Daryl Morey Passes the Test

After a decade of running the show for the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey has finally fulfilled the promise of his precious analytics. But the complexity of Morey is often missed, reduced as he is to a nerdish scientist character. But, Morey is more than his numbers and his binary obsessive nature. He has a deep affection/infatuation for superstars, and to that end, he chased whoever he could and it wasn’t necessarily clear if it was for analytical reasons to better the team or financial reasons to better Morey.

Stars fill the seats. Morey was turned down by Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. LeBron James wasn’t interested and neither was Kevin Durant. His colossal failure in Dwight Howard was more Morey’s fault as a traditional GM than any of the numbers he crunched. Anyone who watched Dwight play in Orlando figured out exactly who he was: a role player on offense, a star on defense. Furthermore, Howard had a fragile psyche that would often derail him and cause friction, and, oh yeah, he had a history of not getting along with shooting guards. Still, Morey pulled the trigger and it ended in disaster.

The tough year of 2015-16 was humbling for Morey. He had to fire his coach and then deal with the team dysfunction centered around Howard but James Harden wasn’t a picnic either. Harden didn’t come into camp in shape and before they knew it the Rockets were downhill trying to catch up. At the end of the year, when his star shooting guard- only Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler are arguably better than Harden- didn’t get enough votes from writers for a place on the All-NBA team, it was a catastrophe on all levels.

The Rockets wanted to trade Howard at the deadline to get something for him but couldn’t. No one was going to give up anything for the sulking Howard who admits he checks out of games and is immature. And so the free agent prize of 2013 ran out of town and the Rockets were back at square one.

Morey is polarizing. Either you believe in analytics or you don’t. Either you think the 3-point shot is a gift from God or you don’t. Either you believe in data sets or you believe in the eye test. The credibility problem with Morey’s attachment to his mathematics is that Houston has never won anything with him in charge. They have lost in the first round of the playoffs four times. They have missed the playoffs three times. Their one Western Conference Finals appearance was as much about the Clippers choking than the Rockets dominating and in the WCF they were meek and no match for the eventual champion Warriors.

The summer of 2016, Morey reversed course, somewhat. He is still attached to his analytics system, still believes in volume three point shots. But he needed a guru who was sympathetic and he rescued Mike D’Antoni from his failed shadows of Los Angeles and New York. Morey could offer D’Antoni something the two big cities could not, a superstar who could iso and make plays for others.

D’Antoni came into the careers of Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant when their careers as scorers were legitimized by results. They were never going to change their style of play. And even as James Harden had his iso dribbling moments that enabled no one but himself, and put the rest of us to sleep, Harden was humbled too by last year.

D’Antoni was never going to be a defensive gatekeeper. Morey accepted that. But what he could do with the offense, with the numbers Morey believed in, was craft a special season.

But first, the Rockets needed an upgrade in personnel. With Howard gone the pouting disappeared. D’Antoni’s idea to move Harden to point guard was particularly brilliant. It changed Harden’s psyche. Make your teammates better. You are good enough to get your shot and get them theirs. But now Morey had to find players Harden could depend on and trust.

What D’Antoni does is enable shooters which is not the same thing as enabling scorers.

Eric Gordon had an up and down career. With the Clippers he was penciled in as a future All-Star. Gordon was Rookie of the Month and dropped scoring games of 30 and 40 his first year. He was in the same city as Kobe Bryant which helped Gordon in his development when he worked out with Bryant. But injuries happened and then Gordon was in the Chris Paul trade. He made some mistakes and finally, here he was a free agent. Gordon could do both things. He could score and he could shoot. He had an iso game but he also was a quick ball mover and had developed a three point shot.

On the same Pelicans team with Gordon, Ryan Anderson was a stretch four, a Morey guy. He made perimeter shots and had improved his rebounding and defense. He was never going to be in the post and bang with LeBron James but he was going to force James to guard him 25 feet from the basket.

The results were instantaneous, even with the defense having its challenges. Harden settled in as the point guard and was superb, dropping 17 dimes and 15 dimes and 14 dimes, going triple double crazy. The Rockets are 1st in three point makes, nothing surprising there. But they are 11th in three point percentage. (Last season they were 22nd). Suddenly, they were efficient. Yes they are last in 2-point shots. But their two pointers, mainly drives to the rim ala Harden and Gordon, are money. Add to that tenth in offensive rebounding without Dwight Howard. They are second in the league in assists and ninth in steals but they turn the ball over more than any team in the NBA except Phoenix, Brooklyn and Philly. The Rockets will say that is because they score more points than anyone in the NBA other than the Warriors.

Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey are kindred spirits. It has taken Morey a long time to find a coach that matches his basketball soul. Both have to demonstrate they care about defense, that scoring in the regular season can translate to scoring and defending in the post season. Houston gives up 108.0 points per game (24th). Teams shoot 46.0% against them (22nd). The best thing they do is guard the three, they are 12th in the league and that will be their saving grace come April and May.

But things have slowed down. They are 5-7 their past 12 games which could mean the dog days of NBA life is upon them or it could mean that the shooting has dropped off and the defense can’t win games on its own. Their last four losses, they have given up 120+ points a game.

This is where the rubber meets the road, but let’s be clear. D’Antoni won’t get brutalized because a team of his doesn’t defend. That’s the bargain, what comes with a D’Antoni hire. Now if his team doesn’t play offense Darryl Morey and the Rockets are in trouble.

But this still boggles the mind. For a math geek like Morey he must wonder why. As good as the Rockets have been this year, securing a top four seed in the West, a tough thing to do with Harden turning into someone else, with an exciting game to watch, the Rockets are 21st in home attendance. Their games are 92% capacity while the other top seeds in the West, the Warriors (100.0% capacity), the Spurs (99.2% capacity) and the Clippers (100.0% capacity), have a passionate base willing to come to games on a nightly basis. The Rockets are envious.  In sheer numbers, the 76ers draw a bigger crowd than the Rockets.

No one said it was a perfect Daryl Morey year.


photo via llananba