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MONEY BALLSY

Dec. 03, 2012
Dec. 03, 2012

Table of Contents
Dec. 3, 2012

LEADING OFF
THE MAIL
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
ANDREW LUCK
COLLEGE FOOTBALL
  • IS A GHANAIAN SOCCER PLAYER WHO DREAMED OF NBA GLORY AND SUCCESSFULLY WALKED ONTO THE BYU TRACK TEAM ABOUT TO CONQUER THE NFL DRAFT? THE LONG AND WINDING TALE OF EZEKIEL (ZIGGY) ANSAH

PRO BASKETBALL
BASEBALL
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MONEY BALLSY

ROCKETS G.M. DARYL MOREY TAKES A MORE ANALYTIC VIEW THAN OTHER NBA EXECS—AND HE'LL RISK EVERYTHING TO BACK IT UP

In the winter of 1995, long before Daryl Morey became the general manager of the Rockets and a cult hero to statheads everywhere, he was a tall, skinny, 22-year-old Northwestern undergrad working at an Illinois sports information company called Stats Inc. One of Morey's coworkers, Michael Canter, ran a primitive, 20-team keeper fantasy basketball league. Morey, whose twin loves were sports and numbers, was determined to win it.

This is an article from the Dec. 3, 2012 issue

Unfortunately, his team, the Dallas Chaparrals, was not very good. During the draft Morey had fallen victim to the bias of overvaluing players from his beloved hometown team, the Cavaliers. By midseason it was clear that he needed to make a bold move if he were going to contend (and for Morey, as we will learn, there is no value in finishing second). So he dealt his first-round pick, Nets forward Derrick Coleman, for the 200th and final choice in the league's draft. Making the deal appear even more foolhardy, the player Morey acquired wasn't even on an NBA roster at the time. Still, the way Morey saw it, the risk—though great—was necessary.

A few weeks later, to the surprise of the sports world, if not Morey, Michael Jordan ended his retirement after an unsuccessful excursion into baseball, returning to the Bulls. And just like that, Morey had flipped the No. 17 pick in the draft—who went on to become the archetype for underachieving big men—for the greatest player ever in his prime.

Morey's big bet had paid off. The Chaps were back in it.

LAST SUMMER Morey made another big bet. Only this time he risked far more, and the stakes were incalculably higher. He dismantled a young Houston team that came within two wins of a playoff spot, making 13 moves involving 31 players and four draft picks. By the time he was done, only one Houston rotation player, second-year small forward Chandler Parsons, remained.

As of October, Morey had little to show for it. He'd signed two promising but unproven free agents, point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik, but the team was perilously lacking in experience. Long the darling of bloggers and numbers crunchers—Bill Simmons famously dubbed him Dork Elvis—Morey was now doubted by his most ardent backers. "[He] needs," wrote Noam Schiller on the blog Hardwood Paroxysm, "to prove to us that he knows what he's doing."

Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 27, Morey received the call that changed the future of the franchise. He was sitting in his Lexus SUV in the suburbs of Houston, as his 10-year-old son played soccer. Morey watches from the car because otherwise he tends to become, as he says, "way too intense." Morey knows this is ridiculous. After all, it's just a soccer game and, what's more, his son claims to not even pay attention to him when he gets agitated. Still, Morey is a man who endeavors to live according to rational principles. Spontaneous eruptions of emotion can be embarrassing.

So there Morey was, watching his son's game from the front seat of his Lexus, windows rolled up, when his Blackberry buzzed. He looked and saw the name SAM PRESTI. Before that moment, Morey thought there was a 5% to 10% chance the Thunder G.M. would call that day. Morey had made a strong offer for James Harden, Oklahoma City's multitalented 23-year-old sixth man, whom Presti needed to re-sign by Oct. 31 or potentially lose as a restricted free agent at season's end. Morey considered Harden such a unique talent that he had tried to trade for him more than half a dozen times since draft night in 2009, offering packages of players and picks so valuable that, had Rockets fans been aware of them, they would have despaired.

Morey picked up the buzzing phone and, as his son's team headed toward its coach to talk second-half strategy, shoving orange wedges into their mouths, he and Presti completed a shocking trade that sent the Thunder an offensive-minded shooting guard (Kevin Martin), a raw but talented rookie (Jeremy Lamb), two first-round picks and a second-rounder. It was a lot to part with for a single player, but Morey was elated.

When the trade became official, fans in Houston were ecstatic. They were even more excited when Harden erupted for 37 points in his first game and 45 in his second. For the first time since the end of the Yao Ming era the Rockets had a franchise player. Season ticket sales jumped, and are now up 25% over last year.

To the casual observer, it may have appeared that the Rockets got lucky, that they were merely in the right place at the right time. And, to an extent, this was true; if Presti hadn't decided to move Harden, the Rockets never could have acquired him. That the Rockets were in position to make the deal, however, had nothing to do with luck.

It is a Thursday afternoon in mid-November, and Morey is sitting in a swivel chair in his office on the third floor of the Toyota Center, engaged in the low-tech task of opening his mail. His desk is littered with artifacts: a stuffed bear holding a golf club, a soccer jersey, a rolled-up Northwestern football poster, a bottle of weight-loss pills, a wire basket of Expo whiteboard pens, a box of Myoplex Lite bars. The latest Economist lies on the floor, statistical tomes line his bookshelves and the blinds are pulled on the two small windows. If it weren't for the nameplate outside the door, you'd never guess this was the office of the G.M.

If you've met Morey, this is not all that surprising. By the standards of NBA general managers, a breed of men who act as if they are guarding nuclear secrets, Morey is remarkably unpretentious and open. He tweets regularly, will speak on your podcast if you ask nicely and recently asked his Facebook friends if any of them could offer babysitting opportunities for his 13-year-old daughter. In the Rockets' office Morey jokes with interns, mocks his own geekiness and responds to most requests with the phrase, "Yeah, sure." Recently he spent the better part of a home game chatting with two fans seated behind him, answering questions about the team's future. "I figure if I can't explain the plan to a random fan, then I can't explain it to anybody," he says.

There is one area in which he is guarded, though. All his mail comes to the Toyota Center rather than to his home address. "I grew up in Cleveland," Morey explains, "and when Art Modell left the city [with the Browns], people were stalking his house. Thankfully, I've never had those issues, but I learned from that." Then, by way of explanation, he adds, "We make a lot of moves that are really big gambles. And sometimes those gambles don't work out."

Indeed, Morey's strategy is summed up by one question: How much risk are you willing to take? That ethos derives from the team owner, a brusque former bond trader named Leslie Alexander. Intrigued by the seismic shifts occurring in baseball, in 2005, Alexander hired a 27-year-old analytics-minded Stanford grad named Sam Hinkie to be a special assistant to the G.M. A year later he hired Morey, with the understanding that he'd apprentice for a year before taking over as G.M.

By NBA standards Morey's background was unusual. The middle of three brothers and the son of an engineer who worked in the auto industry, he got his first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, when he was in the second grade. By the third grade he was reading Bill James. He loved comic books, programmed during his free time and, as he says, fit "the Big Bang Theory stereotype." By 22 he was nearing a computer science degree at Northwestern while working part-time at Stats Inc., where he both met his wife, Ellen—she answered the phones for the fantasy basketball transactions—and became the first to apply Bill James's Pythagorean expectation formula to basketball. (Google it if you really want the details.) In 2000 he got his MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, then joined the Parthenon Group, a business strategy consulting firm. After working on a project for the Celtics, he was hired by G.M. Danny Ainge and became the senior vice president of operations. And then, at the age of 33, Alexander came calling.

It is hard now, in this era of Nate Silver deification, to comprehend just how shocking the hire was at the time. Basketball teams were run by basketball men, grizzled former players like Ainge and Pat Riley and Larry Bird. Not only that, Alexander empowered Morey's radical way of thinking, signing off on investments in fledging technology and counterintuitive roster moves without batting an eye. "There was a lot of trepidation in our coaching staff," says Jeff Van Gundy, who was Houston's coach for four seasons, through 2006--07. "What did this mean? Would it impact in a negative light how we could coach?" Within two weeks, however, he had changed his mind. "What impressed me about Daryl was that he had very strong beliefs but he didn't think you could coach just by the numbers," says Van Gundy, now an analyst for ABC. "And, to be honest, he raised good questions."

When Morey took over in 2007, the Rockets were flush with talent. Tracy McGrady was a seven-time All-Star at 27 years old, and 7'6" Yao Ming, the franchise centerpiece, was only 26. Morey's mandate was clear: Win now. So he began assembling complementary pieces, making the type of low-upside trades he'd never make today: the recently drafted Rudy Gay for Shane Battier, a valuable player with limited upside; a first-rounder for Ron Artest as a one-season rental. That season under Rick Adelman, the team won 55 games.

Then Yao's feet and McGrady's knees went, and Houston's title aspirations went with them. The Rockets did everything they could to revive Yao, employing all manner of innovative treatments. Similarly, Morey endeavored to revive McGrady's flagging confidence, at one point driving to his house to show him a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Tracybeaggressive," which featured a downward-pointing yellow arrow indicating how McGrady's failure to attack the basket was directly tied to his effectiveness.

All to no avail. By 2009--10, Houston went from potential dynasty to potential lottery team. At the trade deadline that season, Morey dealt McGrady to the Knicks for a passel of players and picks. The reconstruction project kicked into overdrive.

Instead of choosing either to bottom out and rebuild through the draft or to play it safe and remain a middle-of-the-road team, Morey tried something unprecedented in the modern era: to return to title contention without entering the lottery, a feat even the Kobe-era Lakers couldn't pull off. (They needed "the Smush Parker year," as Morey refers to it, before acquiring 7-foot Andrew Bynum in the lottery.) To do so, Morey knew he needed to acquire at least one "foundational" player. However, this is exceedingly difficult to do without entering the lottery. "Those top five picks are the most important assets in the game, and it's really a shame that those are handed to literally the worst-run franchises," Morey says. "It really bothers me. I would like to go back to a true lottery, where it's a 1-in-14 shot at each slot."

Free agency isn't much easier to navigate, especially if your team isn't a) in Los Angeles or New York or b) doesn't already have a star who can help recruit players. As for trades, the third avenue of acquiring a star, as Hinkie, who was elevated to executive VP of basketball operations in 2010, puts it, "It's easy to get bad players—I could pick up the phone and do it right now. But to trade for a great player is very, very hard."

The only recourse, as Morey saw it, was to go all-in in pursuit of one elite player. So he and Hinkie became speed-dialers, calling dozens of teams about every player they considered "interesting." Every year they tried to trade for almost every lottery pick, and more than once they came close to acquiring the No. 2 selection. To other G.M.'s the Rockets' onslaught reeked of desperation, like the guy at the bar who hits on a dozen girls in the hopes that one will go home with him. "It's classic sales," Morey says. "Keep the pipeline open for anyone rather than focusing on only two to three opportunities."

Meanwhile, the Rockets built up their assets, targeting second-round picks, which they consider to be the league's most undervalued commodity. Relying on their extensive talent-evaluation operation—Morey estimates they spend "10 times the next team" when it comes to quantitative analysis—they then chose or acquired on draft day a succession of players who grew into solid, not to mention cheap, rotation players, including Chase Budinger (44th in 2009) and Chandler Parsons (38th in 2011).

Morey worked at the margins, then unloaded players once their valued peaked, much as Oakland A's G.M. Billy Beane once did with closers, confident that his team could develop a replacement. Power forward Carl Landry is a prime example: In 2007 the Rockets bought Seattle's second-round pick for more than a million dollars—then a record price—got two-plus productive years from Landry and then dealt him to the Kings for guard Martin (who would move in the Harden trade). More controversially, in February 2009, during the middle of a playoff push, Morey traded his starting point guard, 32-year-old Rafer Alston, for the Grizzlies' backup playmaker, Kyle Lowry. This allowed Aaron Brooks, whom the Rockets chose with the 26th pick in 2007, to start. After Brooks became a 19-point-a-game scorer, Morey flipped him to the Suns for another unproven backup point, Goran Dragic. Lowry took over as the starter and developed into a better player than either of his predecessors, becoming so valuable that Morey flipped him to the Raptors for a protected first-round pick this summer, which in turn became the key piece in the Harden deal.

Which brings us to the downside of Morey's single-minded pursuit: View players as assets and you must part with even those you love (Battier, Lowry) when they no longer fit the plan. This was never more painful than in the case of rugged defensive specialist Chuck Hayes. To this day, the only poster of a modern-era Rocket in Hinkie's office is of Hayes, reaching for a rebound. For Morey watching Hayes felt like looking in a mirror. Growing up, Morey had sprouted early, and by his freshman year at Highland High in Medina, Ohio, he was a scrawny 6'3". Upon trying out for the basketball team, he was immediately sent to the post. There was only one problem: In the years that followed, Morey stopped growing. By the time he was a senior, he was the size of a guard but stuck with big man skills.

Morey has lived out his remaining hoops days, from intramurals at Northwestern to pickup games with Rockets staffers, as the quintessential undersized four who gets by on hustle, effort and taking every advantage he can. (One of the Houston interns, upon playing with Morey for the first time, remarked, "I see, you like to play prison ball.") As a result Morey has always had a soft spot for similar players, Hayes in particular. The shortest starting center in the league at 6'6", Hayes couldn't run or jump and lacked anything resembling a jump shot, yet he was remarkably effective in ways traditional stats couldn't measure. Watching him sign with the Kings as a free agent a year ago broke Morey's heart. That's how it goes, though. "You can't afford to be emotional," says Morey.

Still, entering this season, the Rockets lacked that foundational player (though technically Morey had acquired one, Lakers forward Pau Gasol, before commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade last December). Morey could have added a piece and made another run at the playoffs. Instead he went to Alexander and told him they needed to take on even more risk.

One of the 400 richest men in the country, Alexander has spent his life evaluating risk. When I visited him in his office, he shuffled poker chips one-handed as we talked, and he plays regularly in a game with Carl Icahn and one of the top Goldman guys. He told Morey to do whatever it took.

So Morey used the second of his three first-round choices, the 16th pick, to draft the riskiest player available, Iowa State's Royce White. A 6'8", 260-pound power forward with the passing skills of a point guard, White suffers from an anxiety disorder that makes him afraid to fly. Many questioned the selection, but Morey and Hinkie saw it not as a matter of emotion or reason but of probability. They needed an elite player, and in their estimation White was one of the five top talents in the draft.

Then came a crazy stretch in mid-July during which Morey traded Lowry and watched Dragic sign a four-year deal with Phoenix. This left the Rockets with a roster of 10 forwards. Still, as Hinkie says, "It was the right thing to do." In the days that followed, Morey plugged his two holes, winning a staredown with the Knicks by offering Lin a three-year, $25.1 million deal ($15 million in year three) and then signing Asik to a three-year, $25.1 million deal.

All this maneuvering left the Rockets with a ton of cap room and a makeshift roster. Their top foundational target was a long shot: Dwight Howard. The probability of landing him was likely less than 5%, but the potential payoff was enormous. Morey doesn't speak publicly to how the team expected to retain the All-Star center, who will be a free agent next summer, but after spending some time in the Houston front office, it's not hard to imagine his strategy as follows: Impress Howard with young, talented teammates like Parsons and then ask why he should take a discount to join another star player? Why shouldn't that star take a discount to come join him in Houston, which has a solid hoops history, warm weather and no state income tax? (A hardbound book the Rockets produce for potential free agents has a page that reads, "FOUR WORDS TELL YOU EVERYTHING: ZERO. DONUT HOLE. NADA. ZILCH. NOTHING NO STATE INCOME TAX." The accompanying graphics show exactly how many more new Aston Martin Virages, Sony 60-inch LED TVs and Franck Miller Conquistador watches a player can buy with the tax savings.)

In the end, Howard was traded to the Lakers, leaving Morey holding a bunch of assets and a ton of cap room. Which, it turned out, was exactly what allowed him to trade for Harden.

It is a recent Tuesday afternoon, and James Harden is running through drills, cutting and slicing past assistant coaches on his way to the rim. Aside from his beard, which juts outward from his chin as if trying to colonize other faces, he doesn't appear that different from most NBA shooting guards: 6'5", 220 pounds, long but not freakishly long arms, chiseled but not too chiseled physique. The No. 3 pick out of Arizona State, Harden can't leap especially high and isn't all that fast, at least compared with his peers. (The Rockets embed accelerometers in their players' jerseys during practice, and while Lin is far and away the quickest-accelerating, Harden isn't among the top three.)

What makes Harden a freak is the extreme nature of his game. The three most efficient shots in basketball are a layup, a three-pointer and a free throw. The worst is a long two-point jumper, a shot only a few players—such as Dirk Nowitzki—can hit regularly enough to make worthwhile.

More than any team, the Rockets embrace the concept of avoiding midrange jumpers, acquiring players who naturally adhere to it. (Lin, who incessantly attacks the rim, is one example; Battier, who rarely shoots anything other than a corner three or open layup, was another.) It's one thing to find players with a natural tendency. It's another to land Harden, who is the living, breathing, Eurostepping embodiment of it. To look at his shot chart is to see a giant red splotch around the basket and then a half-moon outside the three-point arc; the midrange is virtually barren. Last season 87% of Harden's shots were either at the basket or from behind the line, and what's more, he is an elite finisher when at the rim. As a result, his .660 true shooting percentage, which measures shooting efficiency by weighing threes and free throws, was not only the best in 2011--12 but also, as Basketball Prospectus recently noted among high-usage players, only Charles Barkley has had a higher true shooting percentage. In history.

Now that he's playing 40 minutes against starters rather than reserves, Harden's true shooting percentage is down—but only to .585, which still puts him in the top quarter. Even if he is 80% as effective as he was last season, he's still a very effective player. Through Monday, Harden was averaging 25.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists. From a basketball philosophy perspective, his impact is already evident. The Rockets, who at week's end were 6--7, have averaged only 9.7 shots from the dreaded 16-to-23-foot range, easily the fewest in the league.

Not that Harden spends much time thinking about this. Sitting at his locker after a recent practice, knees swaddled in ice, he claims ignorance when it comes to advanced stats. "I'm just a basketball player," he says. While he was "kind of devastated" by the trade, Harden says the Rockets have embraced him. The night he arrived, Morey and the coaches took him and his mom to dinner. He and Morey talk often. "He knows what he's doing, basketballwise," Harden says. "He's a brilliant guy."

This is a theme echoed by other Rockets. Parsons is sitting a few chairs down and eating a slice of watermelon. Scruffy and handsome, he looks like he should be friendly bro #2 in a light-beer commercial. Having been in Houston for two seasons, he understands the Morey system better than most, understands that he is both a key building block and—as a talented young player with a cheap contract—a valuable asset. "You see the moves he makes, and sometimes you're like, What is he doing?" Parsons says. "Then after you see the big picture, you say, Oh, O.K. It's reassuring that I'm part of something that's going to be special here." Parsons pauses, picks up another slice of watermelon. "Or at least I hope so."

Go to a Rockets message board like Clutchfans.net, and you'll find an abiding appreciation for Morey's methods. The same is not always true around the league. Other NBA execs respect Morey—"smartest G.M. in the league," says one—and many like him personally. Nevertheless Morey represents a threat, especially because he's so open with the media. "He has good intentions, but that's not how I do business," says one exec.

Others disagree with him on more fundamental levels. When the 76ers were hiring a G.M. last summer, they interviewed two analytic candidates, Hinkie and Celtics assistant G.M. Mike Zarren, before hiring Tony DiLeo, an old school G.M. Afterward John Mitchell of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a story, one many around the league interpreted as reflecting the viewpoint of the Sixers' staff, saying Morey was engaged in "an unchecked tail-chasing mission that has been going on ever since he was named general manager there five years ago." It also called him "the poster boy for reasons not to position an analytic as the basketball-operations rubber stamp." Van Gundy is not surprised. "A lot of basketball people want to see Daryl fail," he says, "not because they don't like him, but because they don't like the numbers movement."

On the afternoon that I visit, all is quiet in Morey's office. The previous night, the Rockets beat the Hornets 100--96, and after a morning practice the team is en route to Portland. Morey himself is just back from Atlanta, where he was scouting college players. As part of his approach to evaluation, Morey has seven staffers and one independent evaluator rank their top 35 picks every few weeks. By using a mix of outside sources, old school scouts, analytical types and hybrids like himself and Hinkie, he endeavors to avoid groupthink. The goal is a pool of 60 or so players whom the team likes.

As Morey prepares to watch tape, he is interrupted by frequent buzzes from his Blackberry. Josh Levin, a journalist from Slate, asks him to be on his podcast. After deliberating for all of a second, Morey says yes; he's a believer in rigorous, methodical thinking when it comes to big decisions and low time investment when it comes to small ones. A few minutes later the Blackberry buzzes again. "It's from Nate Silver," Morey says. "He says he's in for this year's conference."

That would be the Sloan Analytics Sports Conference at MIT, which Morey founded in 2006. As much as anything it has helped him ascend to his current status as a geek God. ("It's unbelievable," says Alexander, who seems more puzzled than impressed. "They all want to be him.") Each year dozens of big names, from Mark Cuban to Malcolm Gladwell to Michael Lewis, speak for free at the conference. Every young MBA with a love of sports arrives toting a laptop and big dreams.

Morey is now trying to hire one of these dreamers for a low-level position that combines basketball, programming and analytics. He answers a call from a prospective applicant. "O.K.... Yeah, I'm listening. E-mail me your info," he says. When Morey gets off the phone, he looks up. "That was the head of a hedge fund in New York City. He says he's thinking about applying for our position or maybe our internship."

The Blackberry buzzes again. "It's about Royce White," Morey says. "He saw the doctor today, so that's good." White has become a thorny problem for the Rockets. The previous weekend they assigned him to the D-League, which they use more than other franchises, treating it much the way a baseball team views its farm system. White didn't report, and then on Monday he didn't show up for a game against the Heat. Making matters more complicated, White has been unleashing a stream of tweets painting management as unsympathetic to his anxiety disorder. At least on this afternoon Morey doesn't seem perturbed. The team took a risk with White, and with every risk there is the potential for failure. It is also early in the season. Considered from a risk-reward standpoint, the chance White won't work out is high—say, 60%—but because he's so talented, there's still a 10% chance he could become an All-Star. That is not something that can be said about the majority of NBA players.

The best way to mitigate risk is with information, and in this regard Houston goes to extraordinary lengths. In addition to the team's proprietary databases and evaluation systems, which Morey is hesitant to discuss publicly, the Rockets were the first NBA team to install SportVU, which is based on Israeli missile-tracking technology and uses tiny webcams installed in an arena's rafters to record the X/Y coordinates of each player 72,000 times a game. This leads to an ocean of data that allows teams to determine, for example, how many dribbles a player takes in a game or how efficient a shooter is when a defender is four feet away versus one.

Morey pulls up the previous night's game on his Dell laptop. (A hard-core PC devotee, he spurns both Macs and iPhones because "I like stuff that's fast and the most powerful.") He watches games on Synergy, a service that chops up an NBA game into single possessions. Even though Morey's already seen the game, he visibly tightens up, crossing his arms, scowling and haranguing his players. It is a reassuringly human moment; just like the rest of us, Morey yells at the screen. Just as at his son's soccer games, he can't help himself.

For the same reason, Morey now sits across the arena from the Rockets' bench during home games instead of behind it. "I'm bad," he says. Asked what makes him most upset, he thinks for a second. "It's when three things come together: 1) It's really important, so like a key moment in the game; 2) we make a mistake; and 3) it's a mistake we could have avoided. I'm not very presidential at those moments."

Most of the time, Morey goes out of his way to paint himself as a geek—he uses the word four times during the five hours I'm with him—but I get the impression he uses it as a cover. Michael Canter, his colleague at Stats Inc., remembers meeting Morey and thinking he looked "like he was going to trip over his own feet." Soon, however, "it became clear that his easygoing demeanor belied his intellect and drive."

Late in the afternoon this side of Morey surfaces when the conversation turns to Ping-Pong. "Oooh, we should play right now, on the way out," he says. "Would you want to?"

Forty-five minutes later Morey is leading me down to the bowels of the Toyota Center. After some searching, and with the help of a trainer, he locates a folded-up table, which he rolls into the middle of the empty Rockets locker room. Surrounded by swivel chairs, high-tops and the clothes of Houston players, we begin rallying. It quickly becomes clear that Morey is not just good but very good.

"I was once ranked in the top 100 players nationally under 21," he says. It turns out he also plays regularly in Houston with Jim Butler, the former U.S. champion, and won the NBA table tennis tournament last year. (Apparently, Bob Weiss, Rich Cho and Rick Carlisle are also quite good.) And owns his own $100 paddle. This is a theme with Morey: If you are going to do something, do it as well as you possibly can.

Morey doffs his blazer, and we start playing for real. He sends crazy spinning serves to my backhand, stomps his foot while blasting high looping forehand shots. Even so, he doesn't really turn it on until we start keeping score. Later Hinkie tells me, "If you'd started beating him, you would have really seen his competitive side come out." I nearly win our third game, but Morey finishes me off. Incidentally, the other sport in which Morey says he is "world class" at is Pop-A-Shot, for which he has considered the optimal position (crouched) and style ("maximum throughput of balls").

Afterward, sweating through his maroon V-neck, Morey leads me out to his car and apologizes as he clears two white Sonic fast food paper bags off the passenger seat, the presence of which suggest that despite all those Myoplex bars and the best of intentions, even Morey does not always win the battle between reason and desire.

As we climb in, I ask about the Rockets' future. Harden is a piece of the puzzle, Morey says, but not the endgame. Even after signing Harden to a five-year, $80 million extension, Houston is in position to have ample cap room next summer, enough to sign another foundational player. Morey's not picky about who it is. "We can't afford to be," he says.

Earlier I'd asked Alexander, the owner, about Morey's approach, and he had been cagey. How much longer would Alexander stick with the plan? "As long as it works." How long until he knew if it worked? "Two years." As for how he would know if it worked, Alexander was clear: Like Morey, he only plays this game for one reason.

That brings us back to a point worth mentioning. Back in 1995, despite his big move for Jordan, Morey didn't win that season. In fact, even though he made a number of shrewd moves over the years, Morey never won the league at all. Not all risks pay off.

Morey needs to go home to his family for dinner, but first he's going to drop me at my hotel, a mile away. As we pull out of the parking garage, Morey uses his cellphone to pull up directions on Google Maps. He types, then types again, and yet for some reason Google does not recognize the downtown Courtyard Marriott. Morey is astounded. "This never happens," he says. But it's true; technology has failed him. So Morey puts down his phone, turns out of the garage and heads north.

"O.K.," he says. "I guess we'll have to figure it out as we go."

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Like Beane, Morey worked the margins, then unloaded players when their value peaked.

JAMES HARDEN

Age 23

Cost (in millions) 5.82

True shooting % .585

MARCUS MORRIS

Age 23

Cost (in millions) 1.91

Effective field goal % .538

OMER ASIK

Age 26

Cost (in millions) 8.37

Total rebound % 20.1

JEREMY LIN

Age 24

Cost (in millions) 8.37

Assist % 28.6

CHANDLER PARSONS

Age 24

Cost (in millions) .888

Win shares 1.5

Second to None

To Morey, second-round picks are undervalued: They're cheaper to sign, and there's plenty of talent to choose from after round 1. On draft day in 2007 he traded for 31st pick Carl Landry(right), who developed into a solid scorer before being dealt to the Kings (chart, page 58). In 2009, Morey acquired Chase Budinger(left) from the Pistons and this summer flipped him to the Timberwolves for a first-rounder. And 2011 pick Chandler Parsons(center) was averaging 15.5 points for Houston at week's end.

SI.COM

Where Kentucky freshman phenom Nerlens Noel (left) go in the 2013 NBA draft? Find out when Chris Mannix unveils his Big Board 2.0, which ranks the top 20 players likely to make themselves available next summer, at SI.com/mag

Playing Percentages

James Harden's appeal lies in his shot selection: He almost exclusively attempts efficient shots—layups and threes. Here's how his shot distribution this season compares with that of the NBA's leading scorer, Kobe Bryant.

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

HARDEN

BRYANT

THE DARKER THE COLOR, THE MORE SHOT ATTEMPTS

Tricks of the Trade

To acquire Harden, Morey gave up two players and three draft picks. Getting those assets in the first place required a lot more wheeling and dealing: six trades involving 17 teams and 35 players and draft choices.

JEREMY LAMB

1ST-ROUND PICK, 2012

TRACY MCGRADY

INHERITED

CARL LANDRY

ACQUIRED FOR 2ND-ROUND PICK, 2007

RAFER ALSTON

INHERITED

TREVOR ARIZA

FREE AGENT, 2009

3-TEAM, 11-PLAYER TRADE, 2010

3-TEAM, 6-PLAYER TRADE, 2009

4-TEAM, 5-PLAYER TRADE, 2010

JAMES HARDEN

KEVIN MARTIN

FROM KINGS

JORDAN HILL

FROM KNICKS

KYLE LOWRY

FROM GRIZZLIES

COURTNEY LEE

FROM NETS

2-TEAM, 3-PLAYER TRADE, 2012

2-TEAM, 3-PLAYER TRADE, 2012

3-TEAM, 7-PLAYER TRADE, 2012

1ST-ROUND PICK FROM LAKERS

1ST-ROUND PICK FROM RAPTORS

2ND-ROUND PICK FROM CELTICS

PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONHOUSTON ROILER Using methods that many other general managers eschew—or even mock—Morey revamped his roster in the off-season, signing Asik and Lin before landing the coveted Harden.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (LANDRY)PHOTOGREG NELSON (PARSONS)PHOTOJESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BUDINGER)PHOTOBILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESHE GOT HIS MAN Morey desperately desired a "foundational" player, and the one he acquired was a shooting guard he'd been pursuing since the 2009 draft.PHOTOJOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HARDEN)PHOTOPORTER BINKS (NOEL)PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (BRYANT)CHARTNICOLE ZIGMONT (CHART)PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (MCGRADY)FOUR PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (ALSTON, ARIZA, LOWRY, LEE)THREE PHOTOSGREG NELSON (LAMB, MARTIN, LANDRY)PHOTODANNY BOLLINGER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HILL)PHOTOGREG NELSON (HARDEN)