-at-best team without cap space or a clear path forward.

Rich Cho has dug the Hornets into a deep hole. It should be up to someone else to dig them out.

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