GM says Blazers can achieve goal of getting beyond first round
For Rich Cho, things are finally falling into place on a personal level just as things are heating up professionally.
The Trail Blazers' first-year general manager recently sold his house in Oklahoma City, where he served as assistant GM the previous two seasons after holding the position for eight years with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Following the sale a couple of weeks ago, Cho's wife, Julie, and their children, Miranda, 5, and Annika, 3, joined him at his condo on Portland's South Waterfront. The Chos have purchased a Lake Oswego house that will close the start of June.
All of this as the Blazers head into the playoffs for the first time under the watch of the first Asian-American GM in American major-league sports.
With a lunch plate of sturgeon and a bowl of spicy seafood soup, Cho sat for a chat with the Portland Tribune at a Lake Oswego eatery.
Portland Tribune: How do you feel about your first nine months in office?
Cho: It's gone really well. I have a great front-office staff. The business office is terrific to work with. We have an ownership group that is committed to winning. The coaches have done a great job all season. The players have been resilient through all the adversity this year. They've stepped up.
Tribune: What has surprised you about the job?
Cho:: Before this job, I hadn't done a lot of interviews. I'm still trying to get comfortable with that. The amount of media scrutiny has been a little surprising.
The other thing is the fan support. You don't get a real flavor for how rabid the fan base is until you're here. The fans are so supportive of the team, it makes for a great environment for our players. When you're here every game, you get a little more feel for all of that.
Tribune: Before the season, you said the team's goal was to get beyond the first round of the playoffs. After several injuries early on, it seemed as if that were a bit farfetched. But the Blazers will finish with close to 50 regular-season victories and a chance to win the first round. Are you standing by your preseason goal?
Cho: We're playing well right now. With Gerald Wallace, we're 10-6 against .500-or-better teams. Before he came, we were 10-18 against .500-or-better teams. We've won eight of our last 11 games (before Wednesday night's regular-season finale at Golden State) and beaten San Antonio twice, Dallas, Oklahoma City and the Lakers. Any first-round matchup is hard, but the way I look at it, we can have success no matter who we play.
Tribune: You mentioned the players' resilience. How do you feel about their overall performance this season?
Cho: The guys have done a really good job. LaMarcus Aldridge has established himself as one of the best players in the game. Wesley Matthews has done all we could ask. Wallace has fit in superbly with this team as a guy who plays both ends of the floor. Andre Miller is a warrior who comes to play every night. And the guys are playing together as a team. They like each other. We have great camaraderie. That's important.
Tribune: The fans in Charlotte are angry at you for stealing Wallace from the Bobcats at the trade deadline. Has he played beyond your expectations?
Cho: Yes and no. I was expecting a lot out of him. He was an All-Star and a first-team all-defense selection last season. One of the reasons we traded for him was because of his defensive prowess, and he plays so hard - as hard as anybody in the league. What has surprised me a little is his feel for the game. He's a terrific passer. He adds a lot of versatility to our team at both ends of the floor.
Tribune: At your initial press conference, you said you wanted the Blazers to be 'the best-run franchise in pro sports' in terms of scouting, player development and overall production. What changes have you implemented in your system?
Cho: I like to take an analytical approach to things. I'm also very process-oriented. I've tried to bring a more processed approach to what we do. For instance, we've instituted a new process of evaluating players. It's a rating system of both college and pro players that takes into account where we feel they fit in terms of both their value to our franchise, and as a player in the NBA.
We're putting more emphasis on player development. The way I approach it is, there's no salary cap for that. I want our players to get better. The young guys have to be on the court early during pre-game workouts (at the arena). We want them there well in advance to practice, too. If practice starts at 10, you don't get there at 9:45. They have to be on the court working at nine. We'll be working with them probably more so than in the past throughout the offseason, too. We'll have individual work with the players, and all our assistant coaches will be involved with that in the future.
We've made a concerted effort to use the D-League this year. Armon Johnson had a good stint there. Luke Babbitt had a couple of good stints. We called up Chris Johnson. It's not just out of sight, out of mind. We have a written development plan for each player, for what we want them to work on during their time down there. We've had each of our four scouting execs be with them at times during the process. There's a purpose for everything.
Tribune: What led to your decision to extend coach Nate McMillan's contract?
Cho: Nate and his staff have done a splendid job. They are well-prepared and good at making adjustments. They never made any excuses about injuries. I decided the time was right to get it done with Nate. We didn't want to go into the offseason with the chance of losing him.
Tribune: Will you still make your scouting mission to Europe to watch Blazer draft picks Victor Claver, Joel Freeland and Petteri Koponen?
Cho: Yes, after we're eliminated from the playoffs, I'll go over there. Victor and Joel are playing in Spain and Petteri is in Italy. I'll be looking at other draft prospects as well.
Tribune: How do you feel Greg Oden's rehab is progressing? Are you still planning to extend the $8.8 million qualifying offer?
Cho: Greg's rehab is going well. As long as it continues to progress, it's safe to say we'll extend the qualifying offer.
Tribune: You have until June 29 to pick up the option on the final year of Andre Miller's contract. Will you?
Cho: We've been pleased with the contribution Andre has made on and off the court. As far as his contract goes, we'll cross that bridge when the time comes.
Tribune: Under the current rules, at least, you're eligible to extend Nicolas Batum's contract after this season? Your thoughts?
Cho: Nic's progress has been encouraging this year. He's a young guy I hope is with us for many years to come.
Tribune: In which areas does this team need help?
Cho: We could use some more size, we could use some more speed, we could use some more shooting.
Tribune: You're going to select in the neighborhood of No. 20 in the June draft. Will you be looking to move up and acquire a more favorable first-round pick?
Cho: That's always something I'm looking to do. I've been involved in a lot of draft-day deals during my time with Seattle and Oklahoma City.
Tribune: Your salary payout for this season is about $72 million, just over the luxury-tax threshold of $70.31 million. Is owner Paul Allen OK with that?
Cho: Our goal will always be to not have to pay tax. But it show you how committed to winning our owner is.
Tribune: On Tuesday, you signed journeyman center Earl Barron. Why?
Cho: During the playoffs, you can change your 12-man active roster from game to game. It's insurance against an injury, and it's never bad to have too many bigs.
Tribune: Have you found a good Burmese restaurant in the Portland area?
Cho: They don't have one here.
Tribune: Do you have to drive to Seattle to get your fix?
Cho: I have this lady in L.A. I get it from. I call or e-mail and tell her what I want. She makes it, freezes it, and Fed-Exes it.
Tribune: Why the move from the South Waterfront to Lake Oswego?
Cho: Great schools, proximity to both the training facility in Tualatin and the Rose Garden, and it's a wonderful community. It'll be a nice place for my family to settle into.