Daryl Morey’s legacy in Houston won’t be a tweet, though his bleep-stirring social media support of Hong Kong will live forever on his Wikipedia page, and beyond. Morey’s time with the Rockets, though, amounts to more—much more. He was unconventional in a conventional time, fearless with his roster, determined to chase championships at whatever cost. For weeks, the basketball world has heard about the Miami Heat culture. Morey never won a title in 13 seasons as Houston’s top basketball exec. But he reinvented the roster a handful of times—and spent just three springs out of the playoffs.
Morey will step down as Rockets GM, Morey and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta confirmed on Thursday. ESPN reported that Morey could explore his non-basketball interests, while using the time off to spend more time with his two college aged children.
"After returning from Orlando and reflecting on what has been an amazing 14 years with the Houston Rockets, and after discussing my thoughts with family and close friends, I've decided I’ll be stepping away from the Rockets organization effective November 1st.," Morey said in a statement. "Tilman and I have had many conversations since I returned, and his unwavering support and counsel during our time together has been critical to our success. It has been the most gratifying experience of my professional life to lead the Rockets basketball organization, and I look forward to working with Tilman and the management team on the transition. I am very confident that the future — for the Rockets, and for our incredible fans — is in great hands, and that the Rockets will continue to perform at the highest level.”
Said Fertitta, "On behalf of the entire Rockets organization, I would like to thank Daryl Morey for his hard work and dedication over the past 14 seasons. Daryl is a brilliant innovator who helped the Rockets become a perennial contender. I have truly enjoyed working with Daryl and couldn't have asked for a better general manager to have at the start of my ownership. I wish him and his family all the best."
The end for Morey comes after a long, trying year, one that began with the polarizing offseason acquisition of Russell Westbrook, continued with the failed—and very public—contract negotiations with head coach Mike D’Antoni, was set on fire after Morey’s support of the Hong Kong independence movement and finished in the isolated outpost of the NBA bubble, where the Rockets season was ended by the Lakers in the second round.
It’s unclear why Morey chose now to end his run in Houston, but he does appear to be doing it at an opportune time. The Rockets are a team at crossroads. They are good, evidenced by the 61% winning percentage in this pandemic shortened season and first round win over Oklahoma City. They have an annual MVP candidate in James Harden, an All-Star running mate in Russell Westbrook and play a unique, super small style that can give any team problems.
But the Rockets have a ceiling, and they just might have hit it. The Lakers thumped Houston over the final four games of the series. Harden and Westbrook are both on the other side of 30, and while Harden’s game could age nicely, Westbrook’s reliance on his athleticism suggests his will not. D’Antoni, the architect of Houston’s small ball offense, is gone. All of Morey’s wheeling and dealing has gutted the Rockets draft capital, and the starting lineup alone projects to gobble up $120 million of Houston’s salary space next season—whenever next season ultimate begins.
Houston’s embrace of microball is part of Morey’s legacy, but it’s also proof of his adaptability. In 2007, Morey inherited a team headlined by Yao Ming, a super sized post player. In 2012, Morey engineered a trade for—and subsequently built a team around—Harden, a dynamic guard. He resolved brewing issues between Harden and Chris Paul by flipping Paul for Westbrook. When the Rockets sputtered early this season, Morey flipped Clint Capela, Houston’s only viable big man, to Atlanta, going all-in on one of the smallest lineups in NBA history.
Morey won’t be mistaken for Pat Riley. One is an Armani-wearing ex-player-turned-coach-turned-executive who dazzles free agents by pouring rings on a table like a grade schooler would a piggy bank, the other a tousle haired analytics disciple who prefers tee shirts under his suit coats and hands out free tickets to MIT’s Sloan conference, but they share something in common: Neither believes in the value of losing. Morey’s teams never tanked—all three of the teams that missed the playoffs finished above .500—even when they could justify it. When many top teams seemingly ceded the title to Golden State in recent years, Morey loaded up, acquiring Paul, then Westbrook, hellbent on competing. He made 77 trades in his time with Houston, each with an eye towards improving the Rockets chances of taking home a title.
Morey will be coveted if he elects to return to the NBA—most of the NBA has embraced Morey’s statistics-based thinking, specifically the dependence on the three-point shot—but he doesn’t lack for outside interests. He co-chairs the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an event that has evolved from a safe space for statwonk’s to one of the most anticipated—and well attended—in-season events each year. He has an obvious political tilt. In 2018, Morey, a high school trombonist, commissioned a basketball musical, Small Ball, that had a successful six week run in Houston.
There’s also something to be said for just taking a break. A decade-plus run as in a year-round job like a GM is an eternity, especially when capped by a year like this last one. I saw Morey a few times inside the NBA bubble. He looked exhausted. A GM job is desirable, addictive even, but the constant pressure can take something out of you. Morey, 48, is young, and there will be other opportunities for him, if he wants them, whenever he wants them.
“Someday,” Morey told the New York Times in 2017, “I want to live in New York and just go to shows.”
Now he has chance.