Daryl Morey is many things. He's popular with a wide swath of the media, perhaps in part because of his chatty nature and in part because of his famous MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. When half of sports media is ESPN and ESPN is a major partner in the conference, with various ESPN journalists serving as panelists and moderators, of course there are some uniquely close relationships between the opinion shapers and the GM.
Morey is also a hero to the analytics crowd. As one of the very first quants in a powerful role in the NBA, Morey's broken ground on integrating big data into decision making, and he hasn't been shy about talking about it. That's generally good for fans, who are exceptionally interested in what goes into the game.
But it's also obvious that Morey's apparent self-promotion has alienated others. Many people, whether they are basketball PhDs or just snark artists, have bristled at the lionization of Morey. When you host Michael Lewis for a grand New York Times Magazine spread and then you lose in the second round, you're gonna catch jokes.
The debate over whether advanced quantitative analysis belongs in basketball is long over. Morey's camp won; the evidence is littered throughout the league's front offices, where a half-dozen Morey types run teams. The question now is whether Morey is a one-trick pony, or whether he has more to offer basketball than the triumph of math.
Let's be clear: Morey's grand thesis -- the superstar theorem -- is not remotely original. Since the end of the T-Mac and Yao era, Morey has chased superstars and amassed assets specifically to spin up for superstars. He landed James Harden and later wooed Dwight Howard. The former became one of the league's best players; the latter is falling apart at the seams. There's also the matter of the fact that the two stars appear to dislike each other.
Morey understands the basic fact of the NBA, which is that superstars are more important than anything else. Congratulations, so do 29 other GMs. And not one other of those 29 GMs spent deadline day trying to sell off one of their two superstars because of fit issues.
It would seem unfair to say Morey misunderstands the importance of chemistry on a basketball team, because we can't know exactly how it figures into his decision making. But then we see that he drafted Royce White, that he chased the unserious Howard to pair with the unserious Harden, that he added Ty Lawson this summer. Again, we can't know exactly how chemistry and personality considerations fit into Morey's calculus. But based on the moves he makes, we can presume it matters less than it should.
Morey did well to flip Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton for a pick, but that pick isn't going to help Houston get into the playoffs. This is the Sam Hinkie conundrum: you can win every individual trade and do nothing special in the aggregate. That Detroit pick Morey grabbed on Thursday isn't going to help Houston beat Golden State, San Antonio or Oklahoma City in April. That pick isn't going to help Morey win his fourth playoff series in his ninth season at the helm of the Rockets. (In the aggregate, Morey's Rockets are winning an average of one playoff series every two or three seasons.)
Morey invents new ways to protect draft picks, he has innovative ways to make other teams feel salary cap pain (see Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik) and he's always on the bleeding edge with data collection. But it really doesn't take rocket science to identify superstars. Morey wasn't the only GM to think Harden was going to be special -- he went No. 3 overall in a loaded draft, for goodness sake. Morey just had the foresight to collect the assets that the Thunder were willing to accept.
And now Morey is trying to collect assets to acquire Harden's co-star when he thought he'd already found Harden's co-star. Instead, Morey's become just another GM burned by Dwight Howard.
Howard's career is going to look fascinating 20 years from now. One of the best defenders of his generation (top three, in my estimation, presuming you consider him of a different generation than Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace), and the best player by far on one of the best non-title teams of the decade (the 2010 Magic). He never won an MVP, but probably should have gotten the 2011 vintage. He has so grating a personality that he managed to alienate guys as different as Stan Van Gundy, Kobe Bryant and Harden. Perhaps we should have known better back when he had an ongoing Shrek and Donkey dunk contest rivalry with Nate Robinson.
But isn't Harden on the same path? Harden has been such an enigma that Kevin McHale has had no qualms getting subtle digs in post-firing. (McHale has defended Howard strongly over the last few months.) Remember, Harden was on the bench for Houston's historic comeback to beat the Clippers in Game 6 last spring. Perhaps that's a credit to Morey, for building a team that could do something so impressive with its alpha star on the bench. But if you think McHale is the last coach Harden is going to get fired, you have more faith than most.
There's only one other superstar in the league who gives full effort as inconsistently as Harden, and that's DeMarcus Cousins. It's now widely acknowledged that you need to put certain things, certain personalities around Cousins to survive. Sacramento has continuously failed to do that. Does Morey recognize that in Harden? Is he going to do something about it?
Maybe these questions aren't fair to Harden, or to Howard, or even to Morey. This season is a bust, and in the grand sense, so was the all-too-brief Howard era in Houston. Harden is young and has played himself into shape; the All-NBA team remains in his sights. McHale earned no grace period for winning two playoff rounds, but GMs are allowed more patience, so Morey isn't likely to be replaced this summer. His boss likes and trusts him, and that's all that really matters.
In addition, Morey is objectively good at his job. He built a strong team that had no staying power because of some combination of physical and mental frailty. Unlike other good teams, Morey hasn't mortgaged his team's future: in fact, he's bolstered it with some frequency. He's a transactional wizard. He's a persuasive salesman. He's not afraid to take risks. These are all good and important qualities for an NBA GM to have.
But man, he really struck out this time. The Harden-Howard Rockets burned out faster than a two-dollar Roman candle. Morey's plan failed, and Thursday's morass put a fine point on it all. Morey will have another chance for that moonshot in 2016, and again next February and the July to follow. The plan to get great players is so sound he'll be able to sell it to the boss eternally.
Perhaps that was Morey's greatest innovation after all: he convinced everyone his obvious plan was genius, and now he just has to stay one step ahead of the truth in order to survive.
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