Owner Michael Jordan’s decision to give more power to general manager Rich Cho led to Rod Higgins leaving the Charlotte Hornets.
The Hornets abruptly announced Higgins’ departure as president of basketball operations just past midnight Friday, two weeks before the June 26 draft.
In an exclusive interview with the Charlotte Observer, Jordan said Friday that he recently offered Higgins a new contract and that they had agreed on financial terms. Then, about a week ago, Jordan told Higgins he wanted to rearrange some job responsibilities to better fit Higgins’ and Cho’s skill sets.
“Rod’s strong points are working with the coaches and the trainers, traveling with the team,” Jordan said. “He was my buffer zone with the coaches. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with ideas, so I’d work with Rod on that.”
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Jordan said he wants Cho, with a background as an attorney, dealing more with budgets and managing the salary cap.
“One of (Higgins’) strong points is not negotiating, leveraging teams,” Jordan said. “Sometimes when teams would call (proposing trades), they’d bypass Rod to get to Rich.”
Higgins, with the franchise since 2007, teamed with Cho the last three years. Jordan said that arrangement led to some “confusion over who reported to whom. It created a contentious environment where I had to step in.”
That’s when Jordan proposed these shifts in responsibilities, which Higgins considered a demotion. At that point, Jordan said he asked Higgins if they could wait until after the draft to make a change.
“He chose to leave now,” Jordan said.
Higgins, 54, has been a friend and colleague of Jordan’s for roughly 30 years. They played together with the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1980s. Jordan later hired Higgins to help him run the Washington Wizards’ basketball operation. Jordan said that made Friday’s parting extra difficult.
“I had to make a decision about a brother,” Jordan said. “I hope he gets a soft landing and finds (the job) he wants.”
Cho, 48, will now run the basketball operation, reporting to Jordan and team vice chairman Curtis Polk. Jordan said they will look to hire an assistant general manager so that Cho isn’t spread too thin.
“No one person makes any single decision,” Jordan said of the front office. “It’s them and me and Curtis. We collaborate in all parts of the process.”
Cho joined the then-Bobcats in June of 2011 after he was fired by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Cho had previously worked his way up through the Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder) organization, starting as an intern while attending law school, and rising to the title of assistant general manager.
He was named general manager of the Trail Blazers in 2010, but lasted a single season in that role. Reportedly his departure involved communication issues with Blazers owner Paul Allen.
Higgins declined to comment when reached Friday by the Observer. Cho did not make himself available to the media Friday morning at a previously scheduled workout of draft prospects. Coach Steve Clifford addressed the situation briefly after that workout.
“Rod and I had a great working relationship. He helped me a lot, he helped our staff a lot. He’s a terrific basketball guy and a great person,” Clifford said.
“That being said, change is a big part of this league. We need to quickly focus and move forward. Continue to build the right culture and roster to be a good team year-in and year-out.”
Asked about Cho’s expanded role, Clifford said, “Rich and I have been working together all year. So I don’t see that as being any different. Rich is very organized, on top of things. I know we’ll be prepared for the draft and prepared for free-agency.”
This is a potentially huge off-season for the franchise, which is coming off a 43-39 record and the second playoff appearance since the Bobcats came into existence in 2004. They have the ninth, 24th and 45th overall draft picks. They will have roughly $13 million in space under the salary cap to sign free agents or facilitate trades.
Jordan said Monday, during an appearance for the team’s charitable foundation, that he expects big things this summer from his front office. He suggested the team might pursue a “superstar,” adding, “I think we can make a big difference. We did last year with Big Al (Jefferson) and some of the other acquisitions. I don’t anticipate this being any different.”
In the three years Cho has worked in Charlotte, he’s been primarily responsible for supervising the team’s pre-draft scouting. His first major task was updating the team’s database of players worldwide.
Since Cho’s arrival the team’s drafts have had mixed results. They traded up to the seventh pick in 2011 to select center Bismack Biyombo, who struggled at times last season to be the team’s backup. The then-Bobcats’ other high pick that season was point guard Kemba Walker, who’s established himself as a starter.
The team’s first-round selections since then were small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (second overall in 2012) and power forward Cody Zeller (fourth in 2013). Both those players are still works-in-progress rather than refined NBA talents.
The Hornets continue their pre-draft preparations Saturday when they’ll bring in Creighton forward Doug McDermott, a shooter who could be a factor with the ninth pick, and N.C. State forward T.J. Warren, who could be a fit if he’s still available with the 24th pick.