Discerning Morey’s Philosophy

Daryl Morey’s has been an “experiment” unprecedented thus far in this league.  Never before has a team predicated transactional decision-making primarily upon advanced statistical analysis.  With the Houston Rockets exceeding all expectations, to some extent, Morey’s methods have been validated.

Due to the novelty of his approach, and the immediacy of his success, oft forgotten is it that we still lay merely in the earliest of stages in the shaping of this team.  Only precious little is known of Daryl Morey’s managerial philosophy.  The forethought with which he has guided the transformation of this roster would indicate some grander scheme yet to unfold.  This is the subject of my intrigue.

What is Known

The signature transaction thus far of the Morey regime was the infamous draft night swapping of Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift in return for Shane Battier.  Up until that point in time, while it was known that the assistant general manager placed emphasis on statistical analysis, this bombshell was really the first indication that with the changing of the guard, conventional wisdom had completely been thrown out the window.  In my opinion, even moreso than relinquishing the rights to Gay, most fascinating about this deal were the implications regarding Stromile Swift.  His inclusion in a trade that already appeared lopsided in favor of Memphis was quite bewildering.  That a 6’9, 26 year old physical marvel was actually deemed to hold negative value signaled that whatever they exactly were, there were now new considerations being given weight in personnel analysis.

It has since been established that Daryl Morey is employing some combination of proprietary metrics in his player evaluations.  So much is known.  From there, things get a bit more unclear.

What We Think We Know

  • In 2007, entering Daryl Morey’s first draft as general manager, the Houston Rockets had a gaping hole at the power forward position.  With viable power forward options still remaining on the board, the drafting of point guard Aaron Brooks shed some light upon Daryl Morey’s drafting philosophy.  At that point, I still held deep reservations regarding his guidance of the team – I had not been a proponent of the Battier trade.  However, I loved the selection of Brooks.  It seemed to indicate a primacy of talent over need, at least in the later selections.
  • In taking back  Jackie Butler, the Scola trade demonstrated the willingness to absorb unfavorable contracts.  However, relatively speaking, Butler’s, and the one year albatross later taken on in the form of Brian Cook, were menial in burden.
  • The Bonzi Wells – Bobby Jackson trade not only showed prudence, but was our first glimpse of real asset creation.  While Bobby Jackson had value as a veteran reserve, the real significance of this acquisition was that his expiring contracted created an asset of future value (later to be used for Artest.)  As Rockets fans, such maneuvering was a foreign experience as for the previous decade, every move was only made with present concern.
  • I believe that the contract negotiations with Carl Landry proved that Morey will not hastily pay above the market rate to retain his own players.  Morey could have moved quickly to resign Landry at the price of his (agent’s) demands, but instead, he opted to wait until Charlotte set the market rate.  This patience is in stark contrast to the practice of Morey’s predecessor (see: Norris, Moochie; Maloney, Matt etc.)
  • The Ron Artest acquisition taught us that Morey isn’t completely averse to risks.  There was an assumption that ‘Moreyball’ meant playing it safe, but this episode debunked that notion.  This would seem to serve as proof that Daryl Morey will make a dangerous investment if the potential return (i.e.: proximity to a title) is deemed worthy.  On the other hand, one could easily argue that in giving up just two late first rounders, the Artest trade actually wasn’t a risk.
  • As Morey’s philosophy began to seem clearer, the Trevor Ariza signing came as a surprise.  Before, my assumption was that Morey unwavered in his inclination towards bargains.  The acquisition of Ariza indicates that Daryl will also pay the market rate to acquire talent.  Simply put, it’s not just about compiling a roster of cheap bargains as many had assumed.  He will pay full value for players.  (Of course, this assertion is prone to the counter-argument that perhaps Trevor Ariza was determined to hold more worth than the MLE.)
  • As seen each year, we know that Daryl Morey will maneuver in drafts, using his intel to accumulate future considerations.
  • We also know there is a propensity to draft foreign talent and stash it overseas, allowing it to develop for later use.  However, we are still so early into Morey’s reign that we have not yet seen the fruits of this exercise.  Does Daryl Morey hope to play these players or are these simply assets to be used in trades?
  • Finally, many conclusions can be drawn from the decision to start Chuck Hayes this season at the center position.  Most importantly, I think it shows a resolve against the pressures of conformity.  Daryl Morey didn’t just follow the existing model and sign a veteran stopgap to fill a hole.  He was convinced that his team could win in a different way (i.e.: starting a 6’5 center and running) and thus he implemented his vision.

Looking Ahead

Daryl Morey has only been general manager of the Houston Rockets since May of 2007.  When he joined, the roster was bereft of talent and thus, he was relegated to the task of cleaning up previous mistakes and expunging toxic assets (i.e.: Juwan Howard).  Concurrently, starting with the draft class of 2007, he slowly began accumulating his own collection of talent.

What becomes interesting is that, with the roster having been cleansed of dead weight, and the emergence of players like Lowry, Brooks, and Landry, this is the first season that Daryl Morey actually has valued assets at his disposal.  So what does he do with them?

Does he simply retain them or is the philosophy to buy low, develop, and sell high?

Take Aaron Brooks for example.  I think his trade value might actually be higher than that of his actual player value.  Sell high?

Then there are the imminent free agency decisions on Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, and (the next summer) Shane Battier.  The former two are probably due big raises.  Would Morey be willing to pay the market rate to retain them?  Or was their value to him simply the fact that they were underpaid?

How will Morey handle the issue of Carl Landry’s emergence?  He too will be due a big pay raise at some point and I would imagine this would impact the decision on Scola.  Conventional wisdom would dictate simply moving Scola in a trade to open up more room for Landry, but this is Daryl Morey of whom we are speaking.  Perhaps the equation isn’t really as simple as assuming a direct correlation between increased playing time and production for a young, emerging talent?  It is completely conceivable that to Morey, the two players hold more real value in tandem as a platoon.

And of course, of what importance is chemistry?  This is the distinction with Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ model of management.  Baseball is essentially a game of one on one matchups where independent parts can be interchanged with little effect to their relations to the whole.  In our case, cohesion is critical, and of greater relevance, we already know that these players play well together (one could argue that the Rockets have the best chemistry in the league).  What value is placed upon that in personnel considerations?  This reality of ‘synthesis of the whole’ makes it increasingly difficult to assess independent assets for their true value.

What about the salary cap?  Billy Beane had to keep selling his assets because he had ownership-imposed financial restrictions.  Morey doesn’t but at the same time, he has to deal with a fixed cap and the menace of the luxury tax.  So while Morey doesn’t have that suffocating imposition that would force his hand, he still has a finite amount of resources which would influence its allocation.  To date, Les Alexander has not shown a willingness to exceed the tax.  Does this make it more important to land a true star or is it actually more important that resources be put to good use?

What about ‘stars’?  Does Morey even buy into the concept of ‘star players’?  He has spoken of wanting to acquire a premiere talent, but we really have no idea what he might have in mind.  It is plausible that Daryl Morey might just think that ‘team-oriented’ basketball is more conducive to success.  If he does believe in ‘stars’, at what cost is their acquisition justified?

The conclusion of the McGrady saga will also be very revealing.    As aforementioned, the Scola trade proved a willingness to absorb bad contracts required for facilitation of a trade.  However, Jackie Butler’s and (later Brian Cook’s) were still relatively small deals.  Would Morey be willing to take back some long term albatross to acquire the player of his desire?  My hunch is that he seems to prefer flexibility over the conventional ‘star at all costs’ ideology, but I have no basis for this hypothesis.

Final Thoughts

Daryl Morey has finally begun to receive the praise he is due.  With this team’s surprising success, his methods are no longer dismissed as mere novelty.  Because of the brilliance in his approach, it has been easy to forget that still, many questions remain unanswered.  Still, much is yet to be revealed.  Still are we only in the earliest stages of the construction of this team.

It will be fascinating to observe as Daryl Morey’s managerial philosophy further comes to light.

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