Daryl Morey, The Genius Who Outsmarted Himself

HOUSTON General Manager Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

Daryl Morey and the Rockets have baffled the NBA over the past few weeks, and a few years after Morey arrived in Houston with a world of new wisdom, Morey's lessons are changing.

NBA free agency's been going strong for the better part of a week, but with a hundred different moves left to process and things still changing all over the league, we're about to get abstract for a little bit, so bear with me. We need to talk about Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets for a second. It just seems like we've reached a tipping point.

Three quick notes for context's sake.

1. Details. Daryl Morey is the GM of the Rockets and for the past two weeks he and his team have baffled just about everyone. They traded their way into two extra first round picks (14, 18), traded again to move from 14 to 12, all in an effort to come away with Dwight Howard one way or another. It didn't happen, so Morey drafted one project (Jeremy Lamb) and two guys who play pretty much the exact same position (Royce White and Terrence Jones).

Then this week, he gave Omer Asik $8 million a year in an attempt to steal him from Chicago (the Bulls can still match), let his would-be starting point guard Goran Dragic walk away to Phoenix for a completely reasonable $30 million deal, and Thursday traded his other potential starting point guard, Kyle Lowry, for a protected draft pick from the Raptors. He also reportedly signed Jeremy Lin just to screw with the Knicks, forcing New York to match his offer and pay higher taxes, even though Houston won't see those dividends for another three years.

After all that, the roster that's left is a wasteland of young players and Kevin Martin's expiring contract, no point guards, no center until Asik signs, and 10 different forwards.

2. Big Picture. Houston's cleared space to add Dwight Howard. More than that, actually. They have cap space to add a superstar and one or two bad contracts from Orlando, expiring contracts to offer in a trade, plus picks and young prospects to sweeten any deals.

3. Question(s). What happens if it doesn't work?

If the plan for Dwight falls through, Houston's got a mediocre mish-mash of undervalued role players and rookies to tank with, and (with Toronto's pick) a solid chance at drafting twice in top 10 next year. But then ... next year's draft is terrible compared to this year's. Is Shabazz Muhammad or Cody Zeller really going to turn the franchise around? (And -- random question -- if Morey knew they were going to let Dragic walk and trade Lowry, why not use one of his picks on Tony Wroten, who definitely would've been a top-10 pick in next year's draft?)

Even if they do end up with Dwight Howard, he apparently doesn't want to be there long-term, and even if he stays... How does it make the Rockets any different than the Magic the past few years? The problem isn't that the Rockets are dropping everything to finally land a superstar, it's that they're possibly going all-in for the wrong superstar in the one year where missing (and bottoming out) really won't help that much.

Houston is in no man's land, and it matters because the man who got them there was supposed to be the smartest GM in basketball. And here's where this all gets a little abstract, so feel free to stop reading and go check our free agency rumors whenever.

Star-divide


Steve Nash to the Lakers.

I still remember reading this New York Times article about Daryl Morey while sitting in my college dorm room in 2009. In the world of basketball geekdom, this was a watershed moment. The analytics movement had overtaken baseball a few years earlier and Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball to announce this to the world. But now the same thing was quietly happening the back offices of NBA teams all over the league, but with Morey and Michael Lewis and the New York Times it all went mainstream. This was basketball's Moneyball, and Morey was basketball's Billy Beane.

I loved Michael Lewis and I loved the NBA, so I printed it out ASAP and rushed back to my room to read it. I hated it.

“We now have all this data,” the Houston Rockets owner told the Times. “And I wanted to use that data in a progressive way. When I hired Daryl, it was because I wanted somebody that was doing more than just looking at players in the normal way. I mean, I’m not even sure we’re playing the game the right way.”

That was the tone of the entire piece. This idea that maybe we weren't understanding basketball the right way, and maybe there was one man who could change all that.

It was a 9,000-word statement in the form of a question about the future of basketball, punctuated by anecdotes about Shane Battier using percentages to help him guard Kobe Bryant over the course of a Rockets-Lakers game, interspersed with vague wisdom from Morey like this:

  • "Plus 6 is enormous. It's the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins."
  • When Daryl Morey spoke of basketball intelligence, a phrase slipped out: “the I.Q. of where to be.”
  • Even when the numbers agree with his intuitions, they have an effect. “It's a subtle difference,” Morey says, “but it has big implications. If you have an intuition of something but no hard evidence to back it up, you might kind of sort of go about putting that intuition into practice, because there’s still some uncertainty if it’s right or wrong.”
  • The Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team’s elements. To get at this they need something that basketball hasn’t historically supplied: meaningful statistics.
  • “It’s a tough environment for a player now because you have a lot of teams starting to think differently. They’ve got to rethink how they’re getting paid.”
  • “The marginal assist is worth more money to the point guard than the marginal point."
  • There are other things Morey has noticed too, but declines to discuss as there is right now in pro basketball real value to new information, and the Rockets feel they have some. What he will say, however, is that the big challenge on any basketball court is to measure the right things.
  • "Someone created the box score, and he should be shot.”

For Morey, this was a gift and a curse.

On the one hand, the Times piece lent unparalleled credibility and publicity to what he was doing in Houston, gave him the benefit of the doubt with just about every move he made afterward, and in the few years since it published the stats movement in the NBA has become a full-on phenomenon that's changing how we read the game, typified by the massive Sports Analytics conference at M.I.T. every year, where Morey's the ringleader (aka "Dork Elvis").

On the other hand, it was sort of like Morey's version of The Decision. At least among basketball nerds, Morey's Moneyball moment made him the most famous GM in the league, and after a few years where he got the benefit of the doubt, there was a lot of scrutiny that came with the territory (like this article, for instance). A few years later, it's still impossible to separate Daryl Morey the GM from Daryl Morey The GM Who's Smarter Than All The Other GMs.

Sitting in my dorm room, I thought the article was interesting but mostly bullshit.

For one thing, it overlooked the crucial detail that sometimes the NBA makes absolutely no sense. As often as good things happen to the smartest guys in the room, the idiots get rewarded in equal measure. The concept of losing to win isn't totally fair or rational, but it's a way of life in the NBA that rears its head with both the NBA lottery every year and sometimes elsewhere.

Take the Raptors this summer. Ever since Vince Carter left, the Raptors have been operating in obscurity, and this offseason was their chance to make a big splash. They wanted Steve Nash, Canada's favorite son, and getting him would theoretically inject more life into the franchise than they'd seen in years. But Nash wound up in L.A., so Toronto had to trade for Kyle Lowry instead.

Toronto's waaaaaaay better off this way. Had the Raptors spent big on Nash, they'd be putting him in a situation not all that different from the Suns the past few years, where the best case scenario is a No. 7 seed. He'd bring fans in at first and it would seem like a great move, but he'd be carrying a heavy load, and at 37 years old it probably wouldn't be long before he broke down, eventually leaving the Raptors to start from scratch all over again on the heels of (probably) bottoming out with the greatest player in Canadian history.

Instead they get Lowry from Morey and the Rockets, and all it cost them was a 1st round pick in a draft that's going to be horrible. With Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, and a solid core of young role players, that's a sneaky good young team. Put an aging Nash on the roster and ratchet up expectations, and you're guaranteed to be disappointed. Add Lowry for cheap, stay flexible for the next few years, and suddenly the future looks a lot brighter.

This wasn't a case of a mastermind thinking three steps ahead, just a panicked GM saving face, stumbling into a much better decision. Bryan Colangelo lucked into this scenario by failing, bailed out by the one GM who's never been willing to fail on the way to success.

Star-divide

Morey IS smarter than most of his peers, but he's been too smart for his own good. He hasn't been able to divorce himself from all the little moves that get you an extra two wins long enough to let Houston rebuild and maybe get an extra 20 wins. So while he's continued adding helpful pieces every season and making shrewd deals and generally being the opposite of Bryan Colangelo, the Rockets have finished above .500 for the past three years, but missed the playoffs each season. No man's land.

Star-divide

That Times article ignored a huge part of what makes basketball unlike any sport on earth. Example: when I was in high school I had a friend named Manny from New York City who was the best player on our high school team. He was 6'2 and not really that athletic. He dominated the ball, took too many shots, didn't really run the offense, constantly clashed with our head coach, who'd studied under Bobby Knight and been at the school for decades ... about as different from Shane Battier as you could possibly imagine. And he was totally, totally awesome.

(This random high school basketball interlude has a purpose, I swear.)

Most of the memories are hazy, but I searched around and found this article about some random game where Manny scored 17 straight points in the second half and carried our team to a win down the stretch. That was pretty much how 80 percent of our close games went.

He averaged about 30 per game and by the time he was a senior our team was a juggernaut. Players who would've been overmatched on their own became perfect role players, and in the end Manny carried them to a title game against Roy Hibbert and two other freak athletes destined for D-1, where he badly outclassed Hibbert and everyone else on the court.

That's how my high school somehow won a league title, and how I learned that basketball's the one sport where sometimes one guy matters more than anyone else. So, that Times article was bullshit for all kinds of reasons, but most importantly because there are definitely parts of basketball that a box score can't quantify, but Daryl Morey was looking in all the wrong places.

As he told us in 2009, "That’s the scarce resource in the N.B.A. Not the superstar but the undervalued player.”

Star-divide

It's been a few years now, and after all the back-and-forth about that stupid article, it's important to point out that Daryl Morey has spent the years since guiding a franchise to no man's land with his roster full of undervalued players. There's a parallel you could draw between Morey missing the point and the shortcomings of the larger NBA stats movement, but that's not really the point. It's really just incredible to see what's happened to the Rockets.

The Bobcats have a clearer blueprint than Houston does right now. David Kahn and the T'Wolves have somehow stumbled into maybe the brightest future of any young team in basketball. And it's Morey who's finally realizing just how scarce superstars really are, abruptly mortgaging everything to (maybe) land a star who's coming off back surgery and doesn't want to play in Houston.

As it stands now, the only GMs in the NBA who really do seem smarter than everyone are Sam Presti in OKC and R.C. Buford in San Antonio. It's not coincidence that both of them lucked into once-in-a-generation superstars at the beginning of all this. If Morey had a guy like Kevin Durant or Tim Duncan, there's no question they'd build around them just as well as those other guys have. But he doesn't, so here he is talking himself into Dwight Howard as his Tim Duncan.

He's way too smart to outsmart himself forever, and whether it's with Dwight or someone else, eventually he'll get this right and get a little lucky and bring a contender and probably a title to Houston. But Morey's ideas were supposed to change the way we understand basketball, and while they definitely did in some ways, this summer's proof that basketball's changed Morey just as much.

There are two big lessons for Morey and the rest of us. First: You need great players to be a great team, and there are no exceptions. As complex as you can make basketball, the greatest players always make it look pretty simple. To get those players in the NBA, you almost always need to lose at some point, and even then it takes a stupid amount of luck. Either way, intelligence and playing the odds only gets you so far. That's the other lesson.

After all the best preparation and perfect execution from Shane Battier the perfect teammate ... Kobe hits a game-winner at the end of that Michael Lewis piece, and the Lakers won back-to-back titles over the next two years. Even though I didn't like the 9,000-word article about Daryl Morey's lessons for the NBA, in retrospect, the ending was perfect.

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