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What We Learned from the Firing of Rich Cho

Single White Owner, 58 seeks General Manager.  

Me:  Rich, interested, committed to finding the right relationship.  You:  Not Rich (we tried that) but a great conversationalist with a slightly submissive side, also into group things.  I've been hurt before so we'll start slow...friendship first, long-term relationship to follow.  Please include recent photo and an .mp3 of you saying the following:

  • "Yes"
  • "Good idea"
  • "Let's buy that pick!"
  • "As you say, sir!"
  • "The group consensus is exactly what you thought it would be."
  • "I grok you like I was in pon farr and you were the only pointy-eared maiden in this section of the galaxy."

Fast Forward 6 Months...

A candidate [hereafter known as "New Meat"] has entered the final stage of the interview process.  He wakes up in a basement room in the Rose Garden.

Hello Hello, New Meat. You don't know me, but I know you. I want to play a game. Here's what happens if you lose. The device you are wearing is hooked into your upper and lower jaw. When the timer in the back goes off, your mouth will be permanently ripped open. Think of it like a reverse bear trap. Here, I'll show you. There is only one key to open the device. It's in the stomach of Greg Oden's agent, chained up to the wall across the room. Look around New Meat. Know that I'm not lying. Better hurry up. Hired or fired, make your choice.     

So...we might be exaggerating slightly regarding the candidacy process for the Portland Trail Blazers' next general manager, but you can understand that this is what it must look like from the outside.  Less than a year after the spectacularly public and ill-timed firing of Kevin Pritchard--to that point considered a Golden Boy--the Blazers have axed his replacement, Rich Cho.  Cho gave so little stimulus either way during his tenure that filling in the reasons for his dismissal requires considerable imagination.  The confusion, in some corners outrage, over this turn of events is palpable. 

Here's what we know:

  1. Ten months into his tenure, Rich Cho is gone.
  2. The primary impetus, cited by franchise president Larry Miller, was his lack of connection to (chemistry and communication with) owner Paul Allen.
  3. This message was delivered in a wrapper designed to dismiss the importance of the incident and by extension Cho's contributions to the team.  You don't have to delve much further into the "group decision-making process" and "look at our successful track record and bright future" rhetoric to hear the implication that the general manager position in Portland isn't considered central to the team's success they way it is in other NBA towns.  Whether that message was delivered intentionally or not, it might as well have been emblazoned on the press conference backdrop along with the team logo and the Wells Fargo sponsorship signs.

The obvious question at this time, "Why was Rich Cho fired?" will not be answered satisfactorily, just as Pritchard's firing was never explained fully.  We know the relationship between these GM's and Paul Allen had soured but beyond the disparaging characterization of Cho's communication style as "deliberate" we'll not know what went wrong or what a good relationship would look like.  We're going to have to put aside that question in favor of a couple others:  Why did the Blazers hire these GM's in the first place and what do these events--including Miller's characterization of them--show us about who the team should seek next?

Though they came from different backgrounds--player versus numbers guy--Kevin Pritchard and Rich Cho had several things in common.  They both emerged from successful organizations.  They were both considered bright, rising stars in the executive world.  They were both young.  Portland was the first general managing position for each.  With these fresh-faced hires the Blazers made a radical departure from the entrenched, old-guard duo of Steve Patterson and John Nash, severing links to their past, signalling the end of their demolition phase and the beginning of a new era.  The Blazers appeared to be signing up for a revolution.  Cynics might note that being in their first post might also have made this pair appear more biddable, presumably from youth and gratitude.  

The tension between those two motivations--revolution and controllability--is obvious.

Sadly in attempting to get the best of all worlds the Blazers seem to have created a toxic combination.  Generally speaking you can have the fire, passion, and innovation of youth but you also have to give that youth its way in order to maximize utility and fit.  "Young, rising superstar" and "biddable" don't mix.  You have to pick your poison.  This is not to say either Pritchard or Cho was hard to work with, arrogant, or what have you.  By most reports Cho is the nicest guy you'll ever meet.  No matter the personality, though, the main goal of a young and unproven guy with talent is, by definition, to prove himself.  Take away the sense of power, autonomy, the idea that he has control over his destiny and can make a name and you've robbed him of his raison d'etre.  Even the appearance of such is an insult, cutting to the quick, implying a lack of trust.  If you don't want the skills, the promise, the journey to a new and so far undiscovered plateau of success, then why did you hire me?  If you do want those things, then why don't you get off my back and let me do my job?  Every organization works through group process but if you're expecting transcendence, particularly from youth, you have to let that transcendent figure have its way and ride with the mistakes on your way to potential glory.

Clearly the Blazers are unwilling to do this.  That's not a condemnation in itself.  Some organizations are already run by the people who are meant to run them.  Others just aren't strong enough to endure serious potholes on the road to potential success.  Either way the people in power think that their way works.  They have the right to make that decision.  They have the right to supervise, even meddle, as closely as they choose.  Maybe Paul Allen felt so burned by Bob Whitsitt and the "SPAM" years that he's never again going to let a GM work without an eye over his shoulder.  Maybe Pritchard and Cho really weren't competent, giving rise to the possibility that the franchise isn't able to find a functional, autonomy-ready GM among a pool of young candidates.  Or maybe this is just the smartest way to run this particular team.  Whichever holds true, so be it.  Their mistake comes not in setting up the system this way.  Rather it's not getting the kind of GM who will fit it.  That is something for which they can, and should, be held accountable.

The last two summers should inform the Blazer brass in making the decision on their next General Manager.  Unless they change the way they do business they don't need a young, inexperienced potential superstar at this point.  The potential risks are too great and the rewards too slim under this system.  Neither do they need an established GM in love with his own power and position.  They require a return to the old days when nobody heard from the General Manager and half the people didn't remember his name.  They need a low-profile consensus-builder with a good sense of organizational dynamics.  They need someone who has already made his bones and doesn't see the position as a means to prove his own worth and establish a career.  They need someone who knows the league, who has a long-term perspective, and who is willing to deem incremental moves as valuable as radical ones.  They need someone who will view his role as advisory instead of autonomous, who is able to make use of the tools already at hand and willing to fit in with the people already in power, letting them shine. 

The Trail Blazers have been looking to hire Sylvester Stallone to reprise "Rocky".  They should instead be looking for Burgess Meredith's Mickey Goldmill.

Whether this is truly best for the team is open to debate.  No matter what the outcome of that debate, though, the point is moot.  The franchise will be run as it is run.  Everyone will be better off if the team simply admits it to themselves, the public, and potential candidates and makes their next hire accordingly.

Teams succeed and fail with superstar GM's.  For every Pat Riley and Danny Ainge there's an Isiah Thomas.  Teams also succeed and fail with lower profile guys who work within tight systems.  Nobody succeeds when there's a mismatch of expectations, though.  Justified or not, having to fire a General Manager after ten months of service, one major move, and zero drafts means expectations got crossed somewhere.  From the moment the next guy's job description gets drafted to his last day on the job, it's incumbent upon this franchise to first spell out and then reaffirm their process so that everybody who takes part is able to get on board.  That will require some soul-searching and honest, harsh assessment on their parts.  That will require, in part, defining their general manager position in such a way that not every candidate will find it a dream job.  No matter what Larry Miller would like to say about people's view of the franchise and its desirability, it's not an ideal situation at this point.  But it doesn't have to be everybody's dream.  It just has to be the right guy's fit.  That'll never happen if they tell themselves they're looking for the next Derrick Rose when what they really want is Shane Battier.

--Dave (