As with any midnight announcement during the NBA Finals, the Charlotte Hornets' late-night press release of former GM and President of Basketball Operations Rod Higgins' stepping down came as a bit of a shock. Just a couple weeks before the Hornets make two first-round selections in the NBA Draft and the team would suddenly be without their longest tenured basketball-side executive.
With that in mind, the move has cast some doubt on the Hornets' future for some folks. Late night press releases often have that effect, and add it to impending draft and an offseason with plenty of flexibility for the front office to work with, and the Hornets look like they're in a bit of upheaval.
It is, of course, still a pretty momentous change of direction. After all, Higgins has been a top decision-maker in the organization for seven years.
But his record doesn't exactly support the Hornets retaining him.
Bobcats history under Higgins
Hired before the summer of 2007, Higgins made his first big move trading the team's lottery pick (Brandan Wright) for high-scoring guard Jason Richardson, and he re-signed Gerald Wallace. He also re-signed Matt Carroll to a surprising six-year, $27 million contract. The season, following a few of improving years, was an utter failure with Sam Vincent at head coach, who was quickly fired after the season.
The then-Bobcats hired legendary head coach Larry Brown to lead the team, which brought about stark changes. In the draft, Higgins and co. drafted D.J. Augustin at ninth overall and traded a future first-round pick to draft French seven-footer Alexis Ajinca at No. 20. Further entrenching the Bobcats in financial problems for their future, Higgins also re-signed Emeka Okafor for six years for $72 million. Okafor was a great defensive talent with a nose for snuffing out opponent's shots and cleaning the glass, but was limited offensively. I'd say the per-year salary wasn't unthinkable -- talented big men are hard to find -- but agreeing to long-term high-salary contracts would impede their future flexibility, as they would discover.
The notoriously grinding Brown needed personnel changes to get the defensive team he needed for his team and Higgins obliged, dealing Richardson and his lackluster defense (along with Jared Dudley and a second-round pick) for veteran guard Raja Bell, versatile power forward Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary. The team desperately wanted to go to the playoffs and Brown, who had never failed to take his teams to the playoffs within two years, was given plenty of control to build the team he wanted.
The next season would see the Bobcats fulfill Brown's hopes in taking them to the postseason. Higgins dealt Okafor to the New Orleans Hornets in exchange for Tyson Chandler. Early in the season the Bobcats would make another big move in trading Raja Bell and Vladimir Radmanovic to the Golden State Warriors for swingman Stephen Jackson, a notoriously divisive talent. The trade would be a boon for the Bobcats as they formed the best defense in the league on the back of All-Star Gerald Wallace, not to mention Larry Brown's vicious defensive style designed to suffocate teams slowly.
Desperate to add to the team's frontcourt depth, the Bobcats and Higgins acquired Tyrus Thomas from the Bulls in exchange for a first-round pick. Thomas, a young explosive defensive talent with a penchant for upsetting Bulls brass, was in the last season of his contract and the Bobcats wanted him to add energy to the team as they chased a playoff spot. He did just that and helped the Bobcats grab their first playoff seeding in franchise history as the seven seed before being swept by the Orlando Magic.
The Bobcats found themselves painted into a corner, unwilling to spend into the luxury tax as a seven seed with a limited ceiling. The front office decided to let Raymond Felton leave and opted to sign Tyrus Thomas to a five-year, $40 million deal. Brown was upset to see Felton leave, which left the Bobcats' coach disgruntled. The Bobcats continued to shake things up, dealing Tyson Chandler after a season marred heavily by injury to the Dallas Mavericks for Erick Dampier, Eduardo Najera and the return of Matt Carroll. Rumors swirled that the Bobcats were trying to deal Dampier's unique contract to entice a major deal involving a talent like Carmelo Anthony, but nothing appeared and it ended with the Bobcats waiving Dampier. Chandler would become the catalyst for the Mavericks' championship season as a defensive playmaker and efficient finisher around the rim. This move, more than any, might demonstrate the Bobcats' financial problems under Higgins. The Bobcats added significant future salary and gave up talent in a confusing move.
The coming season would be a disaster. Brown was a disgruntled and uninterested coach. The Bobcats fired Brown after the 9-19 start and named former Hornets coach Paul Silas the interim head coach. Reading the writing on the wall, the Bobcats cut their losses and decided to deal talent to help regain control of their future. They traded their face of the franchise in Gerald Wallace to the Trail Blazers for first-round picks and roster detritus.
Rich Cho arrives
Firmly focused in a transition to rebuilding the franchise, the Bobcats made a surprising late-night decision to hire Rich Cho, the former GM of the Portland Trail Blazers, who had been ousted by Blazers for mystifying reasons. Cho was one of the first hires in a progressively analytic front office. A wickedly smart manager with an eye for deftly navigating the salary cap and acquiring assets, Cho was a change of pace for the organization and team owner Michael Jordan, who had long surrounded himself with his own acquaintances. Cho's departure from the Blazers was rumored to be due to his unwillingness to fold to their owner's desires, so it seemed like an odd marriage for Jordan to hire him, but still one that was championed by fans.
On draft night the Bobcats traded Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and the 19th overall pick for Corey Maggette and the seventh overall pick, who would become Bismack Biyombo. They also drafted Kemba Walker. Having given up so much veteran talent and with such a young roster, the Bobcats were poised to bottom out, and bottom out they did at 7-59, an NBA record for losing percentage.
The Bobcats hired first-time head coach Mike Dunlap in the offseason, and traded Maggette for Ben Gordon and a future first round pick, and picked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Ramon Sessions was signed as a free agent to back up Kemba Walker. Despite individual improvements, the team was still a mess on the court and Dunlap would be fired after the season concluded. The brightest roster move that year would be a mid-season trade for Josh McRoberts.
The front office, finally free of the constricting contracts that had strapped them for years prior, made their biggest free agent signing in Al Jefferson. They amnestied Tyrus Thomas, drafted Cody Zeller, re-signed Josh McRoberts and Gerald Henderson, and hired Steve Clifford as their new head coach.
Having acquired the Hornets name after New Orleans changed to the Pelicans, and made the playoffs for the second time, the team saw huge excitement for the future that hadn't graced the city and fanbase in a long time. And not only that, but they lucked into getting the Pistons' first round pick due to the limited protections on the pick from the Ben Gordon trade. And with Gordon gone, the Hornets had spending flexibility to go with great draft picks on the horizon in what should be a deep draft.
Momentum seemed to be on the Hornets' side, which makes Higgins' step down a bit confusing.
But it doesn't look like a "canning" as some may see. Three years after Higgins' promotion -- almost to the day -- seems to indicate that perhaps Higgins contract just concluded. The late-night timing of the press release is weird and may look like the Hornets trying to quietly sweep Higgins' departure into the silence of the night, but it might just as well be the end of his contract.
The timing isn't the best, but I'm not going to worry about it. For years now fans and critics alike have been clamoring for Jordan to stop surrounding himself with his familiar faces. Jordan may not see them as yes men, but Friends Of Michael have been in his front office for a long time, and changing that has been a key point in Jordan's development as a team owner and team decision-maker. Higgins has been a friend of Jordan's for decades. He was Jordan's assistant GM in Washington for the Wizards, too. They've been connected with poor results for plenty of years and I just don't see why this is that bad a move given Higgins' mediocre track record as a drafter or in managing the salary cap. His signings have often been overpaid at the expense of worsening the team's future cap space.
For what reason should the Hornets have retained Higgins? For momentum? Keeping him just to keep him and avoid having a shakeup at the top is a fair reason, but I'm not opposed to the Hornets parting ways and try to improve their front office even further.
Cho's record with the team is far from purely indefensible -- his draft history with the team is worth scrutiny too -- but the team has a clear direction with him, one with more responsibility and foresight than Higgins ever brought under Jordan.
The timing, though unfortunate, is what it is and the Hornets will just have to move on. I doubt Higgins' departure will suddenly send the Hornets into disarray. As the Hornets continue to separate from their former trademark problems before Cho, they still have a bright future with him and a great coach to keep the team grounded.