It was time, with 25 games left in the season, for the Charlotte Hornets to move on from general manager Rich Cho, and for Cho to move on from the Hornets.
That was the conclusion from discussions over the weekend Cho and his agent had with Hornets owner Michael Jordan and team vice chairman Curtis Polk.
In at exclusive interview with the Observer on Tuesday, Polk said Cho wanted to know if he could expect an extension to his contract, which expires after this season.
Jordan and Polk decided that wouldn’t happen, so the team made a clean break from Cho, who has worked for the Hornets since 2011 and has been the singular head of basketball operations since June of 2014.
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With Cho out, assistant general manager Buzz Peterson will run the front office on an interim basis. Polk, who has overseen most of Jordan’s investments for nearly three decades, said Peterson probably won’t be considered as the team searches for the next general manager.
Polk said the goal is for the Hornets – 24-33 at the All-Star break – to have a new GM by the end of the season, which would be mid-April assuming the franchise does not qualify for the playoffs.
Polk said he anticipates four to six candidates receiving interviews. Polk said some attractive candidates might not be available to interview until the franchises they currently work for have completed their seasons.
“We’d like it to be as soon as possible, but we don’t want to handicap our choices,” Polk said.
Asked specifically about former Los Angeles Lakers executive and North Carolina player Mitch Kupchak, who has been tied for the possible opening for weeks, Polk said, “That’s a good name. We don’t know specifically what his level of interest would be.”
Two other names with Carolinas ties that could potentially could make sense: Former Duke star Danny Ferry, who led basketball operations with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks, and Jeff Bower, general manager of the Detroit Pistons (but reporting to coach-team president Stan Van Gundy).
What the Hornets are looking for
Asked what traits the Hornets would look for in the next general manager, Polk said the team doesn’t want to deemphasize the progress Cho made in analytics, but also wants strong networking skills around the NBA.
“We need a strong leader who is well respected in the organization and within the industry,” Polk said. “Someone who can build on the tools Rich (provided): Analytics and also be a great evaluator” of talent.
Polk said that desired skill set includes an ability to adapt with changing times.
“The way basketball has evolved, we have to be careful about (someone who is) too set in their ways. We need to experiment in some regards, (not be saddled with) how basketball was eight years ago or 10 years ago.”
Polk has played a significant role with the franchise since Jordan bought majority control from founder Bob Johnson in 2010. He’s part of a trend of former player agents becoming team executives – Bob Myers is general manager of the Golden State Warriors and Rob Pelinka holds the same position with the Lakers.
Polk said for now, the intent is for the next general manager to come from outside the organization. Cho’s staff of scouts is still working in preparation for June’s draft and the start of free-agency in July. Peterson will continue to coordinate that effort. Jordan’s former college roommate at North Carolina, Peterson is in his second stint with the organization, separated by a return to college coaching.
“Buzz has been good with the coaching staff and the players. He’s been a good team member, and we’re not going to micro-manage” his interim responsibilities, Polk said.
Cho’s tenure a mixed bag
Cho joined the Hornets before the 2011 draft, after being fired as general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers. Initially, he shared oversight of the front office with Rod Higgins. When Higgins left the then-Bobcats in 2014, Cho assumed singular responsibility for basketball operations.
His tenure was very much a mixed bag. The first draft he had input in produced Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker. While Biyombo didn’t last long enough for Charlotte to make a qualifying offer to restrict his free-agency, Walker has been the Hornets’ best player, a two-time All-Star.
Other lottery picks chosen on Cho’s watch include Noah Vonleh (later traded to Portland), Frank Kaminsky and rookie Malik Monk.
Cho attempted to sign restricted free agent Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2014, getting his signature on a $63 million offer sheet. However, the Utah Jazz matched that offer and retained Hayward before he signed with the Boston Celtics last summer. Later that July, the Hornets signed Lance Stephenson, who lasted a single season in Charlotte before being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Cho made some astute trades, including acquiring Courtney Lee from the Memphis Grizzlies and Dwight Howard from the Hawks. Cho’s last significant transaction was acquiring Spanish center Willy Hernangomez from the New York Knicks shortly before the trade deadline, giving up Johnny O’Bryant and two future second-round picks.