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Friday, October 16, 2020

Objectively Assessing Daryl Morey's Legacy

Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets' General Manager since the 2007-08 season, has resigned, citing what he termed "personal reasons."* Paeans extolling his excellence are appearing in all of the usual sources one would be advised not to read if one wishes to understand basketball strategy. When objectively assessing Daryl Morey's legacy, it is important to focus on two factors: what he was hired to accomplish, and what he accomplished.

Daryl Morey was hired because he claimed that the way he utilized advanced basketball statistics provided a significant advantage for acquiring the best basketball talent, and that this significant advantage could be leveraged to build a championship team. He was not hired to build a team that could annually win at least 50 games, or that could win a playoff series or two; accomplishing those things was considered to be a given: Morey was hired as a "stat guru" with the goal of winning an NBA championship. 

Daryl Morey served 13 years as Houston's General Manager and the Rockets never reached the NBA Finals during his tenure.

Daryl Morey failed to accomplish what he was hired to do.

One can take a wider view and see that Morey's Rockets had some notable accomplishments--but any assessment of Morey's tenure that does not first and foremost acknowledge that he failed is not an honest assessment. This is the same standard applied to athletes; the goal is to win a championship, and not winning a championship is failing to accomplish the goal. It is possible to have a great career and yet fail to win a championship--Elgin Baylor, Pete Maravich, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Allen Iverson are Hall of Fame players who each failed to win an NBA championship--but it would be odd to suggest that not winning a championship is not a failure.

Is Daryl Morey a great general manager despite his failure to win a championship?

Daryl Morey proved that he could build teams that regularly reached the playoffs, that he could do so without tanking, and that he had a good eye for filling out his bench with solid players who had team-friendly contracts. He was above average in each of those three areas, but I am not convinced that means he was a great general manager.

The Rockets had the second best regular season record in the league during Morey's tenure, but did not come close to matching that success level during the postseason. Morey's Rockets reached the Conference Finals twice, missed the playoffs three times, and lost in the first round four times; thus, most of his teams were not championship contenders, and seven of his 13 teams did not advance past the first round.

How significant is it to reach the Conference Finals? Two teams advance that far each year in each conference, so if those appearances were evenly distributed over a 13 year period with 15 teams in each conference then each team would average 1.7 Conference Finals appearances. In the past 13 years, 10 Eastern Conference teams and 10 Western Conference teams made at least one Conference Finals appearance and six teams in each conference made at least two Conference Finals appearances.

Reaching the Conference Finals two times in a 13 year period is not particularly impressive, it is not elite, and it does not signify greatness. 

How significant is it to miss the playoffs just three times in 13 years? Seven teams miss the playoffs each year in each conference, so if those missed playoff appearances were distributed evenly over a 13 year period with 15 teams in each conference then each team would average 6.1 years in which they missed the playoffs. 

Missing the playoffs just three times in 13 years is definitely better than average.

How significant is it to lose in the first round four times in 13 years? Four teams lose in the first round each year in each conference, so if those losses were evenly distributed over a 13 year period with 15 teams in each conference then each team would average 3.5 first round losses. 

Having four first round losses in 13 years is an average performance.

There have been some awful teams during the past 13 years. The Sacramento Kings missed the playoffs every year, the Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs 11 times, the New York Knicks missed the playoffs 10 times, and the Charlotte Hornets missed the playoffs 10 times. 

There have been some great teams during the past 13 years. Four teams in each conference won at least one championship, while three teams (Golden State, L.A. Lakers, Miami Heat) won at least two championships.

Morey's Rockets were not awful, but they were not great. He was not an awful general manager, but it is difficult to make an objective, fact based argument that he was a great general manager. Of all people, he should appreciate that approach, because he believes in what the numbers say, not what the eye test or a narrative might suggest. 

It is impossible to close the book on the Morey era without discussing James Harden. Morey's most significant and memorable transaction was acquiring Harden, who Morey immediately termed a "foundational player" and who Morey later proclaimed to be a better scorer than Michael Jordan

Before Harden played a game for Houston, I evaluated him as an All-Star caliber player (Harden had yet to make the All-Star team) who was best suited to being the second or third option on a championship team, a la Manu Ginobili. I termed Harden the kind of player who "stat gurus" overrate, because "stat gurus" assume that an efficient bench player will be equally efficient if given extended minutes, even while facing more defensive attention as the first option. I called Harden "a very good player" but I concluded, "Harden is not an All-NBA First or Second Team caliber player. He is not someone who can draw double teams over the course of an 82 game season and then carry a team deep into the playoffs as the number one option. He is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James."

James Harden became a perennial All-Star, a perennial All-NBA selection, and a perennial MVP candidate. I did not expect that and I did not expect that Harden could be successful as the number one option for an 82 game season year after year. He has been more durable and productive during the regular season than I expected, though in terms of the honors he has received I would argue that he has been overrated by the media voters to some extent; he did not deserve as many first place MVP votes and All-NBA First Team selections as he received--but part of the issue here is that the NBA has made it very difficult to legally guard Harden, at least during the regular season. Harden is permitted to travel, and to push off with his off hand, and he is rewarded with free throws when he flops and flails after he attempts a field goal. Many perimeter players benefit from changes in how the game is officiated, but Harden has benefited the most. His fans would argue that he is crafty enough to obtain advantages within the rules; there may be something to that, but for the most part he is being given benefits that were not previously provided to players, and that are not provided to most of his peers. The NBA gives him fewer such benefits in the playoffs, and Harden's numerous playoff choke jobs speak for themselves as testimony both to his mentality when placed under pressure, and to the limits of his game when he is not given such benefits.

Harden turned out to be a more productive and decorated regular season player than I expected him to be, but Harden did not prove that he is a "foundational player" if that phrase is understood to mean someone who is capable of being the best player on a championship team. That was my main scouting report critique when Morey obtained him--that Harden is best suited to be Manu Ginobili, not Kobe Bryant--and that critique has proven prophetic.

Morey's fans in the media would like for you to believe that Chris Paul's injury during game five of the 2018 Western Conference Finals is the key moment during Morey's tenure, but the notion that Houston would have won the 2018 title with a healthy Paul is both false and irrelevant. This notion is false because it assumes not only that Houston would have beaten Golden State had Paul stayed healthy--which ignores Houston's consistent record of playoff self-immolation during the Morey/Harden era--but also that Houston would have won in the Finals as well; this notion is irrelevant because injuries are part of the game, and there are few seasons in NBA history that would not have gone differently but for a key injury.

Morey had 13 years to build a championship team--far longer than most general managers are granted--and he failed. 

If there is one defining moment from the Morey era--and I am not convinced that focusing on one moment makes more sense than evaluating Morey's entire body of work--then the best choice would not be Paul's injury, but rather what happened afterward: Houston blew a second half lead by missing 27 straight three pointers en route to losing 101-92 to Golden State in the seventh game of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. That is the ultimate example of following Morey's basketball philosophy to its inexorably logical conclusion: Morey's championship recipe involved Harden monopolizing the ball until Harden or one of Harden's teammates shot a three pointer. Harden shot 19-78 (.244) from three point range overall during the series and 52-174 (.299) from three point range during the 2018 NBA playoffs. Morey acquired his "foundational player," built a team around Harden, and that team collapsed in game seven while playing what Morey would consider to be analytically correct basketball. In contrast to Morey's beliefs, I consider the Morey/Harden style high variance and I expect that during the course of a playoff series Harden and the Rockets will have at least one awful performance. 

Morey had 13 years to test his basketball hypothesis, and he failed to build a championship team.

The Morey/Harden media fanboys write nonsense such as "There is no clearer path to 50 wins in the NBA than to give (Harden) the ball and get out of his way." That is not true: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry (to name just a few players who are better than Harden) each provide at least as clear of a path to 50 wins as Harden does, though it would be fair to say that Antetokounmpo has yet to fully prove his playoff bona fides (but Antetokounmpo is younger, bigger, and more versatile than Harden, so Antetokounmpo's playoff upside potential is greater than Harden's). It is also not relevant how clear a path Harden provides to 50 wins. Morey was hired to deliver a championship, and he termed Harden to be a "foundational player" for that quest.

Team chemistry is not valued by "stat gurus" because it cannot be directly measured, though it can of course be observed. Harden has a track record of driving away coaches and co-stars who will not do things his way, and Morey tolerated this because Morey viewed Harden to be a "foundational player": Dwight Howard, Coach Kevin McHale, and Chris Paul (to name just the three most prominent examples) were expendable because they did not defer sufficiently to Harden's whims. It is evident that star players did not want to come to Houston and be spectators for the Harden "dribble, dribble, dribble" show (as Charles Barkley termed it). It will be interesting to see how long the James Harden/Russell Westbrook partnership lasts with a new front office and new coaching staff running the team, but Harden's unwillingness or inability to work well with star players is a factor whose importance Morey underestimated (if he even considered it at all).

Morey picked a good time to leave Houston; the Rockets owe a ton of money to James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon, so the Rockets neither have the right roster nor the necessary roster flexibility to be a serious title contender. Morey and his fans in the media can selectively cite regular season win totals to paint his Houston tenure as a success, and he will likely land another NBA front office job in the near future if he wants one.


*Even though Morey is publicly presenting his departure as a voluntary choice, it would be naive to ignore the fact that Morey's October 2019 tweet about Hong Kong--and the NBA's ensuing loss of millions of dollars in Chinese revenue--likely played at least some role in hastening the end of his career in Houston. That is most unfortunate. I have already addressed the China issue at length but it is worth mentioning again that the NBA is driven primarily by profits, not social justice; the NBA promoted certain slogans and causes in the "bubble" because without doing so the players may not have played, and that would have cost the NBA at least several hundred million dollars--but promoting those slogans no doubt hurt the NBA's ratings and popularity, so next season you can expect that the overt presentation of those slogans will be much more muted, if not completely silenced.

China is a totalitarian regime running concentration camps, but you will never see an officially licensed NBA product stating "Chinese Lives Matter" because that would be bad for business. I would never tell anyone to "shut up and dribble," but I would suggest that there is a lot more to being educated than briefly skimming a small, biased sampling of source material, and there is a lot more to being truly "woke" than just supporting the popular cause of the moment while disregarding human rights abuses committed by people whose sponsorships are putting millions of dollars in your pockets. Dr. Martin Luther King preached, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That would have looked great on an NBA court or jersey, but it would have been a hypocritical message from the league because the NBA's policies do not reflect an understanding of that wisdom.

If you are foolish enough to draw some kind of moral equivalency between the problems in the United States--which are real and which definitely need to be addressed--and the brutal, totalitarian policies of China then please remember that democracies build walls to keep people out while dictatorships build walls to prevent people from leaving. If you are in the United States and don't understand the differences between the United States and China, then by all means avail yourself of the freedom to leave, and spend enough time in China to learn exactly what the differences are. If you speak the wrong slogan while you are in China, you may not be able to leave--but that would be part of your education.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:23 PM



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