October 15, 2020
Daryl Morey is departing the Houston Rockets, according to a new report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Thirteen years into taking the job, one of the NBA's best-known names and boldest executives is now a free agent, potentially complicating the Sixers' quest to rebuild their front office.
Throughout the offseason, sources with the team have insisted the Sixers are focused on bringing in talent underneath GM Elton Brand, claims that persisted following the Doc Rivers hiring. Brand has been Philadelphia's point man throughout the offseason, and despite the questionable decision-making of the front office in recent years, Brand emerged on the other side with the best reputation leaguewide of anyone in that front office.
However, Morey parting ways with the Rockets changes the conversation, opening the door for a second look at the front office restructuring. No longer in a position where they would have to cough up an asset or two to lure him away from Houston, the Sixers can go after someone they expressed interest in previously without anything holding them back.
In short, a level of experience and command they simply don't have right now. Since taking over the Rockets in the spring of 2007, Houston has had the second-best record of any franchise in the regular season and made the leap to contender status without ever having to bottom out to do so. The 2018 Executive of the Year has never overseen a losing season, and the Rockets have appeared in the playoffs for eight straight years and counting.
Morey is best known for being the most prominent numbers-friendly executive in basketball, a graduate of Northwestern and MIT who began his NBA career in the operations department of the Boston Celtics. Under his watch, the Rockets and their feeder programs have pushed the limits of what people thought was "the right way" to play basketball historically, helping to usher in the era of volume shooting from three we find ourselves in today.
Do not let his background as a numbers man fool you, because his central belief as an executive is about as traditional as it gets — stars are the players who move the needle, and the pursuit of stars by any means necessary should be the top goal of any basketball franchise.
"It's a weapons race in the NBA and you're either in the weapons race or on the sidelines," Morey said when he traded for Chris Paul in 2017. "We felt like with James Harden in his prime and Chris Paul in his prime this gives us a real shot to chase the juggernaut teams that are out there. This puts us right there with them."
And so the Rockets, a decent-ish team under Morey in the early years, made an attempt to try to be great and stay great.
What does that look like in practice? A whole lot of maneuvering. Morey inherited a team featuring Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, whose careers were in the midst of crumbling as a result of injuries, and would eventually pull the trigger on a deal to move McGrady in 2010 to begin the process of starting over. A series of trades and a couple years later, the Rockets had stockpiled the chips to trade for Oklahoma City's James Harden, who blossomed into a yearly MVP contender and an offensive force with his own team in Houston.
Getting there was about the small moves and margin wins as much as dealing McGrady, or the Kyle Lowry trade to Toronto in the summer of 2012. Players he drafted with second-round picks — Carl Landry and Chandler Parsons come to mind – became valuable pieces in bigger moves or cheaper replacements for veterans they dealt for one reason or another. Parsons, for example, essentially became what the Rockets hoped they were getting when they signed Trevor Ariza to a free-agent deal in 2009. Luis Scola, who the Rockets acquired for almost nothing during his first summer on the job, became a crucial role player on the 2007-08 team that would win 22 straight games
With Harden in place later down the road, the Rockets began to win and win often. Under Morey's watch, the Rockets have won in every area of player acquisition, some more pronounced than others.
The Harden trade is his claim to fame, but he was also the guy who unearthed Patrick Beverley, a journeyman playing in Russia, who would eventually become part of the package to acquire CP3. Despite never owning a premium pick of their own, the Rockets found high-level contributors like Clint Capela with picks later in the draft, and more importantly, they actually showed they cared about second-round picks. You can quibble with some of his free agent decisions, certainly, but he also proved to be a fairly effective recruiter, luring guys like Dwight Howard away from destination markets to play for Houston.
If not for Chris Paul's injury in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, Morey likely would have overseen at least one title-winner, and who knows how the path forward changes from there for Houston.
While Morey has strong overarching beliefs about the way the game should be played, his teams have won in different ways with different looks throughout his 13 years in Houston, including when no one expected them to. He has been quick to identify and rectify problems (including self-created issues), dealing problem players or problem contracts while replacing the production lost.
Morey's willingness to make moves and take big swings is admirable and has often paid off. But the nature of being an active dealmaker leads you to some dark places, and not every move has paid off. If there's an overarching reason for that, it was his pursuit of talent without consideration for some of the human elements of the game.
There has been one issue or another with personalities clashing over the years in Houston. Harden and Howard often worked on the court, but both reportedly tried to get the Rockets to trade their co-star. It's not like Howard's eccentric personality was a secret when they brought him in, but Morey decided to go ahead with bringing him in anyway, betting on talent to win out.
In the summer of 2015, Morey executed a multi-player deal to acquire Ty Lawson, a talented guard whose NBA career fell apart as he dealt with issues of alcohol abuse. Those off-court problems weren't a secret at that point — Lawson was arrested twice in 2015 for driving under the influence, including one incident that came just six days before Morey pulled the trigger on a deal to acquire him.
Trading for Paul is what pushed the Rockets as close as they've gotten to a title under Morey, but he and Harden would eventually butt heads, leading to the trade for Russell Westbrook that looked steep at the time and seems disastrous now. Westbrook is a worse player than Paul on a worse contract, and the Rockets gave up a king's ransom of picks for the privilege of making that deal.
Issues like these have ultimately faded because of how Morey has been able to adapt after a failure, but they get to the root of the issue. The Rockets have been able to extract a lot of value from a lot of places. Chemistry, though, has always been a question mark.
(Devil's advocate: Perhaps we should look to their franchise star as a reason for not being able to get along with almost anyone he teams up with. Not saying it is Harden's fault or whether he's right or wrong to clash with people, but he is the common denominator.)
I'm less inclined to scold the Rockets for valuing threes and layups above all else, but there have been times when they have been too dogmatic about that philosophy, refusing to adjust in big moments when their route one strategy didn't work. Their 27 straight misses from three in a Conference Finals game drive that point home, and only so much of that blame can be laid at the feet of coaches.
Here's a bigger question related to philosophy — would a Morey-Brand partnership work? At his big presser following Brett Brown's firing, Brand went out of his way to highlight how the team needed more "basketball minds" to round out the group they have at the top.
"As I've been taking a deep dive in where we failed, what went wrong, and how we can get better, I felt like we need to strengthen our organization from top to bottom, and that starts with the front office," Brand said. "Balancing our strengths and analytics and basketball strategy with more basketball minds, and whatever happens. My goal, with whatever happens going forward, is making sure we are in a position to truly contend."
Morey would only come to Philadelphia for a role above Brand, meaning the younger executive would have to get on board regardless, but a trusting, two-way relationship between the two would be essential, especially with what we know about how messed up the decisionmaking process was in the past. Perhaps Morey has the resume and cache that he's enough of a "basketball mind" in Brand's eyes at this point, there's just a lot of assuming to be done.
Then there's the off-court element, with Morey at the center of the Hong Kong/China controversy that befell the NBA last season. If you're asking whether Morey's vocal support for the Hong Kong protests should be an issue, the answer is an unequivocal no. If you're asking whether it will continue to be an issue, the answer is maybe. Chinese TV only just started showing games again at the tail end of the NBA Finals, and with the Sixers and NBA both invested in their international partnerships, who knows how that weighs in any decision regarding his candidacy.
As I relayed up top, Sixers sources have insisted all offseason they are interested in hiring under Brand, not over him. In fact, in some conversations with team personnel, people actually went out of their way to shoot down rumors about lead executives under contract with other teams, including Morey specifically.
There are a multitude of reasons to do that.
What we do know is that they have had an interest in Morey before. In the summer of 2018, fresh off the scandal that led to Bryan Colangelo's ouster, Marc Stein of the New York Times reported they tried and were unsuccessful in luring him away from Houston. They may not have actively pursued him in the years since, but Morey is the sort of person who could improve almost any organization.
For all the flaws they've been attacked for, Sixers ownership does have a decent reputation among the movers and shakers around the league, who believe they're willing to do and pay what it takes to win. Still, handing out another big-time deal to Morey after ponying up for Rivers would be a hefty investment, and we still have not heard from Joshua Harris and Co. what they want for the organization moving forward. Would they balk at giving someone the level of autonomy in basketball ops Morey would demand?
And more to the point — does he want the job? Wojnarowski says Morey could be looking to take time off from basketball, and that he'll remain a short-term advisor as the Rockets finish their coaching search.
Morey isn't ruling out a future return to the NBA on the team side, but he has become increasingly determined to explore what else might interest him professionally, sources said. Morey also saw an opportunity to spend time with two college-age children who are each taking a gap year academically during the coronavirus pandemic. [ESPN]
Whether that's a leverage play or not will ultimately be determined over time.
The bottom line is the Sixers would be a better organization with Morey at the top. Brand could continue to grow as an executive while an experienced POBO makes sense of this disjointed roster. It's one of the few moves they could make that would inspire widespread confidence in the organization, and in conjunction with hiring Rivers, would make it clear they'll do whatever it takes to win.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports