NBA Analysis: Lessons Learned From Blazers Firing Rich Cho

| by David Berri

Some owners tend to fire coaches quickly and keep general managers around for years, even if the team doesn’t have success (see Bryan Colangelo for the latest example of this behavior). The Portland Trail Blazers, though, take the opposite approach. 

Andres (Dre) Alvarez (who is co-authoring this post) made the following observation: An odd note on Portland. They’ve changed GMs 3 times in the last several years but basically kept the same coach. It’s possible Paul Allen (the owner) understands that the coach isn’t as important as the person making the personnel choices. That said I don’t know if he’s properly handling the GM position.

The latest victim of Paul Allen’s approach to Portland’s GM position is Rich Cho.  Allen hired Cho last summer.  And before the playoffs are over in 2011, Cho has been fired. 

According to Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated “…Allen said he made the decision because he failed to establish a personal connection with Cho. That explanation was affirmed by the Blazers’ news release, which described a relationship that simply didn’t work out.”

From the perspective of the fan, the primary job of a GM is to pick the players (not get along with the owner).  And although Cho was only in Portland for about 10 months, we did get a chance to see some of his decision-making (and fortunately for us, reports the moves made by each GM).

Here is what we see for Cho (with Dre offering comments on each move):

  • July 21, 2010: Signed Wesley Matthews as a free agent.
    • Wesley Matthews is young and has been slightly below average in his first two seasons. At around $6 million a season he’s worth the money. He’s not a steal but he was a good value (and he turned out to be above average this year).
  • October 23, 2010: Traded Jerryd Bayless to the New Orleans Hornets for a future 1st round draft pick.
    • Bayless is a former first round pick for the Blazers and has not been a productive NBA player.  So Cho rerolled on this with another pick.
  • October 25, 2010: Signed Fabricio Oberto as a free agent.
    • One year deal, less than a mill and doing it to deal with the knee fairy. Not a great move but not like free agent cheap bigs grow on trees.
  • November 6, 2010: Signed Sean Marks as a free agent.
    • Not a great pick up but he was cheap and. . . . 
  • January 24, 2011: Signed Chris Johnson to a 10-day contract.
    • 10 day contract is not exactly a back breaker. Also young unknown.
  • February 24, 2011: Traded Dante CunninghamSean MarksJoel Przybilla, cash, a 2011 1st round draft pick and a 2013 1st round draft pick to the Charlotte Bobcats for Gerald Wallace.
    • Traded some garbage and injured player and some picks (that will likely never be as good as Wallace) for a very productive forward. A+
  • March 1, 2011: Signed Jarron Collins to the first of two 10-day contracts.
    • Not a great move but pretty much just needed a warm body. Again not a back breaker
  • March 14, 2011: Signed Chris Johnson to a contract for the rest of the season.
    • Hasn’t been playing hot but BR lists his season pay as $27 thousand. Low risk cost.

Here is how Andres summarizes all these moves.

So in less than a year, Cho managed to

  • grab a borderline star for some picks
  • flip a failed draft pick into another pick a
  • and sign a slightly below average player for cost
  • and used some ten day contracts to put warm bodies on the court.

In short, from a personnel handling decision he did exactly what he was supposed to. Also a lot of the lows of this season (Oden and Roy injuries) were outside of his control. This looks like another case of appearance (looks good as a GM, think Colangelo I guess) trumping actual performance (he made good roster moves and his team made the playoffs). 

The numbers support Dre’s assessment.   First, here is the productivity of the Blazers’ players this year; as well as what we would expect from the veteran players given what they did in 2009-10.

As one can see, the Blazers – given what the veterans did last year – could have expected to win 57 games in 2010-11.  The team’s Wins Produced this year, though, was only consistent with a team that won 45 games.  When we look at the individual players, we see that much of the team’s decline can be linked to the play of Brandon Roy and Nicolas Batum. 

The moves by Cho appear to be a reaction to these problems.  Roy was hurt in 2009-10, and given Roy’s production, it was unlikely that Blazers could easily replace Roy’s value if the injury problem persisted in 2010-11.  But Mathews could be thought as a reasonable insurance policy (and again, Mathews did turn out to be slightly above average).

The decline of Batum was probably something that couldn’t be easily predicted.  But the trade for Wallace –who has been a very productive NBA player – could be considered a reaction to Batum’s decline.

When we look at the roster employed in the playoffs we can see that these moves might have paid off.  Here is what the Blazers’ playoff roster would have been expected to do across an 82 game season, given the minutes and positions played in the playoffs, and the per-minute performance with the Blazers in the regular season.

To put this in perspective, the same exercise for the NBA’s Final Four reveals (i.e. teams in the Eastern Conference Finals and teams in the Western Conference Finals) – prior to the Conference Finals – the following projections for each team (again, projection based on minutes and position played in the playoffs and per-minute performance in the regular season).

So Portland’s playoff roster compares favorably to the top playoff teams.  And remember, the Blazers suffered some issues (injuries to Oden and Roy, decline in Batum’s production) that Cho could not have prevented.

All of this suggests – from the fan’s perspective – Cho was not a bad GM.

From the owner’s perspective, though, a different conclusion was reached.  And that highlights an aspect of NBA management that I think many fans don’t consider.  To be a successful coach or general manager, you don’t just have to make good decisions.  You also – and this is probably more important – have to get along with other people.  This list of other people includes the players, other coaches, other people in the front office, and of course the owner.  If you can’t do that – as Cho discovered — you are not going to stay in your job.   And if you can do that – as Bryan Colangelo has apparently discovered – you can keep your job even if you don’t do a very good job of building a playoff team.

So if you are dreaming of working in the NBA someday, you might want to spend less time thinking about how to build a team and more time on your interpersonal communication skills.  Those skills will probably be more important than anything you know (or don’t know) about basketball.

- Dre and DJ