Sports

The Loser Who Always Won

Daryl Morey didn’t bring a championship to Houston. I’m still sorry to see him go.

Daryl Morey and James Harden smile for the cameras
Daryl Morey and James Harden at a news conference in Houston in 2012. Pat Sullivan/AP

In February, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tried one final bombshell to build a champion. Morey doubled down on his mad mathematician’s approach to basketball, trading away 6-foot-10 center Clint Capela. The Rockets went on to play out the rest of the season with five 3-point shooters and a historically undersized starting lineup.

The move didn’t work. The Rockets went 20–17 after the trade, including a five-game playoff series loss to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Houston was ultimately a pesky, if laughable, annoyance to the much larger and versatile Lakers. And last week, Morey announced that he would be stepping down on Nov. 1.

Morey’s fate was likely sealed last October, when he tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests and caused a backlash that cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars and got the Rockets blacked out in China. Morey proceeded to gut out another year as Rockets general manager, keeping an unusually low profile and making very few public statements. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, a billionaire businessman, did him no favors, playfully bantering with President Donald Trump in May about the disastrous consequences of Morey’s tweet. When Trump asked if Morey was still with the Rockets, Fertitta was noncommittal, calling it a “trick question.”

By that point, Morey’s lengthy tenure in Houston seemed to be nearing its end. He’d tinkered with the roster so much that the Rockets were paying more than $40 million a year to both James Harden and Russell Westbrook, didn’t have anyone taller than 6-foot-8 in the playing rotation, and didn’t have any money to get them. (Harden’s and Westbrook’s salaries were another source of agitation for Fertitta, who has suffered major financial losses during the pandemic.) When the Lakers easily dispatched the Rockets in five games en route to the NBA championship, it seemed obvious that Morey’s time was up. That the end was inevitable, though, doesn’t make it any less regrettable.

Morey never built a champion in Houston or even a team that advanced to the NBA Finals. He leaves behind a limited roster—too short, too old, too expensive—that seems further away from a title than at any other time in the past few years. Yet I still believe Houston and Rockets fans will miss Morey. The Rockets won more games than any NBA team other than the Spurs in his 13 years and advanced to the second round of the playoffs six times. In a league where several franchises—most notably the Philadelphia 76ers—have shamelessly tanked their way to stars and respectability, Morey’s perennial commitment to title contention was admirable. I should know, because the Rockets have shown up to win almost every year of my life.

Growing up in Houston, the Rockets first earned my childhood devotion by knocking off the Showtime-era Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals. When I was 7, I remember being up way past my bedtime, hysterically bouncing around my parents’ bedroom when Ralph Sampson tipped in a ludicrous buzzer beater to finish the Lakers in five games. The Rockets went on to lose in the finals but established themselves as a franchise to be reckoned with.

When Sampson’s knees failed him a couple of years later, the Rockets retooled around Hakeem Olajuwon and won their first two NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. Those championships meant my favorite team could never be forgotten, that the league’s historical record would always reflect that the Rockets interrupted Michael Jordan’s reign in the 1990s. If the Rockets had only ever done that, I would have been forever grateful. But when Olajuwon slowed down in the late ’90s, the Rockets brought in a succession of stars, young and old, to extend their championship window: first Charles Barkley, then Scottie Pippen, and finally Steve Francis in what was then the largest trade in NBA history.

By the time Morey arrived in Houston in 2007, he inherited a franchise leaning heavily on talented but perpetually injured superstars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Morey came to the Rockets from the Boston Celtics, where he’d spent three years using technology and analytics to improve his decision-making. He was often positioned as basketball’s Billy Beane, whose aptitude for using statistical analysis to find undervalued baseball talent made the Oakland A’s regular playoff contenders and turned Beane into the subject of a book and Hollywood movie. It was a flattering comparison, one Morey didn’t discourage.

Morey, seated, speaks into a mic with Rockets branding
Daryl Morey during a news conference in Houston in 2019. David J. Phillip/AP

Morey’s boss was then-owner Les Alexander, who was insistent on winning and actually believed in punishing teams for tanking. “I think it’s horrible. It ticks me off that people are trying to win by losing,” Alexander said in 2015. That meant Morey would have to work with what he was given.

That ethos filtered down in the franchise, and Morey constructed a team around Yao and McGrady good enough to push Kobe Bryant and the Lakers to seven games in the 2009 conference semifinals. But it was clear that wouldn’t be enough, and three years later, Morey swung the deal that most defined his tenure in Houston: prying away James Harden from division rival Oklahoma City.

Together, Morey and Harden pushed the league forward. They followed the math to some smart and often weird places, leaning on 3-pointers and layups and free throws almost to the exclusion of anything else. They drew more than their share of detractors, who complained about their eschewal of chemistry and their aesthetically unappealing style of play—dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble out the shot clock and then a 3. Sure, there wasn’t a lot of art or beauty to the ball. But it was as efficient and effective as it was annoying to hoop purists.

Still, those arguments over style obscured Morey and Harden’s most notable accomplishment: refusing to concede the NBA to their rival, the Golden State Warriors.

After the Warriors reloaded for another title run with Kevin Durant in 2016, Morey swung a trade for Chris Paul and fielded a 65-win team—the best in franchise history. It was totally in keeping with Morey’s theory that someone had to be willing to challenge a superpower. “If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title—and that group includes a very small number of teams every year—you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” Morey told Grantland in 2012. That’s not necessarily an approach shared by every NBA front office, where many franchises barely even give the pretense of competing for championships. That was only amplified during the Warriors’ reign, when some teams strategically tanked and hoped to emerge as a contender in the post–Kevin Durant years, with Steph Curry a few years older. It’s a cynical approach that does little to build trust between fans and their teams. Morey and the Rockets never did that.

And it almost paid off. They took a 3–2 lead over the Warriors in 2018 and might’ve finished the job if Paul hadn’t suffered a hamstring injury at the end of Game 5. It took a historically awful shooting night in Game 7 to end their improbable run. A year later, they came up short against the Warriors again in six games. I’d like to believe Morey and the Rockets’ courage pushed other teams to keep up, encouraging Toronto to acquire Kawhi Leonard for their surprise finals run in 2019. If the Rockets couldn’t do it themselves, they at least showed the way.

Harden and Paul’s partnership inevitably ran its course—Paul is especially prickly; Harden difficult to play with—and Morey was forced to make a trade last year, swapping Westbrook for Paul. I would have liked to have seen Morey make Harden and Paul work it out, but according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon in the most recent episode of The Lowe Post, Harden and Fertitta were insistent on making the trade.* Then Morey posted a tweet that severed the league’s relationship with China, the Rockets predictably regressed this season, and now here we are.

The future is bleak. Fertitta, a restaurant and casino mogul who paid a record $2.2 billion for the Rockets in September 2017, is facing his own financial troubles as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the global economy, particularly the service industry. Will he be willing to maintain a payroll that already ranks fifth in the league? A guy who laid off employees a month into the pandemic as a “favor”?

Yes, these are unchartered waters for the Rockets, a franchise that has had only six losing seasons in the last 40 years, as many as the champion Lakers had this decade. It’s over for Morey and his brand of Moneyball in Houston. I hope he didn’t take the commitment to winning with him.

Correction, Oct. 21, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Tim MacMahon’s last name.