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What I Learned – Ex-Rockets GM Daryl Morey made the NBA a more entertaining place

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Daryl Morey stepped down as general manager of the Rockets on Friday, concluding a tenure that began more than 13 years ago in May 2007. Since then, Houston has never finished a season with a losing record and has made two conference finals. Morey arrived in the NBA slightly ahead of his time as one of the pioneers of analytics-forward team building. While his legacy isn’t perfectly neat (whose is?), and a championship always eluded him, Morey undoubtedly made the NBA a more entertaining place. You can remember Morey in a bunch of different ways. He is probably the most front-facing general manager ever? He’s not afraid to mix it up on Twitter or at the Sloan Sports Conference, the latter of which he cochairs. There was of course the, uh, geopolitical snafu Morey kicked off this time in 2019 when he tweeted support for Hong Kong, drawing the ire of the Chinese government, angering some players, and providing fuel for bad-faith critics for the NBA’s relationship with China (a relationship that still deserves more scrutiny.) You can also say he never won, though it was never for a lack of wheeling and dealing. However you choose to remember Morey, one thing you can’t argue—and what I admire about him—is he was always willing to push his chips into the middle of the table. The league needs more gamblers like Morey. I loved how he was constantly doing whatever it took to try to get his team to the top of the mountain, particularly during the second half of his term. After swinging a shocking trade for James Harden in 2012, Morey brought in Dwight Howard as a free agent one year later. On paper, the duo should have been a devastating pick-and-roll combo, but chemistry issues kept them from reaching their ceiling. After letting Howard go three seasons later, Morey evolved once more by hiring Mike D’Antoni as head coach, gobbling up shooters and unleashing Harden, helping create one of the most effective offensive actors the league has ever seen. In 2017, Morey acquired Chris Paul, assembling the best team in the league outside of Golden State.The 2017–18 Rockets are a team that I will always fight for to make sure they aren’t lost to history. Houston pushed the Kevin Durant–led Warriors to seven games in the West finals in the postseason and probably would’ve won the series if Paul didn’t strain his hamstring before the last two games. The Rockets led the league in wins and net rating that year. They also would have smoked Cleveland in the Finals. And perhaps what was most respectable about Houston and Morey was, during a time when most of the league seemed content to wait out Golden State’s run of dominance, the Rockets wanted to challenge the Warriors at their very best. In large part thanks to Morey’s affinity for what he called “the arms race,” Houston almost pulled it off. And yet, merely one year later was probably the beginning of the end for Morey. In 2019, the Rockets lost in the second round to Golden State. While Houston holds the distinction as the last team to beat Golden State with Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in the starting lineup, the Rockets couldn’t get past the Warriors even with Durant missing the final two games of the series. The Harden-Paul relationship blew up, and then Morey, in another high-profile risk, traded Paul for Russell Westbrook last summer. Houston mortgaged several first-round picks in the deal, and even as the partnership made no sense on paper, the Rockets were playing really well after going centerless for a couple of months before the season shutdown. Still, Westbrook’s contract is incredibly expensive for an owner who seems averse to shelling out that kind of money. And Paul’s exit from Houston was criticized by Paul himself, who essentially accused Morey of telling him one thing and doing another. (By the time of the trade, the Paul and Harden relationship was also strained.) Though Morey loved to take risks, it would be fair to ask whether he could find the middle ground between building a team on paper and building a team. Chemistry questions have followed the Rockets for years, and the asset-ization of players probably started with Houston. In all the tinkering, sometimes it seemed like the humanity of it all was lost. The critiques of Morey’s style are valid, though his ability to build a championship team is probably more hampered by a certain star’s playoff struggles and luck/timing than his own decision-making. Ultimately, I hope he’s remembered for always going for it. Being a general manager is not an easy job. And different markets and owners demand different routes for team building. But even with all that said, too many teams at any given time are either unwilling to take chances, hoarding draft picks, tanking or biding time until a contender falls apart. Morey, even with an imperfect superstar like Harden and juggernauts like the Warriors in his way, never settled for second best, even as the risks grew riskier and the future more leveraged. That attitude should be commended. Sure, maybe Morey’s Rockets never ended up winning a title. But he was willing to do whatever it took to at least put his teams in the conversation, when other GMs may not have had the stomach for it. Thirteen years is practically multiple lifetimes in the NBA, and for someone taking as many gambles as Morey, it’s incredible he lasted that long. Hopefully whoever takes over his job on a full-time basis—whether its Rafael Stone or someone else—is also feeling lucky. 

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