Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey’s final season at the helm was a microcosm of everything that made him one of the best and most divisive executives in the league.
After 14 seasons with the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey has decided to step down, as he made his intentions known to ownership after the Rockets’ playoff elimination to the Los Angeles Lakers. Morey’s final role with the franchise will be as an advisor to help find the Rockets’ next head coach.
Rafael Stone, who has been with the organization since 2005, will follow in Morey’s footsteps and take over the role of general manager. Daryl Morey’s legacy with the Rockets is complicated and his final season, while not his finest, encapsulated all the things that made him a fantastic and sometimes enigmatic general manager.
The 2019-20 season was a microcosm of Daryl Morey’s tenure with the Houston Rockets, as an examination of the season allows one to see all that was good and bad about his reign. It had everything that has made him one of the most successful and polarizing front office executives in league history.
It had massive trades, wildly innovative-yet-scrutinized basketball philosophy, and even a benign tweet that cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars. It also had the most harrowing feat for Rockets fans, the annual playoff exit.
Morey spent his time in Houston pushing the boundaries of basketball and for that, he will always be remembered. However, the lone dark spot on his resume remains, as the lack of a Finals appearance, let alone a championship, will cast a towering shadow over his legacy.
Daryl Morey’s last act is a testament to his will and savvy, as well as his folly.
Next: The offseason blockbuster
Morey’s track record of successful trades
On multiple occasions, Daryl Morey completely changed the Rockets’ fortunes with dazzling offseason trades. The Summer of 2019 was barely more than a year ago and yet it seems like it came from a bygone era.
The Rockets, once again, were licking their wounds after another playoff exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. However, their old nemesis wouldn’t lift the Larry O’Brien trophy that summer and had suffered significant losses of their own.
Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL had knocked the Rockets’ greatest adversary out of contention before the new season had even begun. Daryl Morey sensed the moment and, as he had so many times before, pulled off a transformative trade in an effort to widen the Rockets’ championship window.
Out went Chris Paul and draft picks and in came Russell Westbrook. The blockbuster trade became a staple of the Daryl Morey experience. In 2019 it was for Russell Westbrook, in 2017 it was for Chris Paul, but his most consequential offseason trade came in 2012 when he pried James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
When Morey swung the deal to land James Harden he had been the general manager of the Rockets for a little over five seasons, which easily made this deal the biggest move of his career. Harden had been dynamite off the bench in support of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook but he had never led a team.
In spite of that, Morey saw his potential and orchestrated one of the greatest trades in the history of the league. The Rockets sent Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick to the Thunder for James Harden.
It seems odd to think now, after all the scoring titles, but in 2012 no one was sure that James Harden could lead an offense. He had started all of seven games for the Thunder over his first three seasons and was being given the keys to a franchise.
Morey knew he had his man and it took all of one game to silence any doubters. Harden kick-started his Rockets career with a 37 point and 12 assist barrage of the Pistons and never looked back.
Flash forward to 2017 and Daryl Morey was at it once again. The Rockets were fresh off of a 55 win season and saw their chance to go for a championship with a trade for Chris Paul. The move was costly but ultimately worth it.
Morey sent Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Lou Williams, Kyle Wiltjer, cash, and a first-round pick to the Clippers for Paul. While the Rockets sent the Clippers the two players who would win the next three NBA Sixth Man of the Year awards, they received a Hall of Fame point guard that would help the Rockets to their greatest regular season in franchise history.
The 2017-18 season saw the Rockets win 65 games and push the greatest team of the 21st century to the brink. Daryl Morey had built a championship team but a historic shooting slump in the most crucial of games saw the Rockets miss their chance to play in the NBA Finals. After running it back one more time with diminishing returns Morey had one more trade up his sleeve.
The duo of Chris Paul and James Harden, while productive on the court had clearly run its course interpersonally. In a move designed to appease Harden and possibly improve the Rockets championship odds, the Rockets moved Chris Paul, two first-round picks, and two first-round pick swaps for Russell Westbrook. Daryl Morey had pushed all of the Rockets’ resources into the middle to try and take one more stab at a championship. The results, unlike his previous two trades, were mixed.
The trade for Russell Westbrook didn’t appear to make the Rockets much better and their regular season win-percentage actually dropped compared to the previous season. However, the move was made with the postseason in mind. An unfortunate positive coronavirus test and quad injury limited Westbrook’s effectiveness and left many to wonder, what if? While the trade wasn’t the slam dunk his previous two were, it did bring to light one of Morey’s greatest strengths– his ingenuity.
Next: Innovation that divides
Tilman Fertitta, Daryl Morey Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
How Daryl Morey’s commitment to innovation was scolded
Daryl Morey’s use of advanced analytics has had its critics. Notably, former players seemed to be the most put off by the Rockets’ use of statistics.
The undercurrent of jock vs nerd would routinely come through but never once did Morey and the Rockets waver. People have their opinions but numbers never lie.
The Rockets, under Daryl Morey’s leadership, embarked on two seismic shifts to the way basketball is played. When Daryl Morey took over the Rockets in 2007 the team he inherited was built like many traditional contenders.
Yao Ming towered over the league and dominated the paint, while Tracy McGrady was the NBA’s quintessential isolation scorer from the perimeter. The Rockets were built like the title teams of yesteryear but still, they had very little playoff success with the duo.
Horrible injuries ended Yao and McGrady’s careers far earlier than they should have. Yao suffered a series of foot injuries that forced him to retire at 30 and McGrady’s own injury problems made him a chewed up husk of the player he once was.
The Rockets had two bonafide All-Stars ripped away due to injury. For most franchises this would have propelled them into a lengthy rebuild; except that never happened.
The Rockets never finished below .500 under Morey’s leadership. The traditional contender he had been bequeathed had crumbled before his very eyes like a sandcastle relinquishing existence to the oncoming tide.
Instead of looking to the lottery for salvation, Morey kept the Rockets afloat through a series of savvy trades and excellent drafts. Once James Harden came to Houston the real innovation began for the Rockets. In Harden’s first season in Houston, the team attempted the most 3-pointers in the league and played at their fastest pace.
The Rockets were pushing convention but, as subsequent seasons would show, were hardly pushing any boundaries. The Rockets finished first all but one season in 3-pointers per game from 2012-13 to 2015-16. Then Mike D’Antoni came to town.
Next: How D'Antoni unleashed Moreyball
How Moreyball was unleashed by Mike D’Antoni
The Rockets, under Morey, had already embraced the simple mathematical reality that three is more than two. However, the Rockets head coach over that time, Kevin McHale, only half embraced the ethos of pushing the pace and bombing away from distance.
After a lost season in 2015-16, where the Rockets had their worst season of Morey’s tenure with a 41-41 record that saw McHale exit after 11 games, Morey was ready to go all-in and Mike D’Antoni was the perfect conductor to orchestrate his grand symphony.
The Rockets from 2016-17, D’Antoni’s first season at the helm, routinely blew the doors off with the number of 3-pointers they attempted. They went from 40.3 a game, to 42.3, to 45.4, to 45.3 in his final season.
The Rockets’ shot chart also changed dramatically over this period of time. Not only were the Rockets taking more threes, but they were taking less mid-range jumpers. The Rockets’ offense hunted for three shots; threes, lay-ups, and free-throws.
The shot chart the Rockets used under Morey has become the norm for just about every offense in the league. The offense is structured to promote the most valuable shots. The ones that are worth the most and the ones that are easiest to hit. The mid-range game is dead because even if you’re great at it, an average 3-point shooter will provide almost as much value just bombing from behind the arc.
As Morey looked for more and more spacing he stumbled upon his final, and possibly, when it’s all said and done, his most lasting innovation.
Next: The innovation of microball
Morey’s innovation of microball
Microball is not Daryl Morey’s invention. Teams have used small lineups to terrorize the league for years. The difference is in the commitment to the concept. Morey structured the Rockets to play small for an entire game, not just an eight-minute blitz.
Was microball Morey’s plan all along? That’s unlikely, but necessity is the mother of all invention.
When the Houston Rockets landed Russell Westbrook in the summer of 2019, they sowed the seeds for microball. James Harden, as the league’s best isolation scorer, created a situation where the pick-and-roll game was not necessary for the Rockets’ offense to function.
While Clint Capela is a good pick-and-roll man, his offensive game is relatively useless if he’s not able to roll to the rim 15 times a game. Russell Westbrook is the worst high volume 3-point shooter in league history.
The two of them sharing the court allowed for teams to pack the paint and mute both of their offensive games. Morey saw the problem and decided that in order for Russell Westbrook to succeed, he needed the paint all to himself.
Microball unleashed the very best of Russell Westbrook in a Houston Rockets uniform. His scoring and efficiency went up and the acquisition of Robert Covington unlocked a never before seen defensive fervor. The rebounding numbers were brutal but the experiment seemed to be coming together.
It looked as if the Rockets were going to change basketball and perhaps they did, but once again the Rockets fell to the best team in the league. The Los Angeles Lakers, in hindsight, were the worst match-up for the Houston Rockets.
Anthony Davis and LeBron James are the rarest of players. Both are massive players capable of dominating the paint, but both are also mobile enough to defend the perimeter as if they were a half foot shorter. Microball ran into Macroball and simply couldn’t compete with a team able to withstand the Rockets’ perimeter barrage while also brutalizing them on the boards.
Daryl Morey’s last innovation had plenty of doubters who felt vindicated when the Rockets walked off the court following the Lakers’ easy series victory. The Rockets hadn’t even played half a season with that roster and philosophy and yet it had supposedly been exposed as a gimmick.
Microball was an idea that came out of desperation and it worked exactly as the Rockets had hoped. Russell Westbrook was broken and microball fixed him.
Unfortunately, while Westbrook’s game was fixed through microball, his body broke in the playoffs. The one player that microball was meant to unleash simply wasn’t right when it mattered most.
Next: Moreyball into the future
How should Daryl Morey be remembered?
The 2019-20 season saw Daryl Morey at his best and his worst. The ability to conjure up the trade for Russell Westbrook showcased his dazzling ability to make a deal but it also showed his penchant to tinker. The Rockets have hardly had a set roster during his tenure and one has to wonder if that is what ultimately cost them.
Most championship teams take at least a year to gel before they lift the ultimate prize. The Houston Rockets always had James Harden, but it felt as if his supporting cast was a revolving door of who can make a team better on paper without much thought given to the very human need to have shared experiences with one another.
How many turnovers could have been avoided if the roster had been more set over the years? How many close games would the Rockets have won if they had that prescient connection that teams foster over years of playing together? The Rockets kept tinkering under Morey to reach the next level, but sometimes it felt like the tinkering was what was holding the Rockets back.
Daryl Morey’s warts are far exceeded by his virtues. The Rockets never had a losing record under him. The Houston Rockets were title contenders on numerous occasions, with different supporting casts and coaches.
The Rockets changed the game of basketball, which is a far more lasting and important contribution than any trophy. Daryl Morey’s biggest flaw was that he was never satisfied with his team. He always believed it could get better.
If there is one flaw to have as a general manager, that’s the one to have.