This isn't going to be a typical report card like you've seen for the players so far. The role of a team's general manager is very different from that of a player, so it wouldn't be intellectually honest of me to evaluate them under the same criteria. The most glaring difference is that decisions made by a GM one year will continue to have effects in subsequent years. So even though some of the moves made by Rich Cho happened well before the 2014-15 season started, they still had an impact on the Charlotte Hornets this year.
With that all in mind, let's look at how we got here:
July 2013: Charlotte re-signs Gerald Henderson to a two-year/$12 million contract (with third-year option at same pay rate)
Henderson is the only player still in Charlotte that was here before Rich Cho became the GM. Re-upping Henderson's deal was kind of a no-brainer, keeping some continuity on a young team without much in the way of veteran presence, and keeping a young, solid player on the team on a pretty team-friendly deal. There's not a lot to discuss here, just a smart but not exactly ground-breaking move to keep Henderson in Charlotte.
June 2011: Charlotte selects Kemba Walker with the 9th overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Rich Cho became the general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats during a much simpler time, a time when everything seemed to run slower, and everyone respected good, old-fashioned traditions. We all knew that the NBA team in Charlotte was terrible. The 2011-12 season, of course, saw the Bobcats set a record in futility, finishing with the worst single-season winning percentage in the history of the National Basketball Association, and without any significant injuries to star players. It would be no stretch of the imagination to call the 2011-12 Bobcats the worst team in NBA history. Rich Cho was brought into the team with that team's roster essentially set, save for a couple draft picks that he would have to make. Of course, even winning the lottery wouldn't have changed that particular team's fate that much (even Kyrie Irving, that year's first overall pick, took some time until he became the All-Star he is today).
Anyway, that's what Rich Cho had to work with. With D.J. Augustin's contract set to run out after 2011-12, and with the front office understanding that Augustin wouldn't be viable as a long-term starter, one of the targets in the draft was a point guard. After Irving and Brandon Knight had already been drafted, Cho took the best point guard still available: Kemba Walker.
The list of non-Irving, non-Knight point guards taken in 2011 reads like this: Nolan Smith, Reggie Jackson, Norris Cole, Cory Joseph, Shelvin Mack, Darius Morris, Charles Jenkins, Andrew Goudelock, Josh Selby, and Isaiah Thomas. I'll grant you that Thomas is certainly a better player than Walker is at this point, and you could make the case for Jackson (the 24th pick that year), but I'd rather have Walker than Jackson, and if Cho had used the ninth overall pick on Isaiah Thomas (who was taken with the last pick in the draft), he very likely would have been laughed out of the building (plus I would find it hard to discredit Cho for passing on a player that every team passed on).
Walker's had his share of ups and downs in the four years since — clearly better than Augustin (who still has a role on NBA teams) even as a rookie and then one of the best young points in the league after his sophomore season. But he also struggled with his shot for all but one of those seasons and gained a somewhat-warranted reputation as a chucker. There's another move which I'll get to in a second that was way more questionable, but the draft choice of Kemba Walker was both entirely justified and probably the right move-- the team desperately needed a point guard.
October 2014: Charlotte signs Kemba Walker to four-year/$48 million extension
This is the more questionable one. In today's NBA, every competitive team (and most of the ones who aren't competitive) have a solid starting point guard. Not great, of course, but strong enough. Walker, though no one will confuse him for Stephen Curry (or, for that matter, Goran Dragic or Jeff Teague), fits into that category.
But Walker isn't so good that he can't be improved upon for a player who would be cheaper than $12 million per year over the next four seasons (the first year of the extended contract will be 2015-16). The Hornets are a team that, despite all outward appearances, are competitive, and letting Walker leave in free agency in the hopes of either landing a quality point guard in the free agent market or drafting one who can start immediately would have been a huge mistake. I think the terms of the contract were too much; personally, I would've either taken away a year from the deal or at least two million per year. But an extension for Kemba Walker was necessary, as otherwise the team would likely not be competitive for another few years. And, with a small group of young, talented players on the roster, that's an unnecessary risk.
Should this move be classified as a mistake? Perhaps, but only a slight one. I do wish the allotted resources on the contract were lessened, but letting him go entirely would have been an even bigger mistake.
Charlotte trades Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston, and the pick that became Tobias Harris for Bismack Biyombo and Corey Maggette
Rich Cho's very first move, essentially, was trading up from 19th to 7th in the 2011 Draft to choose a young, defensive-minded center from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had just dominated the Nike World Hoop Summit with a triple-double: Bismack Biyombo. It wasn't a reach, as Biyombo's potential had been shooting up draft boards for months leading up to the draft, and he very likely would have gone elsewhere in the top ten had Cho not moved up to get him.
Furthermore, Charlotte didn't have to give up much. Stephen Jackson was a fan favorite for his play and attitude during his time in Charlotte and deservedly so, but other than a quarter of a season he played with San Antonio, he wouldn't be the same player that he once had been. Livingston, finally healthy, had developed into a useful NBA player, but not an exceptionally good one, and he's never progressed past being a backup point guard. A good backup point guard, certainly, but not a player that Charlotte especially misses. Tobias Harris is likely the most valuable player out of this group, but Biyombo appears, both then and now, to be the more enticing prospect.
Biyombo, who I consider one of the best backup big men in all of basketball, already has a spotless reputation on defense, and his offensive game, which hadn't progressed much in previous years, took big strides in 2014-15. Despite playing time, he's being groomed as an eventual replacement for Al Jefferson, and it looks like he'll be able to eventually accept that role. (It's worth pointing out that Roy Hibbert also took a little time to find himself, and that Biyombo's about as good as Hibbert was at the same age, right? I'm not saying, I'm just saying.) Biyombo is a restricted free agent this summer, so you can safely assume that I'm waiting impatiently for Charlotte to re-sign him.
Now, I'm not saying that Tobias Harris wouldn't be nice to have on this team, but the trade itself was an absolute swindle. Especially when you consider that Corey Maggette, included in the trade as little more than a salary dump to a bad team, just so that the Bucks could get him off their roster...
June 2012: Charlotte trades Corey Maggette to Detroit for Ben Gordon and a future first round pick
Maggette wasn't necessarily a bad player during his one year in Charlotte — he was just injured most of the year and couldn't really get into the lane like he used to. Ben Gordon was a pretty good upgrade. Filling essentially the same role Maggette occupied, Gordon held his sharp-shooting ways for most of 2012-13 (we won't talk about 2013-14, when he completely checked out), and generally provided pretty good offensive play for the Bobcats. Not too bad.
Oh, right: that first-round draft pick. It was protected by year: protected through the lottery in 2013, in the top 8 in 2014, top 3 in 2015, yadda yadda. It wasn't going to end up being a great pick. Then the Cavaliers somehow won the 2014 draft lottery, the Hornets got the ninth overall pick, and used it to select Noah Vonleh. Vonleh, obviously, has not developed into a great player just yet, but he has shown a lot of potential through one NBA season, and looks like he could become a very good professional basketball player.
And that's the story of how Rich Cho turned a solid role player, a backup point guard, and a backup with two seasons left in him into two top-10 picks who will probably both become long-term starters.
June 2012: Charlotte selects Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the 2nd overall pick in the 2012 Draft
Well, sure, I'd also rather that the Bobcats had won the lottery and been able to choose future MVP Anthony Davis. But Kidd-Gilchrist, all in all, has been a pretty great consolation prize. A virtual Tasmanian Devil (the Looney Tune, not the animal) on defense, his offensive game has also become quite nice as of late (thanks for the help, Mark Price). Kidd-Gilchrist is quickly becoming one of the game's best defensive forces while being exactly the type of person you'd want representing your team off the court. He's really great.
Of course, there were some other nice pieces available to the Bobcats at that point in the draft. Bradley Beal went 3rd, Damian Lillard 6th, Andre Drummond 9th, and...well, ok, that's about it for players that are actually in Kidd-Gilchrist's tier. Now, the Bobcats were never going to take another point guard with a top-ten pick the year after already doing that, so there was no chance they would ever take Lillard. That just wasn't going to happen, especially when people were still ridiculing David Kahn and the Timberwolves for the Ricky Rubio/Jonny Flynn fiasco (and yes, they were both chosen in the same draft, but waiting only one year would not make that much of a difference). Drummond has turned out to be a good player too, but he was one with legitimate questions after shouldering a very small part of the load in his one college season, and never dominating the game defensively the way you would expect him to in retrospect. The big question was whether the Bobcats should select MKG or Beal. And maybe this is thinking too simplistically, but I'd rather have the player who's great on defense and okay on offense than the player who's good on offense and okay on defense.
Looking back, it's legitimate to wish that the Hornets had drafted a different player than Kidd-Gilchrist. That said, Rich Cho did not have the benefit of 2015's hindsight in 2012, and I'm perfectly happy with the route he chose in drafting MKG.
June 2012: Charlotte selects Jeff Taylor with the 31st overall pick in the 2012 Draft
I've written a lot about Taylor in the past, so I don't particularly care to get deep in the details again when his performance is mostly irrelevant to this post, but I'll summarize: I don't think Taylor, in his current form, is good enough of a player to justify regular minutes on an NBA team.
But this was a second-round pick. You're allowed to take risks in the second round, because the only second-round players that succeed in the NBA are almost always risky draft picks. Do I wish now that they had picked Draymond Green or Khris Middleton? Sure. Taylor's not a guy that I think adds a lot to the team, and Green and Middleton have certainly become players who add a lot to their teams. But it's a second-round pick. It was a miss, definitely. But it's not fair to expect much with a second-round pick. (And who knows whether Taylor would be a much better player now had he not had major injuries during critical times during his development?)
April 2013: Charlotte fires Mike Dunlap as head coach
May 2013: Charlotte hires Steve Clifford as head coach
Well, here's one that all Charlotte fans will definitely feel strongly about, whether you agree or disagree with this decision in retrospect.
I tend to be somewhere in the middle. Steve Clifford certainly has flaws in his coaching ability, and he's not exactly what you would call reassuring in press conferences (though, as always, I would caution against weighing press conference quotes too heavily). But his defensive schemes are terrific and the type of thing that could lead a team to the playoffs (hi, 2013-14!). But he has problems with lineups. However, despite popular opinion, his player development has been legitimately good, and every healthy prospect sans Kemba Walker has improved a LOT under Clifford. But he values the minutes of veterans more than he should.
There are positives and negatives to Clifford's coaching abilities, that's for sure. There are legitimate issues he has that are negatively impacting the team, but it'd also be hard to convince me that his defensive strategies haven't been absolutely perfect for this team, as constructed, since Clifford became the head coach.
Mike Dunlap, meanwhile, won eight games at Loyola Marymount this season.
Furthermore, of the coaches available at the time Clifford was hired, only David Joerger of the Memphis Grizzlies has had any real success with his head coaching position, and the Grizzlies are clearly more talented than the Hornets. Brad Stevens definitely seems like a good head coach, but his acumen has yet to pay off into a ton of wins, holding a .396 career winning percentage in the NBA, to Clifford's .463. Yes, there are multiple issues with Steve Clifford's tenure as head coach, but it's hard to criticize his hiring as the wrong move at the time.
June 2013: Charlotte drafts Cody Zeller with 4th overall pick
I think we might have to admit, at this point, that the 2013 NBA Draft wasn't as bereft of talent as many of us thought at the time. Of course, most of the talent in that draft class came from late first-round picks instead of the lottery, save for a few players like Zeller, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Nerlens Noel, and a couple others who aren't quite as good.
Anthony Bennett, Oladipo, and Otto Porter went before Zeller. Immediately after him were Alex Len, Noel, Ben McLemore, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Some of them might end up being quality NBA players. But Zeller is already at that point, which puts him in a rare category for this draft class. Sure, it's likely that Zeller won't end up being the best player from this draft, but at the moment, I'm very happy that he's on the Hornets instead of one of the several lottery picks that hasn't quite panned out yet.
July 2013: Charlotte signs Al Jefferson to three-year/$41 million contract (third-year player option)
I won't tell you that there weren't risks involved with signing Al Jefferson. He's a very large person who had been logging a lot of NBA minutes and had some injury concerns in the past. There's also the fact that since developing into a good player, the offenses of all his teams had a tendency to operate through him as the primary option. Despite his skill, he's not the most versatile offensive option. (Of course, there's a very good chance that this strategy was due to circumstance-- he was almost always the most talented offensive player on his teams-- rather than a demand, so that risk might not have been as large as it appears now.)
On the other hand, you have the rewards. And maybe the rewards are modest, as the Bobcats/Hornets were definitely not going to compete for a championship during Jefferson's contract no matter what happened around him. But for a team that was desperate to stop being the NBA's laughingstock, signing a player that was almost a legitimate All-Star in the first year of his contract was a pretty nice reward. Making the playoffs just two years removed from the worst season in NBA history? That's a solid reward.
And they did it all without giving up much for the future. I'd say it's almost certain that Jefferson's third season in Charlotte will resemble his second more than his first, but this gives the long-term pieces another year of growth before a lot of cap space opens up in the summer of 2016. Rich Cho also signed Jefferson for less money than he had been making in Utah, so the contract, all-in-all, was kinda team-friendly.
We can argue about Jefferson's value in his current role on the court, but bringing him into Charlotte was a terrific move. NBA front offices, probably around 80 percent of the time, will have to overpay a free agent in order to sign him. Cho got away with only oversigning Jefferson by a little bit. In the long-term, this probably only helps.
February 2014: Charlotte trades Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien to Milwaukee for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour
This didn't have a huge impact on the team. It was trading a backup point guard and a reserve for a backup point guard and a bench shooter. It was a slight upgrade — Neal's post-concussion play this season aside — but not one that made a major impact. The Bobcats needed some shooting as they made their second playoff run in franchise history, and they got some shooting without giving up anything major. Not bad, not great, not really anything to worry about either way.
June 2014: Charlotte drafts Noah Vonleh with 9th overall pick
I explained how the Hornets were incredibly lucky to even get this pick in a previous section, but there was one other bit of good luck that Charlotte caught with this pick: the Sacramento Kings, picking at number eight, reached for Nik Stauskas instead of grabbing Vonleh who just about everyone else had assumed was the better prospect.
The consensus was probably right. Stauskas struggled during his rookie season and he'll probably still end up being a solid role player, but Noah Vonleh has looked very good in limited time. His youth and skill set suggest he'll be a valuable piece for years to come, and we've only cracked the shell of what he can do on an NBA court.
This was basically a no-brainer for Cho, I think. Nice work making the good pick, but it was probably an obvious choice. I don't imagine he had to think very hard once Sacramento passed up Vonleh.
June 2014: Charlotte trades down two spaces and drafts P.J. Hairston with 26th overall pick
They also picked up a second round pick that became Semaj Christon, who was then traded to Oklahoma City for cash, so that didn't make too much of a difference.
It seems to me that Hairston was the guy Charlotte wanted, and they didn't mind moving down two spaces for him. Now, with a first round pick, you're probably hoping for more than Hairston has shown so far, but he was just a rookie last season and rookies have a tendency to get better in subsequent seasons. We'll see what happens with him. At the moment though, it's not looking like a spectacular deal.
July 2014: Charlotte signs Brian Roberts to two-year/$5.6 million contract
That's actually pretty cheap for a veteran backup point guard. At the very least, if it's an overpay, it's not enough of an overpay that it would take away from potential future signings. Roberts did not play like he had in previous years, so this signing hasn't worked out so far. But his sudden decline in play was pretty difficult to predict.
July 2014: Charlotte signs Lance Stephenson to two-year/$18 million contract (with team option for third year)
Okay, this one hasn't worked out, but there are two important things working in Rich Cho's defense here:
1. This is a team-friendly deal. That really can't be reiterated enough. They owe Stephenson nine million dollars for next season, and if his play continues to do nothing to help the team, they can let him go no questions asked. If he turns it around and plays well again in 2015-16, the team can re-up his contract at a pretty favorable rate. Stephenson might have been bad, but his contract isn't.
2. There are, shall we say, some pretty believable rumors that Michael Jordan, not Rich Cho, was responsible for the Lance Stephenson signing. Those rumors are kind of hard to ignore. Without any confirmation, I can't fully absolve Cho of the blame for this decision. But that has to factor in at some point.
I don't know who you will want to assign the blame to here, but clearly some is deserved to somebody. At the same time, Cho did a good job of minimizing the risk inherent in signing Stephenson.
July 2014: Charlotte signs Marvin Williams to two-year/$14 million contract
Another player who didn't really live up to expectations, but wasn't all that bad either, Marvin Williams probably earned his veteran free agent money, and at the same time, I'm happy it's only a two-year deal. Not a bad move by any means, I don't think this deal really reflects on Rich Cho one way or another.
September 2014: Charlotte signs Jason Maxiell to one-year/$1.3 million contract
Well, it's not exactly Cho's fault that Maxiell played as much as he did. Maxiell was brought in to add depth but he ended up having a larger role than most anyone would have liked. This one kind of backfired on Cho, just not in the way that would reflect poorly on him.
February 2015: Charlotte trades Gary Neal and Miami's 2019 second round pick for Mo Williams and Troy Daniels
At this point, Gary Neal was hurting the team more than helping with his play. Mo Williams, though streaky, helped the team a lot down the stretch, especially during the periods when Kemba Walker was injured. Daniels didn't do much, but he was solid when he played, and he'll be back in Charlotte next year on a really cheap contract. Good trade! Another nice deadline deal for Rich Cho.
And that's how this team was built. They didn't necessarily live up to expectations this year, but given the improvement of the state of the franchise during Cho's tenure, I've been pretty happy with the team's growth even if they did fall short of a playoff spot last season. Given what he had to work with (between a decimated roster in 2011, poor luck in the draft lottery, and little interest from desired free agents), I'm surprised that Charlotte has gotten even this far in just four years.
But where do they go from here?
Luckily, they're set up to make strides soon. Barring any trades, the roster will look more or less the same (save for another top-ten draft pick) come Autumn 2015, which is fine; nothing that Rich Cho could have done would have put the Hornets in championship contention next season. They'll have plenty of cap room to aggressively target free agents in the summer of 2016, which is nice, and they'll have more growth for their young core.
That's, ultimately, one of the best successes of Rich Cho's tenure. It's possible he won't be the guy to lead their front office if they eventually become championship contenders, but he's done a very good job making that a possible future. His successes in the draft and his terrific trade-making ability will continue to help Charlotte into the future. The current team, as assembled, isn't great. But it had to take years for this team to get where it is, and Cho has sped up the process of respectability for this team. If nothing else, the Hornets are in a spot now that, in 2012-13, I didn't think they would be in three years later.