Discerning Morey’s Philosophy – Part 2

This post is a continuation of a series entitled ‘Discerning Morey’s Philosophy.’

On Draft Night 2006, I had described news of the Battier-Gay trade as “the moment I had completely lost faith in the competence of management.”

It’s rather humorous to consider just how much my tune has changed.

After a decade of mismanagement, the team appears headed back in the right direction under the guidance of Daryl Morey.

Morey’s is an unprecedented approach.  Yet still, so little is known of his philosophy.

If success is borne from some madness, does this not beseech the quest for its method?

More Questions to Ponder

A natural starting point for our discussion is Daryl Morey’s decision to continue building this team around Yao.  Prior to his latest setback, the center had already had an extensive injury history.  Even more troubling were the odds he faced – most ‘giants’ in NBA history have had their careers shortened by foot problems.

Daryl Morey was certainly aware of this and had had the opportunity to trade Yao last year while he was in good health and for his full market value.  Yet he still retained him.  Why?

On the surface, this does not seem like a rational decision.  Every time Yao Ming steps onto an NBA court, his value depreciates because his risk for injury increases [with the added wear.] It’s certainly possible that Morey felt that because dominant low post scorers were so scarce and valuable that this risk was justified.  Still, I have a difficult time accepting that a mind like Morey’s would invest such a significant proportion of his cap space into such a volatile asset.

The more plausible explanation points to the lucrative Chinese business partnerships Yao’s presence on the roster affords to owner Les Alexander.  If the call to retain Yao was ownership imposed, this stands as the closest comparison in our study to the financial constraints placed upon Billy Beane.  In a league with no limit, Beane had no money.  Through keeping Yao, Morey might just have been forced to operate with less in a sport with a cap.

With the decision on Yao backfiring, we are brought to the strategy for replacing him.  In the 7’6 center, the team lost its only shot blocking and low post presence.  Yet Morey’s response was to sign a jump shooting Australian rookie and insert the 6’6 Chuck Hayes into the starting lineup.  Wouldn’t common sense dictate that he at least try to acquire an established inside presence?

Speaking on the loss of slugger Jason Giambi, Billy Beane once said that “the important thing is not to recreate the individual….the important thing is to recreate the aggregate.”

With the limited resources at his disposal, Daryl Morey could have never found a player that could duplicate all of Yao’s talents.  Rather than trying to replace Yao with a similar but inferior player, perhaps the most efficient solution was to put a premium on the attribute of Yao that most critically needed to be replaced?

The numbers suggest that Yao’s greatest impact was on the defensive end.  It could very well have been determined that extending defensive specialist Chuck Hayes’ minutes was the one route which would most significantly impact the team’s expected total output.

Whatever the case, rather than trying to mimic the recipe from last year, Morey decided that things would have to be done very differently this season.

Speaking of last year, I should also touch on the decision to trade veteran point guard Rafer Alston in midseason.  Few general managers would have had the gumption to deal their starting point guard in the middle of a playoff run.  One might surmise that the Rockets had mailed it in upon the announcement of McGrady’s surgery, but were that the case, the team surely would have also dealt the soon-to-be free agent, Ron Artest.

Alston had been the starter for four years while his eventual replacement, Aaron Brooks, was still being confused with the former New Orleans Saints’ quarterback.  Unless Alston was just that bad, maybe what we revere as ‘experience’ really isn’t as critical as conventional wisdom would suggest?  After all, what exactly defines experience?  How does one quantify its benefits in relation to the production brought by a younger, more talented player?

If we’re delving into basketball existentialism, then now would probably be an appropriate time to ask what exactly is a ‘shooting guard.’  No other general manager would start both Trevor Ariza and Shane Battier in tandem at the wings.  The two are unequivocally the worst ball-handling swingman duo in the league.  Daryl Morey knows this.  Does this decision illustrate contempt for the traditional basketball roles?

Might there be a belief that what is typically expected to come from one particular source can simply be replaced in the aggregate from other avenues?  Perhaps Ariza and Battier’s combined defensive impact was projected to offset the sacrificed expected output of an average conventional ball-handling wing?  This line of reasoning would render the traditional basketball role obsolete.

One could again counter that the team’s decision to start Trevor and Shane in tandem was rooted in apathy; that they didn’t care to compete in this lost season.  But were that the case, wouldn’t Morey have simply dealt Battier for younger players?

So we must now explore the decision to retain veterans such as Luis Scola and Battier while simultaneously ushering in this era of rebuilding.  It reeks of confidence, but would the team have not been better off in the long run by selling off its aging parts and positioning itself for a higher lottery pick?

Perhaps Daryl Morey is saying that lottery picks are overvalued commodities; that they are not worth their price of acquisition: lost time.  Perhaps the odds of finding a contributor later in the draft are comparable to the odds of finding one in the late lottery?

If you feel that the odds of landing a ‘star’ player through the lottery aren’t relatively high, and you know that using your methods, you can find a contributor at a later draft slot, is it not rational to place a higher premium on the culture developed through competitiveness than on the slim chance of landing a ‘star’ by ‘tanking’?

Finally, we’ll close with the issue of that which we call a ‘star.’  No team in the modern era has boasted a roster wherein each player’s production proportionately correlated with his earnings.  But does precedent in a changing game serve as a sufficient ideological deterrent?

Intellectual competitive advantage in an inefficient market might make the prospect of winning through unconventional means as probabilistic as ultimate success through the sacrifice of time in the quest for a true ‘star.’

We don’t know if this is the case, but of course, with our subject, Daryl Morey, so very little is truly known.






About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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  • Chris

    I remember Draft night '06. You had a bag of Cheetos and a look of disgust in the kitchen when you heard the news. It was not unlike the look when the neighbor's boyfriend walked by the window.

  • NBA Law

    IMO Morey didn't trade Battier and Scola for young prospects because he still has a job to put a winner on the floor and sell tickets.

  • Steve

    Another great article worthy of several rereads.

    Yao is without doubt a great player and a chinese cash cow for Alexander. I don't begrugde that to the best owner in sports.

    With Yao healthy the Rockets are a different team. They become a half court low post team. We are much more successful playing the full court and letting the 3 point shooters have a go. Ariza,Brooks,Lowery, Scola and Landry all take the ball to the hole, which minimizes the need for a dominant center. What we need with the latter style is a competent center. One who can consistently score when needed, but is a rebounding machine and defensive lunatic and one that can run with the team.

  • mikol13

    Wow, amazing read. Hopefully not trading Yao was not a mistake. I still like to believe (hope) that Yao can comeback and have a successful end to his career. I myself am still not exactly sure what Morey is going to do to put this team over the top, but it sure has been a fun ride. I think I was in the minority when we traded Gay for Battier. I believe Players like Battier are vital to winning championships and there were many questions about Gay at the time.this being said the Rockets are sorely lacking that go to “star” I believe you need also. Hopefully Morey can pull something off to get the Rockets back to championship status. It's been interesting to say the least. Thanks Rahat, I appreciate your thoughts and insight

  • bob schmidt

    Lots of meat on the bones in this article. Daryl Morey may also be using the ideal sports model for a smaller market team. In effect, Houston has not had the use of a large percentage of its payroll for quite some time. I have a strong suspicion that Morey has total respect and understanding of the value of chemistry towards team success.

    No matter how many big ego super stars (and head cases) you assemble, championships are not necessarily the end result, just ask the Yankees. Knicks, Mets, etc. This may explain why Tmac is not being retained, and players like Battier and Hayes are so highly valued. The Rockets combo of GM and Coach are beyond compare in the NBA…….

  • luislandry

    Not trading Yao was probably not a mistake…you prefer the highly volatile asset when there is only one winner and 29 runners-up every year. You always prefer to have a chance to be great/terrible over consistently average. A healthy Yao, if the Rockets had pulled it out over the Lakers, could have very realistically won a championship as recently as last year. The Rockets could definitely compete with the Nuggets and Yao would have been the biggest key against Dwight and the Magic.

  • rahat_huq

    that's a good point, but are you not operating under the premise of a yao vs. no yao argument? shouldn't the discussion be yao vs. yao's return in trade? i don't know that we can conclusively rule out that the team might have been better with his full market return in a trade. even if not, doesn't the presumed reliability of that return (let's say a near equivalent) and the elimination of the inherent risk involved with yao make that route more favorable?

  • Alituro

    Where to start? Great article and good questions, Rahat!

    I think there is no question that Les holds on to Yao chiefly because of the financial rewards associated with having him on his team. It's a good enough a reason for me especially in these tough financial times. Hell, Chuck Hayes has his own shoe model in China if that's any gauge of the popularity of our team over there. T-mac was second in all-star votes, not having played a lick. Why? Yao Ming and his temendous worldwide marketability.

    So, Morey is charged with the task of building a team around him. After the little spark of brilliance our team showed last year in the playoffs without Yao, he realized that there is much to work with. A little tweaking and we're contenders again. Having Yao on the court with these guys opens up a whole world of possibilities as far as rotations go. We can play fast or slow, with high powered offense and defense or anywhere in the middle. We have a point guard who can score lights out and one who can defend and dish out assists all night long. We have two terrific defensive talents at the wings who can surely drain spot up jumpers at least, and two more energetic offensive minded rookie wings. We have arguably the best power forward tandem in the league. Finally with Yao in, we have a top notch center all the way around, one who can back him up to wreak havoc defensively and one who can shoot from just about anywhere to spread defenses. We have a team that can compete with anybody and any style of play, and having Yao just makes us better.

    I would become an un-fan really quick of a team who intentionally tanks a season just for the lottery. The Grizz, Clips, Wolves, Kings, Bobcats and many more have been lottery bound for years, how's that worked out for them so far?

    The trade for Alston never would have happened had Lowry not been included. A top tier point guard sitting 3 deep on the bench of a terrible team. Experience means very little. How long did it take Paul, or Williams to rise to the top? Not long. Our two PGs, not given an opportunity to play would have easily fallen by the wayside and maybe slipped off to Europe. Alston was as good as he was ever going to be, and his game had plenty to be desired.

    Starting Ariza and Battier at wing, I have no problem with. To me, basketball is as much about scoring as it is preventing the other team from scoring, EQUALLY. Those two are one of the best defensive wing tandems in the league. When the need for a 2 with a handle arises is when we see Lowry playing the wing, he can create off the dribble, drive to the basket with confidence, draw contact or pull up for a mid-range jumper. All of the qualities you'd be looking for, just a little undersized. Chase has similar attributes also.

    When the Rockets stop competing every game, every play and with every transaction, I will stop watching them. But I don't see it happening.

  • luislandry

    I should have emphasized that I meant a quality big man would have been key in that situation, and I would be shocked if we would get that type of player back for Yao that gave us a better chance to win a championship over those player's lifetimes.

  • Easy

    Is it possible that the goal is not to build a “championship” team, but a perennial marginally contending team, i.e. a second tier team that has an outside shot at the title most of the years?

    To be a championship team, at least according conventional wisdom, you have to have at least one superstar. And getting that illusive superstar is as much about luck as good management. I think you right that wasting time trying to get that superstar might not be worth it.

    But with good management, you can build a second tier team without depending on luck, not that much. A lot of people point to the 04 Detroit team as an example of winning with a superstar. Perhaps that team was just a second tier team that happened to hit the outside shot of winning it all.

    Think of teams like the Suns, the Jazz, and Adelman's Sac team (and even the Mavs). They perpetually have a shot, but not close to be a favorite, to the title almost every year. From a business point of view, this is the kind of teams that keep their fans interested.

    Perhaps that's what Morey is shooting for. And if he gets lucky and lands a superstar, all the more better.

  • rahat_huq

    NBA Law – the business aspect is certainly meritorious. but is morey's job to put a winner on the floor or to build a contender? i felt that morey had enough job security that ownership would have given the approval on a long term plan, even if it came with short term sacrifice.

    Steve – i think ay can still be a dangerous weapon for this team but his role needs to be minimized. but that then begs the question of whether his cap hold is palatable…

    mikol13 – i have definitely come around on battier since the trade as i once was one of his most vocal critics. i don't know what exactly he does, i haven't quite figured it out, but it's clear that his impact is considerable.

    bob – glad that you mention 'chemistry' because that is the one most critical difference between baseball and basketball. how does one put a pricetag on that interaction between players? in baseball, parts can just be replaced. in basketball, that act of replacement impacts the entire machine.

    luislandry – i stand corrected – i see your point, but i respectfully disagree.

    alituro – great breakdown, i agree with most of your points. as far as battier and ariza, while that may have been the decision and the thought process, i don't think it can work. sure, the end output may be the same, but this doesn't account for situational analysis. over the course of an entire season, battier/ariza may outproduce their hypothetical counterpart, but what of the last 2 minutes in the 4th quarter when neither can dribble? is that being accounted for in the assessment?
    so i think its a model that meets a certain acceptable denominator but isn't necessarily optimal.

    easy – great points. i think it would be interesting to weigh the value of 'time' in the model. basically the question we are asking is if you build a team at the margin, which all would agree is very doable, is that probability of catching lightning in a bottle greater than hedging your bets on luck?

  • Mike D'Antoni starts Wilson Chandler at SG and either Gallinari or Jared Jeffries at SF. Pretty similar to the Ariza/Battier combo, especially if you consider Jeffries the small forward. Chandler is a super athletic, long small forward playing SG who is a good shooter but not much in the dribbling, and is also great at D. Jeffries, like Battier, has all of his value on the defensive end, where he just knows where to be, when to help, and makes a huge difference in the game without impacting the box score.

    Just thought I'd mention the similarites at the 2 and 3 position.

  • thirdcoastborn

    That was a great article. If i am not mistaken the year they drafted Yao, they changed the uniform back to red which is China's team color.So yes the revenue they thought Yao will bring in from China was a reason they drafted him. After giving that scrub Kelvin Cato all that money, getting a solid big man to follow Hakeem was the other reason. With Yao we are a more complete team. He blocks off the paint,on offense he is unstoppable when he fights for good position, and he is a great shooter.He draws constant double teams and is a good passer. I believe that with Yao in we can still run our fastbreaks. I agree when they traded for Battier on that draft night i thought it was a mistake. The thought to trade for him to add in with Yao and Tmac was smart, but Rudy Gay is a beast who can get thirty a night.

  • Rahat –

    Isn't Morey known to be a notorious numbers cruncher with a proprietary system that gives him insight into the subtle nuances of the game? This guy looks at all of the things that aren't in the box score. I applauded the move to get Battier. He is and always has been a champion. That guy is the glue that holds a team together. I think you are a little harsh on Ariza. He's not Tracy and wasn't Tracy when we got him. He was an intense guy, who played defense, and hustled (note the similarities to other Rocket's players).

    RE: Yao – Yao IS the best center in the league. He is a 20 and 10 guy. He can be ackward, he can be slow, but he can also be amazingly consistent. Keep him out for three quarters and just bring him in in crunch time grind it out playoff basketball. Yao is worth keeping for his talent alone. That being said…you would be insane to trade the guy just because of his Chinese influence. As much as we like to pretend Basketball is a sport, it is a business. The Chinese influence creates cash, cash creates flexibility.

    I remember writing to Les and JVG and telling them flat out that win or lose the product they were putting on the floor was unacceptable. It was just flat out painful to watch. These current Rockets – win or lose – are a blast to watch. They have what all Houston Sports fans want…a team that plays with heart. I would rather watch a bunch of overachievers any day than see a super star not fulfill his potential. More so than any other team I can remember I equate these guys with the luv ya Blue Oilers of the 80’s. Lunch pail guys who brought it every game and played their hearts out and who came home to a packed Astrodome in the wee hours of a winter morning AFTER a playoff loss with thousands of fans letting them know how much we appreciated them.

    These Rockets have some common denominators – They play with energy/hustle, they are mentally tough (i.e. They don't back down from anybody), they play defense, and they play team ball. These are the attributes that Morey looks for. These are the things that create something greater than the individual parts. Are we 100% there? No. Are we looking? Of course. Will we ever get full value for Tmac? No. Personally I hope Morey holds onto the cap space and lets his contract expire. I do not see anything out there worth getting unless we can pull some insane 3 team deal that lands us something similar to a David Lee and Andre Iguodala deal. I just don't see that happening.

    I appreciate your blog. Thank you.

  • Rahat –

    Isn't Morey known to be a notorious numbers cruncher with a proprietary system that gives him insight into the subtle nuances of the game? This guy looks at all of the things that aren't in the box score. I applauded the move to get Battier. He is and always has been a champion. That guy is the glue that holds a team together. I think you are a little harsh on Ariza. He's not Tracy and wasn't Tracy when we got him. He was an intense guy, who played defense, and hustled (note the similarities to other Rocket's players).

    RE: Yao – Yao IS the best center in the league. He is a 20 and 10 guy. He can be ackward, he can be slow, but he can also be amazingly consistent. Keep him out for three quarters and just bring him in in crunch time grind it out playoff basketball. Yao is worth keeping for his talent alone. That being said…you would be insane to trade the guy just because of his Chinese influence. As much as we like to pretend Basketball is a sport, it is a business. The Chinese influence creates cash, cash creates flexibility.

    I remember writing to Les and JVG and telling them flat out that win or lose the product they were putting on the floor was unacceptable. It was just flat out painful to watch. These current Rockets – win or lose – are a blast to watch. They have what all Houston Sports fans want…a team that plays with heart. I would rather watch a bunch of overachievers any day than see a super star not fulfill his potential. More so than any other team I can remember I equate these guys with the luv ya Blue Oilers of the 80’s. Lunch pail guys who brought it every game and played their hearts out and who came home to a packed Astrodome in the wee hours of a winter morning AFTER a playoff loss with thousands of fans letting them know how much we appreciated them.

    These Rockets have some common denominators – They play with energy/hustle, they are mentally tough (i.e. They don't back down from anybody), they play defense, and they play team ball. These are the attributes that Morey looks for. These are the things that create something greater than the individual parts. Are we 100% there? No. Are we looking? Of course. Will we ever get full value for Tmac? No. Personally I hope Morey holds onto the cap space and lets his contract expire. I do not see anything out there worth getting unless we can pull some insane 3 team deal that lands us something similar to a David Lee and Andre Iguodala deal. I just don't see that happening.

    I appreciate your blog. Thank you.

  • drofdunk

    Mark Cuban stated something at the Sports Analytics conference that I remember. I believe he stated that, barring just outright winning a championship or contending for one, basketball teams are most profitable (I believe that was the word he used – I'd have to check) when they're rebuilding/reloading their team. Much of this obviously is because most rebuilding teams probably don't have huge contracts on their roster, but I wonder how many owners would be content to be “profitable” vs. ponying up money and risking not winning it all? I think Morey has acquired people who may not be studs, but who work hard on the court. I think this is a group of people who may not win the city a ring, but the city will still support and find interesting. This is in opposition to how several teams have a history of losing with overpaid stars or underachievers. You look at this team, and it's basically the underdog team you'd root for and spend money on. The added bonus is that they're giving you something to cheer for.

  • rahat_huq

    purdman – that is the sense i got from jeffries as well; also #1 in the league in charges drawn. i may be mistaken as i have only seen gallinari play a few times, but the sense i got was that he is far superior to battier/ariza in the ballhandling department.

    thirdcoast – rudy gay is a paper tiger. i'm not impressed at all by his inflated production and don't think he impacts winning as much as does battier.

    douglas – regarding ariza: i confess that i have begun to come off a bit harsh towards ariza in these past few games. i do like him for what he is and still think it was a great signing but it is very frustrating watching him attempt to do too much.

    DoD: thanks for the comment – was not aware that you read us. interesting points. building a marginal playoff team is definitely the best business model for a sports team. it just makes too little sense to go all-in, esp. when there doesn't seem to be much correlation between spending and winning, atleast after a certain point of return. as per this particular team – the 2009 houston rockets are essentially a college basketball team. the draw is in those virtues but i do think that the perceived novelty of this has some bearing. fans are essentially fickle and grew tired of the old model (as if prior rockets teams didn't try hard or were profligate in spending). they're the underdog. the difference here is that that appeal does not lose its luster in the NCAA because every team operates in that same manner. if the team fails to become elite in the near future, i think that appeal will once again wear off. its cyclical.

  • Red94 | essays and musings on the nba & houston rockets: Discerning Morey’s Philosophy – Part 2 http://tinyurl.com/yc94ktf

  • Red94 | essays and musings on the nba & houston rockets: Discerning Morey’s Philosophy – Part 2 http://tinyurl.com/yc94ktf

  • Alituro

    Agreed, not necessarily optimal, but acceptable. At the close of a game, when you look at your roster and wonder who to put in, you see Ariza, Battier, Chase and Taylor, maybe considering Lowry for the 2 considering the size/talent of the opposing 2. The rookies have potential, but not quite the mileage needed to entrust clutch time. At least with Ariza and Battier you know, that the opposing wings' offensive effectiveness will be challenged, and if your able to get the ball in the post, or the PG is able to drive into the paint, these two guys are who you want parked behind the 3 waiting to spot up. It goes without saying though that this, along with a “big man” center are about the only two weak spots in our roster. It just so happens that we have 40 million dollars tied up in 2 guys who fit the needed roles perfectly. Damn the luck!

  • Easy

    Yeah, it is not surprising that the two spots that used to be occupied by the two stars are now the weakest. The irony is that we have finally filled the other spots with good players, only to see the two stars crumble before our eyes. 🙁

  • Alituro

    Agreed, not necessarily optimal, but acceptable. At the close of a game, when you look at your roster and wonder who to put in, you see Ariza, Battier, Chase and Taylor, maybe considering Lowry for the 2 considering the size/talent of the opposing 2. The rookies have potential, but not quite the mileage needed to entrust clutch time. At least with Ariza and Battier you know, that the opposing wings' offensive effectiveness will be challenged, and if your able to get the ball in the post, or the PG is able to drive into the paint, these two guys are who you want parked behind the 3 waiting to spot up. It goes without saying though that this, along with a “big man” center are about the only two weak spots in our roster. It just so happens that we have 40 million dollars tied up in 2 guys who fit the needed roles perfectly. Damn the luck!

  • Easy

    Yeah, it is not surprising that the two spots that used to be occupied by the two stars are now the weakest. The irony is that we have finally filled the other spots with good players, only to see the two stars crumble before our eyes. 🙁

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