HOUSTON — Daryl Morey’s working alone in a Toyota Center conference room 30 minutes before a Houston Rockets’ game last week, accompanied by a television playing film and a phone that surprisingly only dings twice during our conversation.
The Rockets’ general manager has brought together a squad this season that broke the 60-wins plateau for the first time in franchise history. Houston might not be favored against the Golden State Warriors, should they meet in the Western Conference Finals, but almost everyone admits they have a chance. It’s a better chance than most thought anyone would have against the Warriors in the aftermath of Kevin Durant joining them two summers ago.
Houston’s success has been centered around the additions of Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Under Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets’ league-best offense has embraced isolation scoring and built a defense based on constant switching, one that’s ranked seventh-best. This formidable squad still needs to prove itself in the playoffs — Paul and Harden particularly have stigmas of postseason failure — but Houston has full confidence that they can do that.
We asked Morey questions about his team and about the league as a whole. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for a better reading experience.
You’re a probabilities guy, of course. What did you view was the probability that this team would have this type of season before the year started?
Daryl Morey: Any particular outcome was going to be low, but we were hoping to be top of the West. Frankly, we were hoping to be neck-and-neck with Golden State. To surpass them, is obviously above expectations. They’re so good and have won two of the last three [championships]. We thought, we were trying to get into the 60-win range. That was our goal. And we didn’t know where Golden State would end up. I think it would have been a neck-and-neck fight if they had stayed at full strength.
I feel like this season has really been defined by the way you’ve shifted to isolation scoring, which clearly works. Did you know that James Harden could make another leap, where he was already the most prolific isolation scorer in the league last season and has now basically doubled that?
DM: That really comes down to how teams guard us. We always knew that he could score in isolation. He was always great at that. But what’s given him another leap, is that because of the way teams are guarding us, he’s getting players on him that have a tough time guarding him.
Obviously, I think he’s amazing, and statistically the best isolation scorer ever. What’s been a big factor in his league is just what Coach D’Antoni set up, how teams are guarding us with switching and him getting on guys who are a little more slow-footed, things like that. That’s where the leaps come from.
It was hard to anticipate — we didn’t know teams were going to switch to guarding us with heavy switching. It has been something that’s rare in the league in the past, and obviously it’s got more and more common. This year, it has taken a big leap forward.
Right. I would say, and he had this before, that mastering his stepback three-pointer really helped push him to another level, too. Maybe comparing him to Stephen Curry’s pull-up jumper is a bit much, which was a game-changing shot. But it feels like he has such a high baseline for isolation possessions, where he can get that shot off and make it consistently at almost any point.
DM: He can get that, or he can almost always beat his guy, so it’s sort of tough both directions.
Yeah, that stepback has definitely taken a leap forward. That has been his hard work that he’s been in, his lower body strength, really all his strength and training work that he has put in. He’s always had that shot, but he’s really taken it to the next level this year.
In past seasons, you’ve talked a lot about variation. Just the three-point shooting, you felt like that gave you a chance in nearly every series. Has your mindset shifted, in the sense that you feel like you are now the team to beat, and you don’t need to worry about stuff like that anymore?
DM: It shifts the other way. When you’re the better team, you actually want lower variance. I don’t like that our pace has gone down (Author’s note: The Rockets rank 26th in pace since the all-star game). That actually hurts us. It would be better to be high paced and doing what we’re doing.
And yeah, one way to lose a series where we’re favored is to have a bad three-point split, so it has gone the other way. It’s a big reason why we’ve diversified the offense a little bit more.
Lemme ask one Warriors question, with the obvious qualifiers: you may not meet them, they’re injured, and you have two rounds to worry about before even getting to the Western Conference Finals. But what do you feel like separates your team from the Warriors now, beyond their championship pedigree?
DM: Yeah, I would say that they can hedge risk better than us. We have two players who are in that top-10 to top-20 in the league. They have four. They can probably hedge having one of their main guys out a little easier than us. That’s a big one.
I would say that’s the biggest. And they’ve shown, more consistently, that they can play at this level. Obviously, this is the first 60-win season in Rockets’ history. Golden State’s done it in the last three years. They’ve sort of proven that they can do it. We still have to do that.
What else? I think [D’Antoni] has done a nice job with [rotation players] six through 12. That’s a relative strength now. It remains to be seen, but on paper, I think so.
I’m always interested in the big picture. We all know three-point records are being broken every season, but efficiency is also at a league best ever. Turnovers have never been lower than they have been now, and the same for offensive rebounds. I know it’s tricky to predict exactly where trends go, but do you see those continuing in the same direction for the next five years or so?
DM: I think the offensive rebounding will go up. The choice away from that has been a mistake by the league. So that’s one that I would say that won’t continue to trend down.
Yeah, turnovers going down I think has been because there’s more isolation. You usually get fewer turnovers out of that. I would probably see that trend continue, but it’s hard to guess.
Teams react, and there has been all these good competitive dynamics over the years. Teams counter certain things, and we’re all waiting for a team that can play bigger against these small lineups. We did it for a while really successfully when we had Dwight [Howard] and Clint [Capela] together. That was one of the better lineups in the league. (Author’s note: The Rockets outscored opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions in the 300 minutes the two shared the floor during the 2015-16 season)
I think that’s why offensive rebounding is going to be something teams play for. They’re going to try to punish teams that are going small as a counter.
And yeah, I’m surprised more teams don’t try to counter. You can’t play the Warriors [straight] up. You have to muck the game up a bit, and I think teams should try that a little more.
It feels like one way teams will adjust will be through the draft, and we’re valuing switching, mobile bigs, and stuff like that more than ever. Even a player like Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. probably isn’t a lottery pick a decade ago, but now his skill set fits the modern NBA. Is that one way that the league balances these trends out?
DM: I can’t talk about draft picks, and I also can’t talk about other team’s players, but I think Philly has a super game-changing player, you know, who’s impactful defensively, mobile, and big, and can shoot threes. That combination, it’s pretty hard to find that. But we’re going to see more of it, just like we’re going to see more elite three-point shooting guards that are coming in waves.
So let’s say I have a free Friday night, and I’m in Houston. What’s the 30-second pitch as to why I should go see Small Ball? (Small Ball is a theatrical play that Morey commissioned.)
DM: [laughs] Well, I think if you’re a fan of basketball, it has a ton of inside jokes. You know, I think there’s a sociopath assistant coach ...
Is he inspired by anyone in particular? You don’t have to name names!
DM: Maybe. Maybe. [laughs]
There’s other reasons, like, “How is a team with six-inch tall basketball players going to win a basketball game?” If you always wanted to see how Michael Jordan would do if he was on a deserted, fantastical island? I don’t know if I’m selling you on anything, but that’s why.