In this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, Chris Ballard writes about Daryl Morey, the Rockets' philosophy of team-building and the James Harden trade. The issue can be found on a newsstand near you.
I recently spent some time in Houston watching the Rockets and shadowing GM Daryl Morey. You can read the result in this week's magazine.
As often happens with such stories, I gathered a ton of interesting material, not all of which made it into the story, so I'm going to share some of it here. Think of it like a very low-tech version of DVD extras.
Below you'll hear about Jeremy Lin and his new shooting motion; from Morey on Royce White and Clyde Drexler's ping-pong prowess; and receive a full breakdown of Morey's 1994 NBA fantasy basketball squad.
Jeremy Lin's jumper: Lin told me he's been working with Doc Scheppler, a shooting coach, to reduce the arc on his shots, which is unusual, as more often players need to increase their arc. Said Lin: "Like 80 percent of my shots are short, and he [Scheppler] thinks it's due to the high arc."
While I was there, I watched Lin in pregame warmups and could see his new stroke. The shot was flatter -- though it looked to me as if he was imparting a touch of sidespin -- and he was making it regularly. Come gametime against the Hornets, however, Lin went back to firing his high loopers. And indeed, he missed short, finishing 2-of-10 from the floor. (In his defense, it takes a while to learn, and then trust, a new shooting motion. It also takes courage to try to change it in-season.)
The lingering OKC effect on Harden: When I spoke with Harden, he credited Thunder players like Nick Collison and Kevin Durant (as well as his mother) with teaching him about leadership, and it's clear his time in Oklahoma City, which stresses culture and professionalism, had a profound impact. During his first practice with the Rockets, a day after the trade, the 23-year-old Harden took over the team huddle, saying "Family on three. Family!" Then he yelled at his teammates to tuck their shirts in.
Team owner Les Alexander on the Rockets philosophy: Alexander was a fascinating guy to interview. He's brusque, skeptical and quick-witted. He had a stack of poker chips on his desk -- from the Golden Nugget -- and he flipped through them as we talked. The previous night, he'd had dinner with Michael Lewis. The theme of their conversation was the same as the one Alexander and I had: risk. Alexander's philosophy on the subject as it pertains to the Rockets: "If you want to be really good and if you're not in L.A. or New York, you have to take a lot of risk. I'm willing to take a lot of risk."
The Rockets' strategy of trying for every big-name player: "There's a chance for everything, even if the probability is low, so why not take a shot? That's one thing I don't understand about other teams, why they don't do it. Maybe for PR reasons."
The value of traditional scouts vs. analytics: "One thing traditional scouts have done for a long time that's useful is note how bad a player's missing. If a guy's missing and it's just off it's no way as bad as if you're missing like three-feet wide."
Whether he's involved with team promotions and game entertainment: "No, thankfully not. I have all these opinions about the dancers but they should be kept to myself. No one consults me. I keep asking to be invited to the dance tryouts but no one ever allows me there. I'll just say this: My general philosophy is that you can teach them to dance."
Sam Presti: "I think Sam is the best GM in the game, I mean he's really, really good."
His high school hoops career: "My career was like Luther Head's. I had a lot of time then I went downhill. By senior year I wasn't playing at all."
The analytics job the Rockets are currently hiring for: "We're looking for something that's pretty unlikely to exist. So it's No. 1, a passionate basketball fan so that they'll not just know basketball but be willing to work long hours for low pay; and No. 2, a really good analyst, so that's stats, probability, forecasting; and No. 3, right now the biggest need is they're really a top-notch programmer. [Here he motions in the air.] This is the Venn diagram and we haven't found anyone in the middle. It's really hard."
Drafting Royce White: "His upside is that great. I really think he's a top-five talent. Without some of the risk factors, he would have gone ... I don't know exactly where, but for sure in the top 10 if not the top five. For us, especially prior to having James [Harden], and prior to some of the other moves, we were just so desperate for at least one guy who's got elite talent and I think he's got it. Will we ever get it out on the floor? That's the question. Given where we were strategically, taking a lot of swings at really high-upside guys was more rational than taking a lot of safe bets."
Whether the team would still have gone after Lin if they'd first acquired Harden: "Yeah, I think so. Part of Lin is we had lost [Goran] Dragic and [Kyle] Lowry. We felt Lin was someone who had played at the All-Star level before, albeit for a short window. That gives you some odds that he could be that good. Even though now we have James, a guy we can absolutely build around, we need to keep adding bets to get that second really top-end player and, again, they're not really given away, so you got to hope one of your draft picks makes it or one of your signings. And Jeremy's played at a super-high level before, so there's a chance he could play at it again."
He's very good at ping-pong: At one point, Morey told me about playing Clyde Drexler, who fancies himself something of a table-tennis expert. "I got a really good insight into the psyche of a top NBA player," Morey said as we walked through the home locker room. "He was convinced he was better than me. So we were playing to 21 and I got up 16-11 and Clyde said, 'Okay, here we go, I'm going to play now.' Then it was 17-11, and he says, 'From now on, I got ya.' And then at 18-11, he's whacking his paddle, and then 19-13 and the whole time he was convinced he was going to win. The whole time." Morey pauses. "I think the final was 21-13."
He also claims to be "world class" at Pop-A-Shot: In telling me this, Morey stood up and showed me his approach, hunching down his 6-foot-4 frame into a squat and pretending to look up at an imaginary basket. "I go crouched, rapid shot with a soft arc and swish it constantly," Morey explained. "Because if you swish it, it comes back faster." Morey also said he goes to the neighboring machines before he plays and steals as many other balls as he can. "People don't know the key is throughput -- it's all rapid shooting and obviously you have to make a high percentage," he said. "I'm shooting so fast that there's no backup of the balls. This is why I crouch, because if you get down low, you can shoot something resembling a normal arc."
As anyone who remembers this story on Ricardo Reyes knows, Pop-A-Shot is a particular interest of mine. Sadly, I did not get to witness Morey in action.
On his desk he keeps what he calls "my letter from God": And indeed it is from God -- he shows me the return address, a premade label that reads "God Shammgod."
Morey keeps another letter tacked to his wall, which he thinks is hilarious because it sums up every fan letter in one: Here is a slightly abridged version of it:
DEAR DARYL MOREY
I CONSIDER YOU THE BEST GM IN THE NBA AND THE COUNTRY. GREAT GM AND GREAT PERSON. MY FAVORITE PLAYER ARE CLYDE DREXLER AND HAKEE [sic] OLAJUWON. PLEASE GIVE CLYDE DREXLER A COPY OF MY COVER LETTER RESUME. ALSO, PLEASE CONSIDER NBA TRYOUTS. HE INSPIRED ME TO THE GAME AS A PLAYER AND A COACH. THE FIVE SLAM JAMMER. I DREAMED TO BE A PART OF THE ROCKETS. AS A GIFT, A SMALL TOKEN FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT PLEASE ALSO MAIL ME 2 XXL SLEEVELESS T-SHIRT, 2 XXL NBA PRACTICE JERSEY, NBA PRACTICE SHORTS FOR MY FAVORITE GM IN THE NBA. [And here he included his mailing address.]
BLESS THE MOREY FAMILY.
Another voice on Daryl Morey, the hooper: During my reporting, I emailed back and forth with Michael Canter, who worked at STATS Inc. with Morey in the early 90s. Here's what he had to say about Morey's abilities on the court:
"Soon after Daryl came to STATS, the company finally got big enough to organize an office 3-on-3 basketball tournament. I'll never forget my team facing Daryl's in the finals. I thought my team would be able to take his -- again, he was the kid who I thought might trip over himself at any moment. And while I know today he downplays his basketball ability, turns out he was the best player at the company; his team -- and he in particular -- killed mine."
Daryl the fantasy basketball player: An accepted truth of the analytics community is that history is the best predictor of future performance. In that light, I thought it would be interesting, or at least entertaining, to find out what kind of fantasy basketball GM Morey was, back when he played the game. Fortunately, Canter was able to fill me in. Below, complete with analysis from Canter -- the league heavyweight -- is the 1994-5 draft of Morey (that season, his team name was the Dallas Chaparrals. Most other seasons, it was the Morey Eels).
"Daryl and I worked together at STATS, Inc. for a couple of years, including 1994. That year a bunch of us in the office decided to form a 20-team NBA fantasy league (our standard game was 10-teams, but we wanted a challenge). A lot of people play in deep leagues today, but at the time, I think we were innovators! It was also a keeper league, so building a young core was as important as competing in the now. Our league was named the Gheorghe Muresan league. A big league required a big namesake.
I was struggling to remember a lot about the league and Daryl's performance in particular (other than that he didn't win). Luckily, one of our other league members -- a pack rat -- saved the entire initial draft from the league -- all 200 picks. Here are Daryl's picks:
• 17th Pick -- Derrick Coleman. An OK pick, but was never as good as the previous few years... and a worry for the locker room. Could have had rookie Grant Hill (went 21st).
• 24th Pick -- Kenny Anderson. Another OK pick. Never great, but decent.
• 38th Pick -- Christian Laettner. Dream Teamer! Jason Kidd left on the board ...
• 60th Pick -- Dale Davis. Another solid albeit boring pick. Seems to be the theme.
• 78th Pick -- Brad Daugherty. From Daryl's beloved Cleveland Cavaliers! Unfortunately ... he never played again. Oops.
[Gheorghe Muresan himself went 118th]
• 123rd Pick -- Anthony Peeler. Meh.
• 158th Pick -- Dennis Scott. Not a great player, but perfect for the team's summer kids camp!
• 163rd Pick -- Terrell Brandon. Another beloved Cavalier.
• 181st Pick -- Ty Corbin. Just watched him coaching and losing ...
• 198th Pick -- Bobby Phills. More Cavs... Actually a nice value at the end of the draft.
Overall ... A lot of safe picks and Cavaliers. Honestly - I wouldn't have picked any of these guys! Where's the upside?"
A postscript: There is an interesting follow-up to that draft. During that 94-95 season, Morey ended up making, "probably the best all-time move in our league," according to Canter, an audacious midseason trade that provides a glimpse of the GM he became. To get the full story, pick up a copy of this week's SI.