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David Aldridge

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Rich Cho is part of the vanguard of NBA execs who are comfortable using metrics to evaluate players.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Blazers' Cho hopeful of taking franchise to another level


Posted Aug 9 2010 8:30AM

Rich Cho's goal for the Portland Trail Blazers is a simple one.

"I don't just want to be the best-run basketball franchise in the NBA," Cho said Friday. "I want to be the best-run franchise in pro sports. That means being the best in scouting, player development, analytics processes, just a lot of different things like that."

If that sounds haughty or presumptuous from a 44-year-old in his first month as a pro general manager, well, it didn't come out of Cho's mouth that way. It sounded like something Cho had thought about for a long time, for years, probably, and had researched, like if he was buying a house in a certain neighborhood and wanted to know exactly what the resale price would be in 10 years. It is his way, and it is that thoroughness that the Blazers are hoping will lead them from promise to production, from front office dysfunction last season to stability next season, and beyond.

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Cho has led a stable employment life for the last 15 years, all spent in the organization that is now Oklahoma City, starting as an intern in Seattle in 1995 and rising to assistant general manager. He held that title he held for much of the next decade, through the team's move from Seattle. Along the way he worked with executives like Wally Walker, the former Sonics president, Rick Sund, the Sonics' former GM now in Atlanta, and Sam Presti, the Thunder's current GM, and coaches Nate McMillan, whom he will again work with in Portland, and Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey.

"He is an out-of-the-box thinker," Presti texted Sunday, "someone that will counter consensus when a tough decision comes around. It's tough to see him go, but we knew that it was a matter of time before he moved on to an enhanced leadership opportunity such as Portland."

Indeed, Cho says he doesn't like scouts "who are wishy-washy," and wants to hire people that will disagree with him -- as long as they have their reasons lined up. Reason is a big part of Cho's makeup.

Cho is part of the vanguard of NBA executives, led by Houston's Daryl Morey, who are quite comfortable with using baseball-like metrics as part of evaluating players, both current and future. Their presence has made conclaves like the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference into must-attend events for NBA teams looking for new ways of analyzing the game. But Cho isn't one of those guys who values a spread sheet more than a scouting report.

"I don't think it's any one thing," Cho said. "It's more a hybrid of everything. A lot of times you can cut statistics to make a guy look good or bad. It depends how you look at it. You have to take everything as a whole. Statistics is just one facet of the equation."

In Oklahoma City, Cho found a kindred spirit in Presti, who'd made his reputation in San Antonio coming up with similar kinds of thoroughly-researched opinions of players.

Presti "did a really good job of implementing different processes," Cho said. "A lot of different structures. I'm very process-oriented, too. We worked very well together. We want to put a process together in every facet of basketball operations."

For example, when the Thunder sent a player down to the NBA D-League, Presti told the player. Cho got on the phone and did the paperwork with the league office. Another group handled the player after he arrived in Tulsa, got him situated in his new place, made sure he had whatever he needed. And the Tulsa team ran the same sets that the parent club did in Oklahoma City. It's not reinventing the wheel; other teams have similar structures in place. But having the structure in place is critical.

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Managing (from left) Armon Johnson, Luke Babbitt, and Elliot Williams will be part of GM Rich Cho's job in Portland.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Cho will beef up Portland's existing operations. He will keep director of college scouting Chad Buchanan and director of NBA scouting Mike Born, but he is hiring an assistant general manager this week (the candidates are Oklahoma City's director of pro player personnel Bill Branch and Atlanta's director of pro personnel and college scouting Steve Rosenberry).

Analytics, in Cho's mind, are a lot more than stats. That doesn't mean PER, True Shooting Percentage and other such numbers aren't part of evaluating a player. But there's a lot of other data out if you're willing to sift through it. The "statistical piece," as Cho calls it, is actually three different areas: player evaluation, self-analysis and strategic/coaching decisions. Whether his way is going to be standard operating procedure around the league is still a matter of debate.

"Part of it depends on who the GM is," Cho said, "and how much they believe in it. Some guys really look at things analytically, and some guys are more gut feel. I'm a big data collector. I like to look at a lot of data, and try to decipher it accordingly...you can have too much data, too. You have to have the right kind of data."

You may have read Cho's interview with ESPN.com's True Hoop blog, in which he detailed how he'd examined every second-round draft pick's contract over the last seven years, giving him the precise breakdown of how many guys got guaranteed money, how many were partial guarantees, or non-guaranteed, and so on, so that he could come back at agents who cherry-picked the numbers to find the deals most favorable for their clients.

But Cho also knows every trade that was made for second-round picks since 2003 -- how many were strictly for cash, how many were for the rights to another Draft pick, how many were for both the rights to a player and an existing player. And he can break down the contracts of every player in the Lottery during that time, and from pick 14 through the end of the first round as well.

And Cho has done the same thing with knee injuries.

"We were looking to sign a guy a few years ago who'd had an ACL injury in the past," Cho said. "We wanted to try to get a feel for, is this guy going to come back strong? What are the chances he comes back strong, or does he start to fade a little bit? So I went back and looked at every ACL or microfracture injury the last 10 years, back to Penny Hardaway, Terrell Brandon, Kerry Kittles. We looked at the age when the player was injured. The type of injury, was it a microfracture? We looked at their productivity before and after the injury. If they were right handed, typicaly jumping off of their left leg, which leg was injured, and if it was the left leg that was hurt. And vice versa. We looked at perimeter guys versus bigs."

Cho will no doubt spent a similar amount of time over the next few weeks researching knees and kneecaps. Greg Oden is making a recovery from a fractured left patella, and his backup, Joel Przybilla, is trying to come back from a ruptured patella tendon. Portland's got a little more insurance this season with Marcus Camby, but if the Blazers are to realistically mount a challenge in the West next season they need either Oden or Przybilla -- both, really -- to return to form.

Oden "is not ready to play in a game yet," Cho said. "But he's looking pretty good. He's still in his rehab stage."

Cho is also not concerned, he says, with what happened off the court in Portland last season. You know my feelings about what happened to Pritchard, run off in my view for a host of minor offenses by people inside the Blazers' parent organization who sought to consolidate their own power bases next to owner Paul Allen. But like former Wizards/Bullets coach Jimmy Lynam used to say, why should he have a problem with Chris Webber just because C-Webb and Don Nelson didn't get along in Golden State? Whatever happened to Pritchard didn't happen to Cho, so he came to Portland with an open mind.

"When I met with (team president) Larry Miller and Mr. Allen, I saw the incredible commitment Mr. Allen has to winning," Cho said. "Same with Larry. I can tell right away, in my first two weeks on the job, how much he loves the Blazers and how much he wants to win."

Cho has no doubts that Allen will continue to okay spending whatever needs to be spent, including buying and hoarding future Draft picks, if it helps the Blazers win now and down the road. And with Allen's largesse at his back, there's no doubt that Cho will have the means to go as deep into the numbers, statistical and otherwise, as he wants. He has thought a lot about what he wanted to do when he got a job of his own, and now he's got it, and he wants to build an organization that will be fluid, yet flexible enough to tolerate debate. Presumably, that includes Allen and his Vulcan Sports and Entertainment group.

"You have to be on the same page," Cho said. "You don't have to be on the same paragraph or the same sentence. But you have to be on the same page."

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

How will this "advisor" thing with Isiah Thomas and the Knicks work, anyhow?

Thomas says he's keeping his job as coach at Florida International but will help the Knicks evaluate future prospects "from around the world," according to a release sent out by the team on Friday. Those prospects include, presumably, college players. But the league has strict rules about team employees having any contact with players who are not yet Draft eligible, and college players obviously aren't draft eligible until they declare for the Draft. This is at the heart of the league's announcement Friday that it needed to review the arrangement between Thomas and the Knicks, which reportedly was agreed upon without the input of current team president Donnie Walsh. That has created the predictable hysteria in the New York tabloids, which view Thomas' re-emergence with the team after being fired in 2008 the directive of team owner James Dolan and Dolan alone.

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There are some details to work out before Isiah Thomas can serve as an 'advisor' to the Knicks.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

What exactly is Thomas going to do? If he's scouting other college players for the Knicks, how does he coach his kids? And vice versa? And if it is an informal and benign position, why make a big formal announcement?

Dolan seems convinced that Thomas can deliver Carmelo Anthony or some other superstar next summer. Now I know Isiah and he's quite persuasive, but just as with Amar'e Stoudemire, I'm pretty sure New York's biggest chip will be if it offers 'Melo a high eight- or nine-figure salary.

There's no question that Thomas thinks he was unfairly dumped by the Knicks and that he didn't harass former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders, who was awarded $11.6 million by a jury in 2007 after suing Thomas and the Knicks, saying she was fired after complaining about unwanted advances by Thomas and other male employees. (Thomas has denied, and continues to vehemently deny he ever did or said anything inappropriate to Sanders.) And Thomas has made no secret that he expects to be back in the NBA soon.

Whether it's with the Knicks will be up to the league.

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

Good thing the Truman biography didn't end in 1938. From John Pittman:

I read a lot of NBA articles and a lot of fan commentary. I can't help but find the discussion of LeBron's legacy really interesting.

So many people saying (before we've even seen this team play) that LeBron is the second fiddle now and that he'll never be regarded as the greatest. Even Hall of Fame players saying the conversation about his place in history is over.

Here's my question: Let's say, hypothetically, that as a result of teaming with Wade and Bosh, LBJ becomes the second player in history to average a triple-double. What if he managed it in multiple or even consecutive seasons? And what if the Heat become the first team since [Bill] Russell's Celtics to win four or more championships in a row? That would be unbelievable in today's NBA...Isn't it a little premature to start making definitive statements about how history will view LBJ?

Of course it's premature, John. This is the peril of living in a 24/7 news cycle, where everyone has to have a "take" and be loud, and everyone wants to be on TV or blog or otherwise spout their opinions. None of us know what LeBron is going to be in Miami, because he's never played with players as good as Wade and Bosh. Certainly he'll have a different kind of role there, but winning is going to ultimately determine how he's judged. If the Heat gets three or four rings in the next few years, we will no doubt begin hearing about the case for LeBron being the best ever.

Smirnoff, Beluga...Newark? From Vlad Sherbatov:

I live in the multicultural Toronto. I'm also Russian (c'mon, my name is Vlad). I'm a huge Raptors fan, NBA fan in general, and of course have been following my countryman's journey with the Nets.

Here is what I wanted to get your thoughts on. [Mikhail] Prokhorov makes a lot of his arguments around the concept of a "Global Team", with a worldwide following. He is Russian with billions of dollars, bringing a following all on his own, he is a foreign owner of an NBA franchise, he is basically building a new arena in a city with a big Russian population. Good signs no doubt -- but what about the players?

You've obviously noticed the euro-transition that the Raptors have undergone, probably since Vince [Carter]'s departure. We've had Spanish players, Slovakian players, Italians, Croatians, Australians, Turkish ... you name it. I think there was a time when four out of our five starters were white European players, not something you see often in the NBA. And you will find a community for each one of those countries in Toronto. It seems we had focused the "Global" aspect on the roster level, but what happened as a result? Not much. Years went by, some contracts ran out, others got traded, others went back to Europe and now, facing next season, we are back with a young core of athletic Americans who we hope will turn into solid NBA players. Starting over.

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Mikhail Prokhorov's goal to make the Nets a 'global' team doesn't mean foreign talent is his focus.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

So my question to you is -- how much value do you put into the global team that Prokhorov is trying to create and what impact do you see that having on the actual team? Do you think this global following will in fact convince every talented player that NJ is a great place to play?

I think what Prokhorov is definitely doing right and is setting the goals fine and clear. He said exactly what his intentions are and what they are working towards. He is already settling in a certain mindset around the league and the basketball world without NJ playing even one game or acquiring a "global" player.

I don't anticipate that the Nets will be signing every international player because of Prokhorov's global ambitions. (They're already traded Yi Jianlian to Washington.) Prokhorov wants the best players in New Jersey and doesn't care where they're from. And anyway, his biggest selling point isn't going to be his background, but his wallet.

The weekly 'are you actually reading the column?' letter. From Donna Lyons:

How on earth could you possibly score Orlando Magic as No. 25 (in your Offseason Rankings)? You must have blinders on. Does last year's record mean nothing? Don't you realize that by not making any changes in a winning team that that team will most likely get better? You stink!

One more time. The offseason rankings had nothing to do with last year's regular season record. It was, and is, a mark of what teams did this offseason. And Orlando's moves -- re-signing Jason Williams, signing Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon and matching Chicago's offer for J.J. Redick -- just weren't as the moves some other teams made. I made a point, specifically, of saying that the Magic is so much better than most teams already that it didn't matter they didn't do much in the offseason. Can I get on with my summer now?

By The Numbers

2,012,062 -- Total followers as of Friday night on the NBA's official Twitter feed. The league claimed earlier in the week that it had the most followers of any of the major sports leagues on the social networking site, and that combined with team and individual player feeds on Twitter, NBA-related Twitter feeds surpassed 23 million followers.

$590,000,000 -- Winning bid for the Texas Rangers, by Hall of Fame pitcher and current team president Nolan Ryan and partner Chuck Greenberg, which beat out a bid by a group led by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, at the auction in Fort Worth last week. The Rangers were sold in bankruptcy court after the team filed for bankruptcy last May.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) Really looking forward to this week's Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies in Springfield. Every year's class is special to someone, and this year's will not disappoint: Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Cynthia Cooper, legendary high school coach Bob Hurley, Sr., the 1960 and 1992 men's Olympic teams and three posthumous honorees: Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, Baltimore Bullets forward Gus Johnson and international star Maciel Pereira. Seeing the greats of the game that come back for the weekend is one of the great joys, and the speeches are often memorable (Michael Jordan's sure raised some eyebrows). Just a great time, which you can catch this year on Friday on NBA TV!

2) Okay, I am officially rooting for Anthony Tolliver in Minnesota next season. That is funny.

3) The Jazz braintrust re-ups for another year or two. That's good for Utah and good for the league.

4) A blogger devoted to Amir Johnson uses advanced metrics to argue that Johnson is worth every penny he's getting. Interesting read.

5) May I suggest "Bigger Papi?"

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Drew Gooden's $34 million deal should end up being a good buy for Milwaukee this season.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

6) My colleague Scott Howard-Cooper disagrees with my placing the Bucks at number seven overall in the offseason rankings, and worried that I'll be displeased. Au contraire. We want vigorous debate here at the Tip. Allow me to explain it.

Even Laverne and Shirley know free agents don't have Milwaukee on the short list. No matter how much cap room the Bucks clear, Carmelo Anthony is not coming through their door next summer. Trades are a much more realistic way to improve their team. And Corey Maggette's ability to draw fouls and get to the foul line will help a team that was next to last in free throw attempts last season. And given the reality that Herb Kohl isn't going to spend $80 million for the likes of Carlos Boozer, Drew Gooden for $34 million was about as good as Milwaukee was going to get at power forward.

7) Glory. Video Finally, the end. I think. (BTW, isn't "Static Kill" a must name for your teenager's new garage band?)

Not Feelin' ...

1) Hold your breath, Mavs Nation.

2) Better late than never, one supposes.

3) I am in the minority, but I think Adam Morrison can play in this league. Somewhere. For someone.

4) Why hasn't Howard Cosell been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? More accurately: why hasn't he won the Pete Rozelle Radio/Television Award, given annually to a recipient of the electronic media that has made long and lasting contributions to professional football? I had just assumed he'd won the award until reading this story last week, which left me floored.

Yes, this is a basketball column. But I would not be in sports journalism if not for Howard Cosell. For it was Cosell, who died in 1995, who was one of my biggest media heroes growing up, and who has only become larger since his passing. Lots of people shape your life and don't know it; the Great One influenced me, though we never met.

It is not a stretch to say that the NFL, and sports in the United States as we know it, would not be where they are today if not for Cosell, whose star turn on Monday Night Football from 1970-83, was a seminal transferal point for the sport. The success of MNF was crucial to the league's ability to command multi-billion dollar rights fees from its broadcast networks; crucial to its ability to get millions in advertising from alcohol and auto companies; crucial to making its signature franchises into national ones. And MNF wouldn't have worked without Cosell.

Love him (I did), hate him (many did), you had to watch Cosell, whose command of language and ability to find the story line on a given week made for compelling television. His opening to the broadcast of Nov. 27, 1978, when the 49ers played the Steelers -- just hours after San Francisco's mayor, George Moscone, and city supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered -- is still etched in memory, as is his announcement of the death of John Lennon in the waning seconds of the Patriots-Dolphins game in 1980 -- "an unspeakable tragedy," as he put it.

It would be fitting if Rozelle Award winners get the same yellow jackets as the Hall of Fame inductees; Cosell and his MNF buddies made such jackets look cool in the early '70s. Whatever the garb, though, Cosell belongs in the Hall.

5) Yikes. Tiger needs a break.

Tweet of the Week

Just finished summer school and Im 99% sure I got A's in both my classes. I can't wait to graduate because I feel like an old man in there.

Suns forward Josh Childress (@JChillin), Thursday, as he works toward his degree from Stanford University.

They Said It

"This is where he lives and where he will always live. This had nothing to do with Cleveland, nothing to do with the Cavaliers."
-- Maverick Carter, LeBron James' longtime friend and CEO of LRMR, James' marketing company, defending James' full-page advertisement thanking the city of Akron -- but not mentioning the Cavaliers or Cleveland, 40 or so miles away -- to the Akron Beacon Journal.

"A blind man can see what their strategy is, and that's to delay. That's a strategy they've employed in the past with coaches they've fired and didn't want to pay."
-- Miles Clements, the attorney for Mike Dunleavy, to ESPNLosAngeles.com on a lawsuit filed last week by the Clippers against Dunleavy, their former coach, which claims Dunleavy had no intention of coaching the team next season and thus is not entitled to the $6.75 million remaining on his contract. Dunleavy filed an arbitration claim against the team, alleging the Clippers of fraud against him in their contract negotiations.

"They will break the single-season win record. And I think they have a legit shot at the Lakers' 33-game streak as well. And only the Lakers have even a remote shot at beating them in a playoff series. They will never lose two games in a row this year."
-- ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, giving the Miami Herald his prediction for next season's Miami Heat -- and, seemingly, eliminating brother Stan Van Gundy's Magic as a title contender.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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