Once upon a time, the Portland Trail Blazers' chief basketball executive (Bob Whitsitt) famously remarked that he hadn't taken chemistry in college. Apparently, neither did Rich Cho. When Blazers president Larry Miller tried to explain Monday why Cho had been dismissed after less than a year on the job as general manager, he used the term "chemistry" 10 times during his remarks. "Fit" came up another three. Suffice it to say that something in the relationship between Cho and team owner Paul Allen went awry.
Unanswered Monday was this critical question: Just who exactly is the right fit with Allen? It wasn't Cho, but it also wasn't Kevin Pritchard, who was fired 11 months ago in what apparently came down to his difficulty getting along with senior management. If not 180 degrees removed from each other on the personality spectrum, the analytical Cho and the gregarious Pritchard are pretty close. If neither of them could coexist with Allen, who can?
Really, the issue goes back further. Since the end of Whitsitt's nine-year run at the helm, Portland has gone through basketball executives in a hurry. Cho's replacement will the team's sixth decision maker in less than a decade. During that same span, no other team in the league has had more than four chief basketball executives. Even if each change made sense on an individual level, taken together they demonstrate a worrisome level of organizational instability.
Each time a franchise changes general managers, it means a new perspective on the roster. A newcomer comes in without attachment to the existing players and with different preferences. Over time, that produces a mismatched roster lacking in cohesiveness. The Blazers already have major structural issues with their roster, including a problematic lack of depth at point guard and center, that they must address. The new GM will also have to figure out how to deal with Brandon Roy's massive contract and weakened game.
If Portland decides to promote director of college scouting Chad Buchannan, who will serving as the team's acting general manager, that could minimize the disruption. Buchannan and director of pro scouting Mike Born, both brought in by Pritchard, have been the respected constants in the Blazers' front office. It does seem telling that Portland gave power to Buchannan instead of assistant GMs Bill Branch or Steve Rosenberry, Cho hires who were nominally above him in the organizational hierarchy.
The other problem created by the revolving door of general managers is confidence among the Blazers' fan base. Hiring the highly regarded Cho quieted most of the concerns after Pritchard was fired, namely that the team would be run either by Milller (who has no basketball decision-making experience) or from Seattle. Changing GMs so quickly raises again the issue of the role of Allen and his confidants--best friend Bert Kolde and adviser Steve Gordon, better known in basketball circles as "Hat Guy."
An owner's influence in basketball decisions is a tricky thing, and often more complex than we realize from the outside. It becomes an issue when it starts to affect team performance, and it's unclear whether Allen's involvement has ever been so significant. Where it may have an impact is on the pool of applicants for the Portland job. Given the tenuous job security of their front-office predecessors and the possibility they may not be able to make the final call on every move, prospective general managers will surely think twice before interviewing with the Blazers.
There's also the aspect of how much confidence fans can have in Portland's search for a replacement led by the same people who, we're now to believe, misjudged Cho so badly a year ago. Whether the mistake was in hiring or firing Cho, the result was a season wasted in management terms. Either way, Allen and Miller must accept the blame.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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