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Daryl Morey never got his hero’s moment.
The Houston Rockets’ longtime general manager resigned last week after a 13-year tenure in which he established himself as one of the NBA’s best executives and biggest targets. Like James Harden, the franchise guard he spent eight seasons building around, Morey didn’t win a title. To critics who resented the Rockets’ unconventional tactics, Harden will forever be a postseason choker and Morey will forever be the analytics dork from MIT who never understood the human side of basketball.
Neither label is fair, even if Morey’s final season ended disastrously. His July 2019 trade for Russell Westbrook will probably go down as the most damaging deal of his career. His October 2019 tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters prompted a year-long international incident with China that cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars. And Houston’s promising playoff run in the bubble sputtered out when Danuel House broke health protocols, leading to a humiliating second-round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and coach Mike D’Antoni’s abrupt departure.
Yet Morey should not be defined by the championship he never won or his disappointing final chapter. During his 13 years, the Rockets won and won and won. Houston went 640-400 (.615) under Morey, winning more regular season games than every franchise except the San Antonio Spurs and winning more playoff games than all but seven teams during that time period. Seven of the Rockets’ 10 best seasons in their 53-year history came under Morey, including a franchise-record 65 wins in 2018. Houston’s eight-year playoff run is the NBA’s longest active streak.
Not only that, Morey’s Rockets reshaped the sport. In 2007-08, Morey’s first full year, the average NBA team attempted 18 three-pointers per game. That number nearly doubled to 34 in 2019-20, with Houston leading the league in attempts for the fourth straight season. The Rockets’ obsession with the outside shot and its resulting efficiency advantages drove a dramatic reorientation of offense that included changes to style of play, lineup configurations and shot locations.
Houston’s steadfast pursuit of layups, free throws and three-pointers in lieu of midrange jumpers became known as “Moreyball,” and soon enough most of the league was mimicking his approach to one degree or another. Morey pushed the envelope in many other ways on the court: Houston experimented with small-ball and micro-sized lineups, switching defenses and isolation-heavy offenses, while altering its tempo from year to year to accommodate its best players. Some of these strategies are, or were, regarded as modern best practices.
That same innovative spirit was visible off the court: Morey broke from most of his contemporaries in many ways. He was a high-volume trader, preferring to quickly shuffle the chairs rather than hope that a broken formula might be fixed with time. He was a very public face for his organization, rallying fans and hyping up his players on social media rather than prizing maximum discretion. He pushed the limits of the collective bargaining agreement by concocting the backloaded, so-called “poison pill” offer for Jeremy Lin; constructing convoluted multi-team trades; and leading carefully orchestrated free agency recruitments.
Morey’s obsession with winning was always evident. His 2012 trade for Harden was his signature move, but he was a complete executive who found success in the draft, free agency and trades alike. Morey selected Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell well outside the lottery, landed Dwight Howard in free agency, packaged a host of assets to trade for Chris Paul and plucked Patrick Beverley from Europe.
In an era when stars constantly changed teams, Morey went above and beyond to keep Harden happy. He excelled at finding veterans such as P.J. Tucker who fit with his franchise player, and he wasn’t afraid to take a chance on distressed assets who might find a second life in a narrow role. The Westbrook trade was regrettable — Morey gave away Paul, a better player on a better contract, and a host of draft picks — but it was made at the behest of Harden and brash owner Tilman Fertitta. Managing Harden’s cast and massaging his ego required personal skills that belie the notion that Morey was a soulless quant.
Indeed, very few general managers can claim to have Morey’s broad skill set and depth of experience. A list of the five executives most qualified to turn an expansion team into a consistent winner would include Morey alongside Toronto’s Masai Ujiri, Boston’s Danny Ainge and Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti. Morey is easily the best available executive on the market, and he will still hold that title in 2021 if he sits out the upcoming season as expected.
Morey’s value to the Rockets should become crystal clear as the franchise plunges ahead without him. Fertitta has consistently acted like an impulsive novice, he has been open about his financial difficulties during the pandemic, and he has now said goodbye to a visionary executive and a well-respected coach. The Westbrook trade complicated Houston’s title hopes, and further slippage is likely, given the recent organizational upheaval. Fertitta might soon be forced to explore trade offers for Harden, Westbrook or both.
While Morey never played a second in an NBA game and never built a title team in Houston, he did establish a philosophical alignment from owner to executive to coach to star that lasted a full decade before Fertitta’s 2017 arrival. That connectivity, so prized by the best basketball organizations, required significant time, talent and trust. It can’t be easily rebuilt.
The biggest question now is whether Fertitta understands all that he has lost. It shouldn’t take one of Morey’s fancy algorithms to realize that Houston’s future isn’t nearly as bright as its recent past.
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