“Trading Baskets” is a weekly NBA column written by Reagan Griffin Jr. and Eddie Sun. The writers “hand off” each week’s installment, continuing an ongoing dialogue to challenge the way fans think about basketball. Click here to read last week’s edition.
Here lies Moreyball. Long live Moreyball.
For most sports fans, the name Daryl Morey triggers some sort of response. Some revere him. Others despise him. His name is synonymous with analytics and the 3-point shot. He’s achieved a status most basketball operations people won’t sniff: people actually care about him.
On Thursday, Daryl Morey resigned from his post as the Houston Rockets general manager, marking the end of an extremely successful and unprecedented run. Sure, the Rockets won a lot of games during his 13-year run –– second most in the league –– but more importantly, Morey ignited a basketball revolution that flipped the NBA on its head and changed the game as we know it.
Morey’s tenure officially began in 2007, inheriting a mediocre Rockets team with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming exiting their primes. But for all intents and purposes, the era of Moreyball kicked off the day of October 27, 2012 –– the day he bet big and sent the Thunder a collection of assets for James Harden. In hindsight, trading for a bonafide superstar and arguably the best offensive player ever was a slam dunk deal, but people around basketball weren’t so sure at the time.
In a league that was still enamored with size, athleticism and traditional one-on-one skills, Morey and his team identified a different set of priorities: efficient scoring by way of the layup, 3-pointer and free throw. Sound familiar? He unlocked the template of the modern scorer all teams are looking for now. Morey saw Harden’s proficiencies in these areas before any team did and made him a franchise player when others were still filling him in as a sixth man. Identifying, acquiring, then unleashing James Harden is undoubtedly Morey’s tenure-defining move –– a move that altered our understanding of basketball.
Dwight Howard and Ty Lawson were only OK at best and disastrous at worst for the Rockets, neither good enough to make the team a championship contender. With no salary cap room to work with, Morey exhausted the limitations of the CBA to pull Chris Paul. Not only did Morey need Paul to agree to a sign-and-trade, but he also had to make six separate transactions to land the big piece. Names like Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins and Tim Quarterman are unimportant now, but were necessary pieces to facilitate the Chris Paul trade.
We remember 0-for-27 from three. Chris Paul’s strained hamstring. Paul and Harden clashing heads. The pairing crashed and burned almost as fast as it developed, but in their two seasons together, they accomplished something no other team could –– they challenged the Warriors. Morey was “obsessed” with beating them. He constructed the perfect team to amplify Golden State’s few vulnerabilities, attacking them with a slow, isolation-heavy offense and a strong, versatile defense. History might remember them as losers, but they were one game away from knocking off perhaps the greatest team of all time.
For front offices, trying circumstances require creative solutions. The Rockets went into last offseason with yet another playoff disappointment, a disgruntled star and an owner who refused to pay the luxury tax. Morey flipped Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, and realizing Harden-Westbrook wasn’t optimal by midseason, made more moves that attempted to redefine basketball yet again. Pushing all his chips in on a perimeter, 3-point-oriented team, Morey did away with traditional centers and built a team of only guards and wings.
For some inexplicable reason, clowning on Morey and the Rockets feels like a basketball fan ritual. Maybe it’s because of their consistent playoff disappointments, setting the bar impossibly high and never quite reaching it. Maybe it’s because they execute basketball ideologies to a monolith, living and dying by threes and layups. Maybe it’s because Morey refuses to abide by conventions, constantly exploring for competitive advantages. And to be fair, Morey is not without flaws. He seemed to undervalue team chemistry. He believed in mathematical outcomes a little too much, to the point where Rockets staffers created spreadsheets about officiating discrepancies to explain their losses.
But above all, Moreyball was about the relentless pursuit of winning. If it meant adopting analytical methods or manipulating CBA loopholes, Morey would undoubtedly go for it. Most teams tank to eventually reach competitiveness; the Rockets built a contender without ever sacrificing competitiveness. Many teams delayed their championship window to avoid confronting the Warriors; Morey decided to go toe-to-toe with them. And many teams would’ve lived with Russell Westbrook in a suboptimal fit; Morey squeezed the last of his assets to make the roster more cohesive. Morey’s current legacy is one of a general manager always looking ahead, but often misrepresented by media members that are slow to embrace change.
The end of Morey’s tenure was almost inevitable. He worked under Tilman Fertitta, the owner who inherited the team in 2017, showed an apathy for opening his wallet and frequently undermined coaches and front office staffers in public. Head coach Mike D’Antoni had enough, leaving the team despite expressing a desire to finish his career in Houston. Morey plans on taking a year or two off, but being only 48, still has incredible opportunities ahead. Wherever he lands next, and whatever role he occupies, the basketball world won’t be ready.
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