Any eulogy for Daryl Morey’s groundbreaking tenure as Houston Rockets general manager should probably start with the 2017-18 season — when Houston took a 3-2 lead in the conference finals over perhaps the greatest team ever assembled, and might have upset those Golden State Warriors had Chris Paul not suffered a hamstring injury at the end of Game 5.
Morey’s critics — and there are many — might clown him today upon his resignation for failing to win a title; underestimating the importance of chemistry and culture; and tossing away much of Houston’s future to build a team — centered around James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but without any centers — that is not good enough to win the title now and only projects to get worse as the Western Conference gets better.
Some of those criticisms have merit, even if some of the critics delivering them do so at least in part out of some visceral and almost personal distaste for what Morey represents: the invasion of analytics into basketball decision-making, and all the stylistic consequences of the revolution Morey portended. Morey is not the only analytics-savvy person to assume a position of enormous power within an NBA team. But he was the forerunner, and his influence on the game — on the rise of the 3-pointer, the advance of metrics to evaluate defense, hiring patterns within teams, much more — has been massive. It is reasonable to argue NBA basketball is both more mathematically efficient and (with some teams) less interesting to watch because of Morey.
But just remember that 2017-18 Rockets team that won 65 games and pushed Golden State to the limit — including in a Game 7 that was closer than some people remember, and close enough for the Rockets (in a fit of bitterness that came back to bite them) to produce a report arguing referees cost them the series.
Morey was good for the league because he was willing to go for it. Some teams cowered before the Warriors’ dynasty once Kevin Durant signed there. Morey didn’t. He has long argued that any team with a 5% chance to win the title in any given season should go all-in — that any title window, even a 5% sliver, is too precious to squander with risk-averse behavior. He lived up to his word after Houston acquired Harden, a trade years in the making that altered the NBA’s landscape in ways that still reverberate.
After the Warriors’ 16-1 scorched-earth run to the title in Durant’s first season there, Morey told ESPN he still wasn’t backing down — that he had “something up [his] sleeve.” That something turned out to be a megatrade bringing Paul from the LA Clippers.
No team besides Houston won more than a single game in any playoff series against the Warriors over 2017 and 2018. Houston got three in 2018. There is no shame in losing to the Durant-era Warriors. Sometimes, a historically great team — this one enabled by a fluke salary-cap spike — is just too good.
The second Paul-Harden team bowed out to the Warriors one round earlier in 2019, in one fewer game, even with Durant sitting out the end of Game 5 and all of Game 6 with a calf injury. The Warriors, dancing and sneering all over Houston’s home floor down the stretch of Game 6, broke the Rockets’ spirit and closed down that era of Houston basketball.
But it wasn’t an era, really. Paul and Harden lasted two seasons, and then it was time to pivot again — to chase another star, another identity, another chance to find something sustainable around Harden.
Maybe the constant reshuffling around Harden — the lusting for superstars intrinsic to Morey’s stars-over-everything philosophy — cost Houston some ineffable continuity or trust that every champion must have. It’s certainly a tempting logical leap. Just remember in taking that leap how close the Rockets got in 2018, and what a juggernaut it took to derail them. Morey’s way could have worked.
Maybe the constant reshuffling is linked to Harden himself — the challenges of his style of play. If so, is that about Harden or Morey — or both of them?
Harden and Morey have become so closely connected that it is very hard now to untangle one from the other. From the moment Houston acquired Harden late on a Saturday night in October 2012, Harden became the on-court avatar for so much of what Morey believes about basketball: an algorithm come to life, all 3s, layups, and free throws.
Acquiring Harden was Morey’s masterstroke. Houston has made the playoffs all eight years since, the league’s longest-running streak. It was the culmination of almost a half-decade’s work that began as Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady declined.
Yao and McGrady were true-blue superstars. Morey understood any team hoping to win a championship had to feature a top-10 player, and likely two. There were exceptions, of course. But exceptions were by definition long shots, and Morey was interested only in what gave his team the best shot. History said that was two stars, and you can’t get the second without one already on the roster.
The easiest way to get a star is to tank. Easiest is not the same as easy. The NBA’s lottery does not guarantee anyone the No. 1 pick, and even picking there does not guarantee the chance to select a franchise superstar. Every path to a superstar is a bad-odds path. Some are less bad than others. Tanking is the least bad. That is why Sam Hinkie, Morey’s longtime lieutenant, triggered The Process in Philadelphia — and why Morey would likely not be averse to taking that route if his next job (he does want one, sources say) comes with a green light from ownership to play the draft game and circumstances that favor it.
(There is uncertainty around the league over whether Morey’s role in igniting the NBA’s China controversy — with a tweet in support of Hong Kong — might make some teams wary about the fallout of hiring him. In a vacuum, Morey should shoot toward the top of the candidate list for any open front-office job.)
Leslie Alexander, the former owner of the Rockets, wanted Houston to stay relevant. Morey would have to tread water while somehow cobbling assets to trade for a star.
Every move the Rockets made was geared toward that theoretical superstar trade. They acquired extra first-round picks for Aaron Brooks, Jordan Hill, and a young Kyle Lowry. When Harden became available, they threw everything they had at Oklahoma City.
It’s hard to remember now, but there was skepticism about how good Harden could really be. He came off the bench in Oklahoma City. Some potential suitors did not share Houston’s belief in Harden’s star potential. There was much snickering, including in the local Oklahoma City media, when Harden shot 2-of-17 in an October 2012 preseason game both Durant and Westbrook sat out: That’s what life as a No. 1 option is.
The Rockets saw it all along. They were not the only team to see it, but they were the only one among those that did in the right moment — and with the right assets — to strike an agreeable deal.
Morey then spent his working life crafting an on-court identity around Harden, and searching for second and third stars to complement him. After years hoarding picks, Morey began trading them.
He lured Dwight Howard from the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2013 — considered a coup then. A year later, he tried to sign Chris Bosh away from the Miami Heat as the Heat were reeling from LeBron James‘ departure. Morey was confident enough in Houston’s chances that he gave the Lakers a first-round pick to take Jeremy Lin — and unlock the cap space required for Bosh. (The Rockets also lost Chandler Parsons that summer after declining a cheap option on him, but pivoted by snagging Trevor Ariza — who became an indispensable role player.)
Houston made the conference finals in 2015, and Morey then traded another first-round pick to acquire Ty Lawson from Denver — where Lawson had fallen out of favor in part because of a DUI arrest. As part of the deal, Morey somehow persuaded Lawson to make his contract non-guaranteed for 2016-17. Part of Morey’s legacy to date is his stretching the collective bargaining agreement to its breaking point. He helped pioneer the concept of reverse-protected picks in trading Lowry to the Toronto Raptors, and was ahead of the curve extending players — including Harden — before most teams would have contemplated doing so. In other cases, Morey’s creativity backfired — including in his attempt a year ago to sign Nene to a bonus-laden deal designed to make his contract an artificial trade asset. (The league vetoed it.)
Houston fell to 41-41 in 2015-16; the Harden-Howard synergy dissipated. Howard walked that summer — a mutually acceptable divorce, something that would become a pattern. The Rockets then veered from character, splurging on Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson — non-stars. There were rumors Morey was on thin ice. He acknowledged the moves ran counter to his track record. “Last year hurt us in terms of perception around the league,” Morey told ESPN at the start of the 2016-17 season. “We felt like if we didn’t have a more successful season this year, our ability to be a top destination would be hurt.”
Morey traded another first-round pick for Lou Williams in 2017, but the Rockets fell in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs — with Harden wilting in the clincher. Anderson’s salary became an albatross. Gordon’s extension, which runs through at least 2023, looks like one now.
The Rockets appeared stuck — before Morey traded Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, another first-round pick, and some other assets for Paul. Clint Capela was the only homegrown first-round pick left on Houston’s roster. Morey also landed P.J. Tucker for about $8 million per season — a shrewd signing. They leaned into a switch-everything defense and more isolation on offense — reinvention after reinvention.
Two years later, the Paul-Harden partnership expired just as the Harden-Howard tandem had. (In fairness, Howard had trouble finding a home before landing with the Lakers this season.) In one last, wild swing, Morey swapped Paul, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps for Westbrook. It was an overpay for a much worse fit. Westbrook’s jumper so impinged on Harden’s driving lanes that the Rockets had to trade Capela and another first-round pick for Robert Covington.
Harden has become the only constant. He isn’t the center of Houston’s universe so much as he comprises the entire universe. They get the players he wants — no matter the cost.
They play the way he wants. Perhaps that has a shelf life. Players and coaches talk often about how staying involved on offense — touching the ball, moving around — motivates players to go hard on defense, and keeps morale high.
Mike D’Antoni hoped winning would resolve any chafing from everyone else about standing still to watch the Harden show.
“There is something to the human nature of it,” D’Antoni said in 2016. “But I don’t want to believe it. Because when they feel their paycheck every two weeks, shouldn’t that make you play hard on both ends? Look: You have to be a star in your role. And here, your role is: When James gets the ball to you, shoot it, and then run back and play hard as heck.”
Players did chafe, off and on. Houston has not had much of a Plan B in tough playoff games. The math says Harden isolating is the best option, and the Rockets under the Morey-Harden regime obeyed the math. The monotonous predictability of it is one reason Harden has struggled in the biggest moments of his biggest games. Harden refuses to move away from the ball. Take it from him, and he recedes into nothingness.
Morey and Harden have been equal partners in building the Rockets. If Houston has sacrificed culture, continuity, and damn near every future asset at the altar of efficiency, that is on both of them.
Contrary to the popular caricature of him, Morey has said chemistry matters. But he would probably also say it doesn’t matter quite as much as we think it does — that we sometimes fetishize it, or assign it importance in hindsight. Star talent matters, above all.
That philosophy got Houston to the precipice of history. Houston falling short does not invalidate Morey’s tenure.
The Westbrook trade leaves a stain. For the first time since acquiring Harden, the Rockets’ short- and medium-term future feel rickety. They are out so many picks that retooling via the draft and trades will prove difficult. If things go south, they may have to explore the trade market for Harden, who has two guaranteed seasons left on his deal — plus a $47 million player option for 2022-23.
The Rockets are not nearly ready to go there as they fill their coaching vacancy. They want to win, as they did year after year after year under Morey. Perhaps the best sign of Morey’s success is that the league at large mimicked Houston’s embrace of the 3-pointer — an imitation that flattered Morey, but also reduced his mathematical edge.
He tried to bump it back up by dispensing with centers, and going all-in on small ball. In Year 1, it failed. Houston’s next reinvention — another cycle of churn — falls to someone else now.