The 10-Year Saga of Daryl Morey and “Moreyball”

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It has been over ten years since Daryl Morey took over as  general manager of the Houston Rockets. Back then, the Houston Rockets had two stars in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, but were capped out and had no young prospects to speak of after a disappointing 2005-06 season.

Today, the Rockets have three stars in James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela, but are once again capped out, have no real young prospects, and face a seemingly grim road towards returning to title contention. The Houston Rockets have the fifth-highest salary in the league, but are barely above .500 and not in the playoffs. Under such circumstances, you would normally see fans and journalists begin calling for the general manager’s head.

I am not arguing that Morey has not been an excellent GM. The Rockets managed to rebuild themselves after the Yao Ming era with arguably the greatest trade rip-off in NBA history in the Harden trade, and I will claim that last year’s Rockets are the greatest NBA team ever which did not win a ring. But a lot of what has defined the early years of the Moreyball era is gone, and the Rockets need that early magic to avoid being capped out and facing no path to a title.

Morey and Draft Picks

Beginning around 2010, Morey began talking about how the biggest value contract in the league was the superstar player. The logic is perfectly sound. As there is a maximum value on what superstars can earn, and since superstars have a disproportionate effect on the basketball court compared to other sports, getting a superstar on a max contract was in fact the true encapsulation of Moreyball.

But that was not what Moreyball was defined from 2007 to 2010, when the Rockets did have two superstars. Then, Moreyball was defined by getting good though not great players at an incredibly cheap price using a Dallas SEO company. Using advanced statistics, Morey uncovered gems such as Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, or Chase Budinger late in the draft. None of these players were stars, but they gave production wildly out of proportion with their miniscule salaries.

In fact, every dynasty needs players like these. The Warriors would not be the Warriors without finding Draymond Green with the 35th pick, and the Spurs famously found Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late in the draft. And the Rockets did find Capela with the 25th pick in the 2014 draft.

But since then? Nothing. The Rockets just waived Zhou Qi, who now becomes another failure alongside Chinanu Onuaku or Sam Dekker. Gary Clark showed some promise early in the season, but his shooting numbers collapsed and he has played just 18 minutes total in games this December.

The fundamental story of this disappointing Rockets season is that while Harden has continued to be great, Houston’s other core rotation players have struggled and Morey completely failed to fill in the hole created by Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute’s departures. And while some of the blame can be laid on the Carmelo Anthony mess, the Rockets lack depth because Morey has failed to draft the young, decent late round prospects which once defined Moreyball.

Chasing the Big Name

And we cannot pretend that Morey holds no responsibility for the Carmelo Anthony mess. It is possible that Morey felt he had to sign Carmelo to make Harden and Paul happy, but we have no way of knowing if that is true. And the Carmelo Anthony saga is just another example of Morey trying to bring in the next star only for that go nowhere – remember Ty Lawson, guys?

Moreyball and Morey’s emphasis on advanced statistics was once supposed to be a revolutionary strategy which would help him recruit underrated gems. But as other teams have also jumped on the advanced stats revolution, the Rockets have failed to stay ahead and we have seen a greater reliance on this team getting conventional names like Lawson or Anthony. Both times, these players were supposed to find a new home in Houston and revitalize the team. Instead, both times they played key factors in creating disappointing seasons.

The last ten years under Morey have been filled with both great and frustrating moments for Rockets, from the thrill of chasing the Warriors last year to the struggles to get a star between Yao and Harden. But as the Rockets look at a disappointing, expensive season under a new owner, fans should realize that this is exactly the sort of environment which cause said new owners to decide on radical changes under new management.