February 07, 2023
A month before the Sixers’ season got underway, Daryl Morey presented me with a frustrating anecdote — Philadelphia’s president of basketball ops was excited about a subject he could share almost nothing about. There was a, “pretty interesting thing” an unnamed MLB team is doing with their approach to player health, something Morey had already discussed on this September morning with senior members of the Sixers’ medical staff. We end up on a tangent about this for a minute or two, discussing where player health is and what one can learn from other sports.
“Most of these other sports hate me though,” Morey said at the time, “because I’m always suggesting new rules to fix their sport. They get annoyed by that.”
Naturally. Or maybe Morey just has a habit of annoying people who aren’t his teammates. His partnership with James Harden in Houston was a successful one, though outside of Harden’s superfans and Rockets die-hards, love mostly evaded that group. Morey’s chase of efficiency at all costs had aesthetic (and arguably, basketball) costs that turned plenty of people off. Two weeks ago, Morey responded to Joel Embiid’s All-Star starter snub with a rant on local radio, blaming the overrepresentation of Boston media for Embiid falling short in the vote (a vote he ultimately lost because of fan voting). Charming his team's dissenters has not necessarily been priority No. 1.
After a rough start to the season, it appears this year’s Sixers team may end up having a shot at glory. Philadelphia is 34-18, within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the East, boasting an MVP candidate and the most high-profile snub from this year’s All-Star Game. If the time isn’t now, when is it? And if they fail, what comes next?
Daryl Morey’s understanding of Philadelphia has deepened over the last few years. In Houston, he once said to me, there was no cultural consensus like “four for four” is for fans here, where you ride for all or ride for none. Competing for eyeballs in football-crazed Texas, Morey says the opposite was often true in Houston, where Rockets staffers had an interest in the Texans underperforming, as it was the only way a football-crazed state would pay the hoops team any mind.
“If the Texans went out, they’d put all their positive energy into the Rockets. If the Texans were good, we were worse than irrelevant. No one gave a f**k,” Morey says. “I actually got here and I’m like, you want the Eagles to win not just because you’re from here, it’s like no no, it actually helps us if the Eagles win.”
If Morey shares anything with Philly’s fans besides pulling for the Birds, it’s the constant desire to go for it. He might be the most active deadline exec in the league, though he still cautions against expecting a huge deal anytime soon. Criticized for undervaluing chemistry in the past — a charge he has frequently pushed back on — Morey notes that last season’s deadline push for Harden left Philadelphia with little time to tie things together, adding that part of their success this year is a product of time spent with one another.
“I under-anticipated when we couldn’t add James last year until the deadline, that it would take as long as it has for them to get the chemistry that he has with Joel and Tobias in particular,” Morey said recently. “I felt that we hadn’t gotten to the level of trust and chemistry that we needed to beat Miami last year. I think it’s very unlikely we’re involved in anything big [at this deadline].”
"It could easily be that we continue to just develop chemistry and then have the group we have. I and Elton and everyone feels a responsibility in an important year like this to see if we can find anyone who can upgrade the team."
Take it for what you will — the only people believed to be untouchable on Philadelphia’s roster are Embiid and Harden. Morey came under fire in some circles for holding out on a Simmons trade until last year’s deadline, but patience ultimately paid off. So did his admiration of Harden, who has rebounded with a great 2022-23 after looking physically off of the pace for most of last season.
The on-court synergy between Harden and Embiid improves with each passing day, and the Sixers are surging since Harden re-joined the lineup in early December. Knowing he has Embiid at an MVP level and Harden back and rolling, Morey is urgent but not anxious. He believes he has unanimous support from ownership (“We’re only focused on figuring out how to upgrade the team to win the title”) to do what has to be done.
Besides, moves that rate below “franchise-altering” have mostly been good since Morey joined the Sixers in the fall of 2020. Swapping Josh Richardson and Al Horford for Seth Curry and Danny Green took a struggling, ill-fitting team and propelled them to a No. 1 seed before their infamous flame-out against Atlanta. They scooped up a sliding Maxey in Morey’s first draft, added De’Anthony Melton for an injured Green plus a pick last summer, and appear deeper than ever at the moment, issues with all-bench lineups aside.
“If you take the list of teams that are making players available that could maybe play for us in the playoffs, and then the ones that we can acquire, it’s a very, very small list. I think we feel good going to war with who we have, but if we can find an upgrade and give Doc more weapons for his playoff arsenal, we’ll do it,” Morey said when asked about some trouble spots in the rotation. “But we don’t go into this thinking we have to upgrade a particular player.”
Assembling this team, though, has cost. Getting Horford out of town by any means necessary was celebrated at the time, but watching him succeed again in Boston makes that deal a slightly tougher value proposition. Trading several picks for George Hill to offer essentially nothing in the 2021 playoffs was a hit. And you wonder if the tone on this deadline would change if Philadelphia had more ammunition to work with, as they’re down two second-round picks as a result of tampering during the signings of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. That’s before getting to the casualties of the hard cap and roster additions, most notably Isaiah Joe, who the Sixers cut in the fall before he finally broke out as a shooter with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We’re not going to have playing time for everyone. So sometimes, we’re going to cut players who are very good players. And we’re happy for those that go on to do great things,” Morey said when asked about cutting Joe last fall. “There’s a lot of factors that go into it, including the current contract or the goals of the season to win a title. We could start bringing in worse players so we never cut a good one.”
The sneaky subplot at the center of the franchise is Harden’s ability to leave Philadelphia in the offseason. It’s a threat the guard’s camp wanted to play up on Christmas, and the biggest non-injury threat to their short-term title chances. The lack of control over future picks will sting more if the second star next to Embiid walks out the door. Even still, Morey insists free agency is a future concern, and that Harden only needs to win to feel at home, anyway.
That being said, Harden’s central place in Morey’s journey affords him a certain reverence from the exec. On our recent phone call, Morey had to gather himself for a moment before addressing Harden’s exclusion from this season’s All-Star team. He gets there, slowly.
“It’s tough for me personally,” Morey said, “and obviously for him. I don’t know how people who vote can look themselves in the mirror.”
“Incredibly frustrated, but at this point, let’s just win. If you spend your life worrying too much about the perception of others, then you’ll just be frustrated your whole life.”
Speaking of perceptions, Morey is seemingly past the point of being tossed aside as an “analytics guy," 15+ years into his executive career. Now, you can just make jokes about him acquiring old Rockets players like any old executive. There’s a level of comfort in that.
He’s a bit more concerned about perception elsewhere. More than 20 years after starting as a class at MIT, the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that Morey co-founded with Jessica Gelman has gone from a plucky upstart to hosting Barack Obama as a panelist. With that upscaling has come a number of challenges, as soaring costs price out people who might benefit from the conference the most.
Some NBA colleagues have pejoratively nicknamed Sloan “The Daryl Makes Money Conference,” a dig he says is way off-base. But, Morey admits, not all criticism of the conference is in bad faith. To work on pitfalls that come with the space, they’ve expanded their mentorship program at Sloan and advanced efforts to make the event as big of a tent as they can, reaching out to HBCUs and starting a women’s luncheon at the conference. DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director of the NFLPA, has been brought on as a DEI advisor.
“One challenge that I think is a fair challenge people have leveled, when you start to say sports, you already have a different subset than what the general population looks like,” Morey told PhillyVoice early this season. “Then when you add in that the conference, a big focus is data analysis and how that can be used in sports, now you skew even more male, and even less diverse on other factors.”
The more people who can be/are included at Sloan, the more information is shared, across sports but also across backgrounds and upbringings. Second Spectrum, the stat-tracking provider employed by the NBA and NHL, won Sloan's research paper competition twice. As teams employ more and more data scientists to create in-house data, places to share cutting-edge ideas in public dwindle. The push for inclusion is good for its own sake, but also because of what it adds to the community, Morey believes.
Put in simpler terms, Morey wants to learn (and facilitate learning) from as many smart people as possible. And his basketball-building ideas are even simpler. Get stars, support those stars, profit.
"People want to make it a different thing, I'm still doing the same thing Red Auerbach did in 1948, right? Make the best decisions of free agency, trade, and draft to win the title. The job has not changed," Morey said. "It's a human sport, and the data is about it being a human sport, not a sport played by robots."
The job he does between now and Thursday could be the difference between a title shot or another disappointing exit. No pressure, Daryl. And remember — Go Birds.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports