When Rich Cho was hired in 2011, it looked like Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan was prepared to let proven basketball minds run his team after seeing what cronyism can do to an organization.
When Jordan bought a minority stake in the team back in 2005, it was with the understanding that he would have final say on all basketball decisions, despite then-general manager (and coach!) Bernie Bickerstaff still handling the bulk of the work. From 2005 to 2011, the Hornets posted a winning percentage of .414 with several questionable Jordan-influenced decisions (the drafting of Adam Morrison comes to mind) playing a major role in the team's perpetual mediocrity.
The best team the Horncats ever put out prior to Cho's hiring was the 44-38, Gerald-Wallace-and-Stephen-Jackson-led squad of 2009-2010. That team was swept by the Orlando Magic in the playoffs.
The team got off to a poor start the following year, with a record of 17-25 before the trade deadline. It was clear that the Bobcats reached their peak in their current state, and the team was subsequently torn apart. The Bobcats finished the season with a record of 34-48 and missed the playoffs.
Then, the Bobcats hired Cho in the offseason.
It seemed like Jordan recognized that he wasn't a great manager of talent and was prepared to take a step back to let proven executives push the team in the right direction. Cho immediately made a massive impact, first by stripping the Bobcats down to youngsters and filler, and later by carefully adding veterans and coaches that enforced a culture of leadership by example and hard work.
Analysts and bloggers praised what Cho was doing — being patient, building through the draft, and introducing a winning culture — and it appeared that Jordan was comfortable with the direction the franchise was taking.
But for a person as competitive as Jordan, it was surely only matter of time until he pushed the team to be competitive.
With Michael Jordan as owner, however, Cho doesn't get the last word on decisions. According to a source familiar with Charlotte's inner workings, the voice that MJ relies on most is that of Curtis Polk, an analytics agnostic who conducts Jordan's business affairs and serves as the Hornets' vice chairman. And with pressure from Jordan to accelerate the Hornets' efforts to contend, the team made the ill-fated decision to sign Lance Stephenson over the objections of the analytics staff.
Either Jordan's fallen back on bad habits, or we've been fooled this whole time.
I don't think any respected analyst loved the Hornets' acquisition of Stephenson, but most were okay with it. It appeared to be a lateral move at worst, with potential as a fantastic pick-up if Stephenson bought into what Charlotte was doing. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case.
It's disheartening to hear that Jordan may still be dabbling in basketball affairs, especially when Cho's done a terrific job in a short period of time. The foundation of Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Cody Zeller should work, and Al Jefferson has made the team competitive while not significantly impacting the Hornets' ability to develop their young players.
The move to acquire Stephenson was undoubtedly short-sighted, but to his credit, Stephenson has looked more comfortable as a Hornet with every game that passes. He's still not where he needs to be for the Hornets to win consistently, but it's entirely possible that with some time and help from the coaching staff, Stephenson will one day fit seamlessly with the Hornets. And if he doesn't, his contract allows him to be moved relatively easily.
Let's just hope Jordan sees the error in his ways.