Daryl Morey’s Legacy of Mediocrity

Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets have finally parted ways; for the first time since 2007, the Rockets will start a season with someone’s name other than Morey’s on the “Executive” line on Basketball Reference.

Morey is rightly seen as a guy who wasn’t afraid to shake up the conventional wisdom of the NBA; he is the patron saint of the analytics movement and it is no coincidence that his arrival in Houston heralded the true end of the NBA’s Dark Ages—sure, Mike D’Antoni‘s Suns had shown us the future in 2005, and the Suns leading the league not only in 3PAR (.289) but also in 3-point percentage (39.3 percent!) in that year showed basketball fans the future, but Morey was the inventor of analytics as institutional philosophy.

Come to think of it, Morey and D’Antoni falling on the same sword with the same franchise after yet another playoff choke speaks volumes of just how much the game ultimately so thoroughly built on the foundation they laid that the same game now seems to have no further use for them.

But there’s something about Morey (and D’Antoni) that sticks in the craw of anyone who’s familiar with baseball’s original “Moneyball” analytics revolution; its greatest adherents always fell way short in the playoffs.

In 14 seasons, the Rockets have more incidents of missing the playoff entirely (three) than they do conference finals appearances (two, in 2015 and 2018, both times losing to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.)

That latter conference final is best known for the biggest choke job in the playoffs in NBA history; Houston missed 27 straight 3-pointers in a game they lost by nine points. Nine points is three 3-pointers. 3-of-27 is 11.1 percent. That’s all they needed to shoot in that stretch to make up the deficit. If they’d shot 10-of-27 (37 percent, roughly in line with their 36.2 percent shooting that year), they’d have won by a mile.

The 2015 Rockets, who are the only team other than the 2020 Nuggets to reach the conference finals despite allowing more points in the first two rounds than they scored, lost twice to Golden State in Oakland in the first two games by a combined five points; had they won those games, they might very well have made the Finals that year.

Instead, they weren’t quite good enough when it mattered most. And that’s the only two conference finals appearances the franchise managed in 14 years under Daryl Morey.

Even the most ardent supporters of NBA analytics have to acknowledge that, as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan to fight me until they get hit.”

The Rockets were so obsessed with engineering the optimal outcome in the majority of cases that whenever teams with the skill and the talent to force the Rockets to play a game other than the one for which they game-planned actually did so, the Rockets were dead in the water.

Like, say, Western Conference playoff teams.

Morey’s stuff didn’t work in May. Never mind June. The Rockets never got that far.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s not “turn your back on higher risk, higher reward scenarios”—ask Nate McMillan, Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins, and post-Duncan-retirement Gregg Popovich how that works out. Three is still more than two, and you still want to engineer your offense to get a lot of 3-point attempts.

It’s not “don’t attack the basket”—no matter how many threes go up, layups and dunks, and the and-ones they tend to generate, are worth even more than long-range shots and they’re far lower variance.

It’s possibly a rebuke of small-ball; Houston played its best playoff basketball when they had Dwight Howard (2015) and Clint Capela (2018) allowing them to play four-out and protect the rim rather than the disaster movie offense that Houston’s small-ball approach left them with in the second round against the Lakers in 2020. They got straight-up bullied by Anthony Davis, who averaged 25.4 points on 60 percent shooting with nobody to stop him getting to the basket.

Consider that Davis only attempted five shots from 3-point range in that Lakers-Rockets series this year. Why venture out to the arc when you can attack the rim?

The Lakers posted a .585 eFG% against the Rockets despite LeBron James leading the team in 3-point attempts (34) and making just 29.4 percent of them. That’s what leaving the rim open buys you in the NBA even in 2020.

Morey had no game plan for this. In his universe, and in D’Antoni’s, it’s “you have to optimize the outcome for one-size-fits-all basketball.”

And that doesn’t fly in the playoffs.

Dogmatic insistence on a specific process, the one true best way that is most efficient? If Sixers fans weren’t throwing up in their mouth a little already, they very well might be after spelling it out and saying the magic word, right?

Which is kind of funny, because even though Sam Hinkie got his walking papers before the Sixers pulled out of their intentional funk, the Rockets and Philadelphia seem to have the same ceiling. They’re good enough to win 50 games and not good enough to win four of them when it matters most.

The road to NBA success is a nebulous thing to pin down. You can’t just copy the Lakers or the Warriors or the Spurs or the Heat or any other perennial contender and have an instant-win button.

But nor can you put a human activity into a computer algorithm and expect to do well—if anything, it’s no better than doing things “the old-fashioned way”. Gregg Popovich actively disdained the analytics movement, but he had Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard…and used their talents in a way that got him five titles. R.C. Buford built those rosters for him in a way that Morey would never dare, and the Spurs have five titles since Houston got their last one in 1995.

I don’t know what this means for building an NBA contender. If I did, I’d be working in a front office, not writing a semi-regular column about the sport.

But I do know from being in possession of a bachelor’s degree in accounting that there is no better way than business school for people who aren’t very smart (I myself am by my own admission too dumb to make it through a STEM program) to get a degree without getting an education.

And people with an MBA combine that Dunning-Kruger magnet with a massive ego—have you ever met anyone with an MBA who wasn’t convinced, even in the face of failure, that they were the smartest person in the room when they’re usually pointy-haired Dilbert manager dumb?

Daryl Morey belongs on the same scrap heap as Sam Hinkie…but at the same time, if he hadn’t introduced analytic concepts into the league where smarter people could build it into something that wins titles, we wouldn’t have the Steve Kerr-coached Warriors.

Every championship team in recent years has, in some form or fashion, embraced modern NBA basketball principles. The Warriors shot a ton of 3-pointers, but they also attacked the basket and played great defense (first in Defensive Rating in 2015 and second in 2017.) The 2018 title may not have had the same defensive chops (11th in DefRtg) but the Warriors led the league in eFG%.

The Raptors won by shooting the ball efficiently (they were third in the league in eFG% and fifth in Offensive Rating) and playing great defense (fifth in Defensive Rating as well.)

And the 2016 Cavs and 2020 Lakers had the best player on the floor, always a big factor and one of the most fundamental game-changers in basketball.

Morey never figured this out. And that’s why his legacy is one of great regular seasons and playoff collapses.