Scott Fowler

GM Rich Cho has one last chance to clean up Hornets’ mess in make-or-break season

Michael Jordan is disappointed.

General manager Rich Cho said the Charlotte Hornets’ owner has communicated that to him. But Jordan also picked up Cho’s “option year” several weeks ago, Cho confirmed in our exclusive interview Thursday. It means he will remain with the Hornets for the 2017-18 season.

Cho should feel fortunate. The Hornets saw a 25 percent drop in regular-season wins this season – from 48 to 36. They made the playoffs a season ago. They did not this year. NBA general managers have been fired for less, especially given that the Hornets have built themselves an elaborate salary-cap prison from which there is no easy escape.

But Cho – and Hornets coach Steve Clifford, for that matter – will get another chance to get it right next season.

In my opinion, this mostly boils down to Jordan telling Cho he’s got a year left to clean up this mess – or else.

Some of what happened this season was Cho’s fault. Some of it was Clifford’s fault and the fault of various underachieving players. Some of it was nobody’s fault. But it is Cho who is most obviously about to face a make-or-break year for his career.

The problem is Cho doesn’t have many cards left to play because he has six – six! – players on the roster who will make $12 million or more in guaranteed money next season.

“We’ve got to grow from within,” Cho told me in a one-one interview following his end-of-year group interview with the media at large. “Kemba (Walker) made a big jump this year and we’re hoping one of our other guys makes a jump.”

So step right up, Nic Batum. Or Frank Kaminsky. Or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Cho said Thursday he thought all of them had “up-and-down” years.

Said Cho: “We’ve got to find another go-to guy (besides Walker), and hopefully it’s somebody on our team. But we’re also open to trades. ...We have a lot of different options and we’ll get a good player in the draft as well.”

Big contracts pose problems

The Hornets likely will pick around 11th or 12th in the NBA draft in June. They might get very lucky in the NBA lottery May 16th, but Charlotte only has a 2.9 percent chance of getting a top-three pick.

The Hornets also will have the NBA’s mid-level exception to work with, but that won’t get you a go-to guy. It might get you a solid bench player – and the Hornets need more of those, too – but that’s likely it.

About those six guys making $12 million or more in 2017-18 according to Spotrac.com – they are Batum, Marvin Williams, MKG, Cody Zeller, Miles Plumlee and Walker. The money is even more out of whack than it usually is for NBA contracts, and that is saying something.

Walker, Charlotte’s best player, will have the team’s sixth-highest salary in 2017-18 at $12 million.

Plumlee, who basically showed up and got hurt in a move that might haunt Cho for a while , will make $12.5 million and will likely be a reserve. Batum will make a team-high $22.4 million – and to be fair could have gotten even more than that elsewhere. But he simply wasn’t enough of a difference-maker this season to justify that salary.

MKG ($13 million) was durable in 2016-17, but otherwise regressed. Zeller sets a heck of a screen and runs the floor well, but is that worth $12.6 million?

‘We’re all disappointed’

Cho didn’t inherit these contracts – except for Plumlee’s, which he took on in a very questionable trade with Milwaukee. He negotiated these contracts. Walker was a bargain. The rest of those deals looked very questionable this past season.

Cho expected before the season that the Hornets would make the playoffs and win at least one round. If they had done so, it would have been the first time the Charlotte NBA franchise won a playoff series since 2002.

Instead, the team has regressed into the dreaded middle of the NBA, where it appears to be treading water in a very expensive pool.

When I asked Cho Thursday about Jordan’s reaction to this season – the Hornets owner rarely ever speaks to local reporters himself anymore – Cho said of Jordan: “He’s disappointed. As an organization, we’re all disappointed. We feel like some of the teams in the playoffs, we’re as good or better than (those teams). ...We were 0-6 in overtime games and 0-9 in games decided by three points or less. So even if you win half of those, you’re in good shape.”

Well, not really. If the Hornets had gone, say, 4-5 instead of 0-9 in games decided by three or fewer points, they would have been 40-42. That still wouldn’t have made the playoffs.

As it is, the Hornets staggered to the finish with five straight losses and finished 36-46. They were five games out of the playoffs. They were just good enough to break their fans’ hearts – repeatedly.

Those fans deserve better. Cho and Clifford have one last chance to give it to them. I asked Cho if he thought the 2017-18 season would be a make-or-break year for him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s up to ownership.”

What is clear, though, is that the Hornets better get it right next time. Jordan has shown uncharacteristic patience with the decision to stay with the status quo. But there’s no way MJ’s patience can extend past another disappointing season.

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