Charlotte's transition from losing Bobcats to playoff Hornets

Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho, left, was crestfallen when the franchise lost the opportunity to draft Anthony Davis in 2012. But that didn't stop him from building a playoff team. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rich Cho is the measured sort. A former attorney and Boeing engineer, Cho paved his way in the NBA through a mastery of legalese fine print and CBA minutia. So while his coach, Steve Clifford, beams like a kid let out to recess when discussing the findings of his film-study immersion, the Charlotte Hornets general manager fields all basketball-related questions with a decidedly even keel.

Ask how his team reached its highest win total (48) since the NBA returned to Charlotte 12 years ago -- without a true superstar -- and Cho will carefully praise the character and competitiveness of his roster. Ask about the disappointment of the Lance Stephenson signing and Cho will focus on the players acquired when trading away Stephenson.

Bring up the 2012 draft lottery, though -- specifically, his live television reaction to the results of the 2012 draft lottery -- and Cho can't help but crack a smile.

"Yeah, yeah," he said with a laugh. "No, I get that a lot."

Charlotte hit rock bottom about a month before the Charlotte GM hit the dais in New York: The then-Bobcats won seven games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season and set an NBA record for lowest winning percentage (.106). The top pick, and thus the right to select wunderkind Anthony Davis, would instantly change the trajectory of a franchise with one playoff appearance in its eight years of re-existence. Cho, a former member of the SuperSonics/Thunder front office, had seen it happen first-hand.

When the representatives of the top three selections lined up on lottery night, the Washington Wizards were revealed first, and thus slotted third. As Adam Silver prepared to reveal the team that would draft second, Cho glanced at Monty Williams, then-head coach of the then-New Orleans Hornets, on his left. When he looked back, he saw an orange cat. Cho closed his eyes and tilted his head back in dejection.

Charlotte had lost again.

"I try to not focus on the past," he says now, four years later. "Obviously, Anthony Davis is a franchise player. He's a great player. But we try to focus on the positive."

Davis ended up a Hornet, but only before New Orleans' identity shift to the Pelicans. Charlotte selected his Kentucky teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, second overall.

"Not every team has a franchise-type player," Cho said. "What you have to try to do is improve incrementally and try to build guys the way you want to build it and keep in line with your process. That's what we tried to do here: bringing in guys incrementally, where we can improve the team."

For Cho, whose media guide bio proudly proclaims he helped design "advanced and comprehensive" player-evaluation systems as a Sonics intern, that meant an "enormous" amount of background work to construct a team culture focused on improvement. He described the makeup of a Hornets player as following: "Guys that have a really strong work ethic. Guys that are ultracompetitive. Players that love to win and hate to lose. Guys that are great teammates. And high-character guys."

That approach hasn't resulted in a superstar, but it has built a collection of like-minded players who seem to legitimately enjoy playing with each other.

"It's night and day to a lot of other organizations," said Jeremy Lin, signed last summer after a trying season with the Los Angeles Lakers. "I compare this team to my high school team, in terms of guys totally buying in. We didn't have a superstar in high school, but we were able to have success just playing team basketball and doing it the right way.

"The more money gets involved, the more it becomes professional, whatever, it becomes more and more rare that you have a team like this."

Clifford, a high-energy grinder from New England who spent the bulk of his assistant days under the Van Gundy brothers (with the wry wit to prove it), was hired three seasons ago, and the team has excelled at the detail-oriented aspects of the game ever since. In each of the past three seasons, Charlotte has finished with a top-10 defense and the league's lowest turnover ratio.

The Hornets shot almost as poorly (38.9 percent) as the Miami Heat (34.2) in their Game 3 victory on Sunday but only turned the ball over three times and shot 21-for-22 from the free throw line.

"To me, it comes down to the guys you have on your team," Clifford said. "You're not going to change the basic decision-making nature of any player. You watch Nic [Batum] play. When that ball's coming to him, he knows what should happen before he catches the ball. That's not something any coach ever teaches any player. Some guys can't do that."

Last summer, Cho focused on finding an offense to match. While he wouldn't say outright that he followed the Golden State Warriors' model, his offseason wish list included tenets best exemplified by the reigning champs: 3-point shooting, "overall offensive skill level" and positional versatility.

"We just felt like that's where the league was going," Cho said.

Out went suboptimal (Stephenson, Bismack Biyombo, Gerald Henderson) and still-developing (Noah Vonleh) shooters and in came a bevy of established (Batum, Lin, Spencer Hawes) and potential (Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb) long-range threats. Players already on the roster, like Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams, were encouraged to fling it more than ever before.

The Hornets shot 1,566 3-pointers in 2014-15, which accounted for 22.6 percent of their field goal attempts. That number rose to 2,410 this season, or 34.8 percent of their total attempts, which marks the second-largest rate spike in NBA history, according to ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton. Overall, Charlotte finished fourth in the league in attempts (29.4, up from 19.1) and tied for seventh in percentage of makes (36.2, up from 31.8). And those rankings flip since Courtney Lee (39.2 percent from 3 with Charlotte) was acquired at the trade deadline.

As the 3-and-D player becomes more in demand across the league, the Hornets have essentially assembled a 3-and-D team.

"It's more fun to watch," Cho said. "I think the players are having a lot of fun; you can see it on the court."

Their love of the long ball is so pronounced that the Heat tailored their defense to shutting off their catch-and-shoot opportunities. With Miami hugging on its shooters, Charlotte had to win its first playoff game in 14 years on Sunday the old-fashioned way, with 52 points in the paint.

The Hornets are finding any way to win, both in their first-round series and since that now-infamous draft lottery day. And with seven or maybe eight players expected to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, it's possible they'll have to reconfigure once again.

"Obviously, that's a little bit of a risk," Cho said, "but we feel comfortable with that risk. And if it turns out that we're not able to keep some of the guys, we'll have additional cap room."

Given the recent history in Charlotte, it's an appropriately measured response.