If draft night was an awkward funeral for the Kevin Pritchard era in Portland, Monday afternoon was a joyful baptism for Pritchard's replacement, Rich Cho. In place of awkward glances between team employees, there were full-body hugs; in place of steely demeanors, there were handshakes; and in place of a smiling Larry Miller there was... well... a smiling Larry Miller. Only this time everyone else was smiling too.
Miller had every reason to smile, having landed arguably the assistant general manager most deserving of the bump to general manager, proving those who doubted his ability to land a "name" candidate. Although Miller initially talked up the team's desire to add experience to its front office, beginning his search with two old hands -- Danny Ferry and Randy Pfund -- he wound up with an executive who is uniquely qualified for the position and situation.
League sources first raised Cho's name to me back in March with the idea that he might serve as Tom Penn's replacement. He seemed a natural fit alongside Pritchard given his profile: young, hungry, intelligent, cap-knowledgeable and stat-savvy. But Cho makes sense as Pritchard's successor too and he was one of only two candidates (out of "four or five" that Miller said he interviewed) who was introduced to Paul Allen.
This afternoon, I spent almost an hour tagging along with Cho and peppering him with a few questions as he attended a season ticket holder party in the Rose Quarter. To get a feel for how Cho fits here in Portland, and how he did on his first day at the job, let's take a look at each aspect of his new surroundings.
Let's start with Larry Miller, President, who has seemingly dealt with more questions in the past month than he has in the past 3 years combined. Boil Miller down to a single foundation concept and it's this: Basketball operations and business operations cannot and should not function independently of each other. Whether or not you agree with that premise that is his mandate. Any general manager that reports to him must understand that completely and operate accordingly.
Cho fits nicely in that respect given his experience on both sides of the SuperSonics/Thunder organization. It's not just his understanding of the salary cap and salary structures -- which have long been hailed as impressive -- but it's the dollars and cents, expenditures versus revenue side too. The Blazers are shifting into an era where every decision becomes more costly, thanks to their luxury tax situation, pending contract extensions for key pieces like Greg Oden, Nicolas Batum and Jerryd Bayless and the potential for a lockout and a re-writing of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. As good as Kevin Pritchard and company were at managing their salary cap and finding undervalued assets, Sam Presti and Cho have been as good or better. And when it comes to entering this new era, Pritchard's basketball operations only resume, on paper, is less appealing than Cho's.
Personality conflicts between members of the business and basketball operations eventually devolved into a power struggle this year. In Cho, you have an executive that can relate to Miller's point of view, based on his experience, in a way that Pritchard simply couldn't. Whether that's a good thing or bad thing for the organization remains to be seen. But it's certainly a good thing for Miller.
The scouts (and their entire department) are perhaps the biggest winners here. There existed genuine concern among multiple levels of the scouting department about how their operations would be affected by Pritchard's departure and a new hire. When Miller gave contract extensions to Director of NBA Scouting Mike Born and Director of College Scouting Chad Buchanan some of the pressure was relieved, but not all of it. Born and Buchanan are both solid guys, well-respected around the league and team-first employees. Both showed loyalty and compassion to their friend -- Pritchard -- while unfailingly placing the organization first in their public statements. That attitude would have translated no matter who replaced Pritchard. They would be ready, willing and able to assist whatever direction the new boss decided to take. They would have gotten in line if a new direction had been sought, even if it ran contrary to their personal approaches.
In Cho, though, the scouts get a dream hire. Not only does he come across much like the scouts do personality-wise -- in that he's ego-free and anxious to acquire as much information as possible -- he evaluates players using the exact same methodology. Back in March at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the team's scouts discussed using the "eyes, ears and numbers" test to analyze players based on watching them, doing background research on them and analyzing their statistical impact and body of work. In interviews today, Cho echoed that exact same approach word for word.
Cho has been touted as a statistically-inclined executive so I prodded him a little bit about how he makes advanced statistical analysis work for him on the basketball side. "We kind of look at analytics as three pieces: one is player evaluation, the other is self-analysis and how are we doing as a team, and then third it's the coaching and strategic aspect." Does he have a proprietary formula or is he using information that's available to the general public? "For the most part APBRmetrics people are familiar with the [stats I use.] But it’s more than just those types of things. Other non-traditional things like shot charts and things like that."
To get a sense for how Cho views players, here's his assessment of Wesley Matthews and the large offer Portland made to him. "I think he's a good player. He's got toughness, plays defense, he wasn't drafted so he's hungry. He's a 38% shooter from threes. I think he's a good signing, he gives us a little more depth. In any type of free agency situation, you have to put up a lot of money to get the other team not to match. Utah showed a willingness to match the last couple of years with C.J. Miles and Paul Millsap so I understand where the money was." Later, in an interview with Mike Barrett, Cho pointed to Matthews's particular strength shooting from the left corner.
Whether you agree with that logic or not, this should help you get a sense for how he thinks. In that one paragraph, you get a detailed skillset description, character assessment, raw numbers and a pragmatic and savvy approach to how the league operates. You also get a feel for the lack of emotion involved in the decision-making and why the word "analytical" comes up immediately when people describe his approach.
Are you concerned that the egghead will be more natural in the draft room than as a leader of employees? That's a fair question at this stage of the game. If Cho's past stops are any indication he will quickly ingratiate himself. Former co-workers took to Facebook and Twitter to express their excitement for Cho, who is seen as both a relentlessly hard worker and an amiable sports guy. But even today, amidst the excitement of hundreds of fans literally rushing to shake Cho's hand, multiple Portland Trail Blazers employees told me that they still missed Pritchard's ability to make them feel like conversational equals rather than as employees only.
If there's an obvious area of concern it's right here: Can he rally the troops?
Media / Fans
Cho isn't the natural conversationalist that Pritchard is but I found him to be an effective communicator during our roughly fifteen minutes of off-and-on chatting. Above all, he's an efficient speaker. If you ask a question that can be answered in two words, Cho will use two words. If you trail or hint at something in the hopes that he picks up the ball and runs with it, he won't. He's admitted that he needs work on handling the media and the press but his accessibility and general friendliness (he made it a point to let multiple writers know he reads their work) earned him a number of fans.
Although he came off as surprised by all the attention being given to him, he didn't lose his cool, which would have been understandable given the enormity of the event and the passion with which he was greeted. "I'm used to people not knowing me. [The attention] is definitely kind of different. I'm very excited. I wouldn't say overwhelmed. But I'm very excited." The only signals that anything was getting to him was when he took off his jacket in the afternoon sun and when he nearly ran into a wall because he was so caught up in answering a question and didn't know exactly where he was going to the Blazers Broadcasting Studio. Otherwise he didn't flinch as he spent the hour conduc ting interviews with three separate media outlets, posing for at least a dozen photographs with fans, impressing long time season ticket holders like Georgia Muller (pictured above) and, well, autographing a child.
Had Cho ever signed an autograph before? "A couple times," he told me, laughing. "The fans here seem great, really enthusiastic, it's just a great situation here." It was his biggest smile of the afternoon, a shy and self-deprecating one at that.
The day's sourest moment came on my drive down to the Rose Quarter, when an afternoon radio caller twisted Cho's love of statistics, Sushi and ping-pong into a questioning of his toughness. Not to be overlooked in all of the political drama this summer was a key fact: Portland lived up to its franchise moniker in a big way today, naming the first Asian-American general manager in the NBA's history. The significance wasn't lost on Cho even if he looked just a touch annoyed by those broaching the topic. "I'm humbled and honored to be a GM as an Asian-American. Beyond that I'm just going to do my best and I look forward to doing my best and do everything I can to make the team successful."
Cho's fit with Paul Allen is the trickiest to determine because it's so difficult to get a read on how exactly Allen operates and with how many different intermediaries. If timing and logistics are any indication -- Cho took a well-reported flight to Helsinki that ended with an offer before he made the return trip -- Allen likes Cho.
Cho, for his part, was very impressed with his new boss. "I had never met him," Cho told me. "Very smart man. Very thoughtful in his dialogue with me and in his questions. I was really excited to meet him. I had a heard a lot of good things about him and I just think with his commitment to winning that was one of the things that really appealed to me."
Cho plans to spend the next few days back in Oklahoma getting his affairs in order. "When I come back, I'll be back for good. I'll meet with the coaches, I'll meet with our scouts, I'm going to speak with all of the agents, meet with the players, it's going to take some time." At the top of his list will be a decision about who will serve as his chief assistant general manager. "I'm looking for somebody with experience," Cho said of his prospective assistant. "Someone that will complement the rest of the group. I've got some names in mind and I'm going to work on that as soon as I can." If I'm the owner, that's music to my ears.
I started off this piece by calling today a baptism of sorts for Cho, an introduction to his future, his new surroundings and his new environment. With every baptism comes some cold water. For Cho, that cold water comes in the form of two-fold expectations: filling Kevin Pritchard's shoes and building a team that will go deeper into the playoffs.
When I brought up the subject of Pritchard, Cho did some tapdancing. "I consider Kevin a friend. I have the utmost respect for him. I thought he did a really good job here and I'm sure he'll land on his feet no problem." To his credit, he acknowledged that Pritchard's firing and the way it was handled was a difficult situation for Blazers fans. "I followed it pretty closely. From afar. When you're watching it from afar you just never know what's going on." Asked if he had spoken or exchanged communications with Pritchard, things ground to a halt as he took an extra moment to think, a rarity today. "I haven't talked to him for awhile," he finally admitted, with what seemed like difficulty. "I'm not sure exactly."
Credit his honesty and the fact that he didn't duck the question. But Pritchard's shadow still lingers, even as it feels like the organization is writing a new chapter. It will continue to do so until Cho puts his stamp on this roster. He wouldn't commit to addressing any particular position, although rumors about trading Andre Miller and/or Jerryd Bayless have picked up in recent weeks. "I don’t want to say right now. I want to come in and evaluate the situation, talk to Chad and Mike, talk to the coaches and kind of go from there."
Any discussion of playoff expectations left Cho similarly cautious. Asked if the Blazers had enough talent to be considered the Northwest Divison favorites, Cho refused to over-sell. "It's hard to say. A lot of it - we'll see what happens with the injuries. I hope we're in the thick of things and I'm going to do everything I can to improve the roster and hopefully take another step." He also said he had no championship-or-bust mandate from Allen. "It's more make progress from where we've been. He didn't set any timelines."
A phrase I heard a lot during this week's Las Vegas Summer League was this: "He's not that guy." In other words, a specific player was trying to do things he wasn't capable of, stepping outside of his skillset, carrying himself in a larger manner than he should, over-promising and under-delivering, underwhelming while being overpaid or overhyped.
I suspect the initial reaction to Cho's hiring from some quarters will be those doubtful words: "He's not that guy." Can he swing the big deal? What does he know about playoff success? Is he really, truly ready? Can he step into Kevin Pritchard's shoes?
I'm not sure there are answers yet to those questions. But today, Cho was that guy who magnetically drew swarms of people to him, that guy who put smiles on the faces of important executives, that guy who was as accessible to the media as it gets. Based on his day one performance, Cho seemed to me like that guy who immediately restores some youthful excitement to a confused fanbase while also adding stability to an organization that, for awhile, seemed to have lost its way again.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter