At the tryout, wannabes like Morey were squared off against Northwestern players – real players, the ones with scholarships and jerseys. Morey was tasked with guarding T.J. Rayford, who, as Morey remembers it, "was one of the bench-warmers – like the 12th man on the team." Morey's memory serves. As a freshman the previous season, Rayford had logged about eight minutes per outing and scored just 38 points in 25 games. In that sense, it was as favorable of a draw as Morey could have hoped for. The problem was that Morey's elbows and guile couldn't get him above the rim, where Rayford spent much of the afternoon."He came down and had reverse dunks on me on the first two possessions," Morey remembers. "I saw very quickly that it wasn't going to work."
Thing is, though, it did work. While Morey's hoops career never panned at Northwestern, he nonetheless landed in the NBA. Not as one of the league's 400 some-odd players, but as part of an even more select group: one of the league's 30 general managers.The traditional résumé of an NBA general manager is littered with trophies and highlight reel exploits. At the very least, the average GM could have probably handled T.J. Rayford – just look at the list. Larry Bird was a three-time NBA champion and three-time MVP; Joe Dumars was a two-time NBA champ and six-time All-Star; Pat Riley won one NBA title as a player and six more as a coach; Steve Kerr owns five championship rings; Daryl Morey once attended Northwestern's open tryouts.
So when Morey cracked the circle of NBA general managers as a 33-year-old who hadn't played competitive basketball since high school, he was the NBA's equivalent to a walk-on: an NU grad with a computer science degree and zero minutes of non-intramural basketball experience.Luckily for Morey, he never again had to face T.J. Rayford. He just had to carve out his own path to the NBA, a path that had never been taken before.
After he got the axe from Northwestern's hoops team, Morey settled into a pretty conventional life for a college freshman – at least a college freshman who's a self-described dork with an infatuation with computers. To earn a few extra bucks, he worked as a research assistant during his first quarter, a gig that was even more painful than the basketball tryout. Morey did his best to appease the professor for whom he was working, although the prof wasn't making it easy. Along with a generally bristly and flippant attitude toward Morey, the professor liked to assign massive research projects but not necessarily look at them. "I'd kill myself for him because it's my first quarter, and then he wouldn't even read the thing." The word Morey used to describe the professor isn't printable.
Morey introducing Steve Francis in 2007.
One day, to divert his attention from his mind-numbing R.A. job, Morey took refuge in a Baseball Abstract by Bill James. Morey had been reading James' Abstracts since grade school, and it offered a reprieve from the drudgery of being a research assistant. It's instructive that Morey was relaxing to a 1,000-page treatise chock full of statistics and formulas designed to better understand baseball, written by a guy who has been dubbed the "Sultan of Stats." In essence, Morey was escaping the monotony of number-crunching with number-crunching.
"The last chapter said, ‘Hey, Bill James is starting this thing Stats Inc. in Skokie, Illinois.' And I thought, ‘Where's Skokie? Maybe it's close to Evanston.'" That Skokie turned out to be about three miles away was a blessing for Morey: it gave him both an excuse to quit being an R.A. and helped him avoid jail time. "If I hadn't quit that," Morey says, "there may have been a dead professor on campus."Morey applied for, and got, a job with Stats Inc. The company was established in 1981 and sold sports-based statistical analyses to sports teams or anyone else who may be interested. It was founded upon the premise that the phenomena in sports were susceptible to statistical analysis, a philosophy that was perfect for someone like Morey who had the brains to understand sports intellectually but not the brawn to play sports competitively. Morey says he "was the low man on the totem pole" at Stats Inc., but he nonetheless helped start the company's basketball analysis division. (Previously, Stats Inc. was mainly focused on baseball.) Morey didn't know it at the time, but he had begun plodding down his bizarre road toward being an NBA general manager.
"He aimed quite high in terms of both looking at what the consumers said they wanted and what the team ended up producing," Clifton says. "It went beyond the expectations of the course – we were really just learning about software techniques. You could do that with a relatively straight-forward project. You didn't need to go much beyond." While Clifton paints him as an ideal student, Morey is quick to say that not all professors thought so highly of him: "The rest of them didn't know me because I didn't go to class much. Most professors didn't like me much."Clifton left Northwestern in 1995 for a not-for-profit organization called MITRE, which does consulting work for the federal government in a variety of fields – technology, communications, engineering, national defense. The next year, Clifton needed to hire someone to help with strategic planning for projects with which MITRE was working; he sought out Morey for the job. Morey had graduated that spring and already been accepted to M.I.T.'s Sloan School of Management, where he deferred his enrollment for a year. Clifton figured, however, that one year with Morey was better than none.
"I knew Daryl would be a good match with what we were looking for," Clifton says. "He was very ambitious. He was going to get things done. He set high goals. He was definitely planning to get someplace. You get a lot of students in a computer science program who can do a lot on their own, but when it comes to doing things in larger projects or scaling things up, they start to flounder."It was interesting – it wasn't the normal thing you'd expect a recent graduate to be doing," Clifton adds. "But his plans and this path were not those of the typical recent graduate. He was really being looked at more as someone who's heading off to business school rather than someone who was your typical researcher."
Indeed, with Stats Inc. in his past and an M.B.A. in his future, Morey wasn't your typical researcher. Nor, it was becoming clear, was Morey your typical NBA general manager.
After he graduated from M.I.T., Morey was hired by Parthenon, a consulting firm in Boston. In 2001, he worked with a group that was trying to buy the Boston Red Sox – a group that was doing, basically, what he wanted to do: buy a professional sports team. The bid to buy the Red Sox failed, but a related group, which went on to buy the Boston Celtics, was impressed with Morey during the Red Sox bid. They invited Morey to join them with the Celtics.Sporting the fittingly vague title of "Senior Vice President of Operations and Information," Morey had a smorgasbord of duties with the Celtics. According to the team's Web site, Morey worked "on arena operations, risk management, basketball analytics, and ticket sales strategy, pricing and technology infrastructure." Basically, Morey had his hands in everything from figuring out how much to charge at the gate to scouting players to finding and hiring people who, like him, had a progressive take on basketball and the statistics that helped decode the game.
Morey was prepping himself for being an NBA GM in a way that had never been done before: computer science degree, consultant for MITRE, M.B.A. from M.I.T., consultant for Parthenon, then a job with the Celtics that, while in the NBA, was nonetheless out of the limelight, relegated to a nary-seen office lit by a computer screen. Morey was poring over spreadsheets and crunching numbers, cutting his teeth not on the hardwood but on a computer.Indeed, Morey was being groomed to be an NBA GM, it's just that nobody knew it. Because at this point, in 2006, the credentials to run an NBA team almost invariably required an NBA title here, an All-Star selection there. Luckily for Morey, there was someone willing to rethink the status quo.
Leslie Alexander is a former stock trader with an economics degree from NYU. He is also an animal rights activist, the founder of a Long Island vineyard and, as of July 30, 1993, the owner of the Houston Rockets. After Alexander bought the Rockets, the team quickly won a pair of NBA titles in 1994 and 1995, the only two championships in franchise history. Alexander also owned the Houston Comets of the WNBA from 1997-2007, a span during which they won four titles. (The Comets folded a year after Alexander sold them.) As Morey puts it: "He's been successful pretty much with everything he's done. Everything he touches turns to gold."
Les Alexander watching his Rockets last season.
For a while, though, Alexander's Rockets were losing their shine. From 2003 to 2006, they went to the playoffs only twice, and didn't escape the first round either year. Their combined record over that four-year stretch was 173-155 – respectable, certainly, but not good enough to bring home any titles. So Alexander decided that the Rockets needed a change – a big one. And it turned out the direction he wanted to take was tailor-made for a number-crunching computer geek with a penchant for basketball stats."Statistics used properly, I think, reduces the margin of error," Alexander says, "and allows you to look beyond what you see on tape and what you see in person. We all have prejudices, and statistics allow you to come back to what is real….
"I was looking for a really smart guy who could give me a non- – what's the right word here – a non-emotional, but very substantive review of things. I wanted to take this really analytical approach so that the person on top would be helping me making a decision that was as finite as it could be and with all possible scenarios in it."
"His main thing," Morey says of Alexander, "right or wrong, was that a lot of teams are hiring people to advise the Danny Ainges of the world." Ainge is the general manager of the Boston Celtics – a former NBA All-Star and two-time champion. "But he felt unless you have that analytical person at the top, those opinions would get trampled or disregarded. He felt there was a way to get an edge by emphasizing that type of analysis."The type of analysis that Alexander wanted to employ, though, was rife with the type of mathematics that most people – especially most former NBA basketball players – might look at as some sort of bizarre, foreign language. But Alexander was always looking for an edge, and he was convinced that the ever-growing bounty of information about basketball was that edge. The problem was finding someone who could speak that language.
Bradford Doolittle is a linguist, of sorts, when it comes to basketball stats. He is a writer for Basketball Prospectus, a stats-driven basketball Web site which also publishes an annual NBA guide with detailed analysis of each team. Doolittle has done extensive research on NBA general managers – which ones are successful and which ones fail – and knowing how to crunch some numbers has never hurt.
Morey and Alexander. Courtesy Houston Rockets.
"I think it's a lot easier for a math guy to acquire the scouting side if they're willing to watch all the games and put in the time," Doolittle says. "But the math side – it's hard for a former NBA player to go back and be able to learn statistical analysis. And in many cases, they don't even have a good enough grasp of it to rely on the stats people who are telling them things…."Coaches and execs have always used stats in the NBA, but they haven't used them like they use them now. The methods are more sophisticated and the mathematical background is so sophisticated. To even work with this data and interpret what you're getting from the analysis – that's really beyond what the conventional NBA executive has in their arsenal."
Simply having an Einsteinian grasp of mathematics, however, wouldn't be enough. As much as Alexander wanted to take advantage of statistics, that was only one part of the game. You can know exactly what you want from your players, but in a league with a salary cap and free agency and contracts in the tens of millions, Alexander also wanted someone who could navigate the nuanced business aspects of the NBA."Well," Alexander says, "I really wanted, in a way, a more business-like approach that was dedicated to the most efficient manner of running a team, taking into account every aspect of our decision-making process before we made a decision."
Alexander knew Morey's background when he met with him for the GM job. He knew that Morey had a grasp on the statistics: you don't get a computer science degree from Northwestern, while crunching numbers for Stats Inc. on the side, without knowing your way around a spreadsheet. But Morey also had a unique background in business, what with an M.B.A. and having worked as the Senior Vice President of Something-or-Other for the Celtics, where he couldn't have helped but learn some basketball as well. Add it all up, and the guy who couldn't hold down Northwestern's 12th man was suddenly a prized recruit."Leslie had been interviewing people for about a year, maybe even a little more than a year, and had interviewed 10 to 12 people and hated all of them, or at least that's what Leslie has told me," Morey says. "It just so happened that he was looking for someone with my background. He was someone looking ahead and I was fortunate enough to get an interview."
Alexander hired Morey on the spot.The deal was that Morey would spend a season as the team's assistant general manager. Then, after the 2006-07 season, he would lose the "assistant" from his title and succeed incumbent GM Carroll Dawson.
And with that, a computer dork was welcomed to one of the most exclusive sports clubs in the world.
"To hear that he would end up in an upper-management position was not at all surprising," Clifton, now a professor at Purdue, says. "To hear that it would be in that particular domain, which is really so far away in many ways from what he did in his studies, was kind of a surprise. When I heard that, it's like, ‘Well, that's a strange path for someone who went through a business program at Sloan School and has a computer science degree from Northwestern.' It just seems a very unusual place to end up."The basketball world thought so too. The Houston Chronicle's story announcing Alexander's decision began, "In an astounding change of direction and style that stunned the Rockets and the NBA, owner Leslie Alexander has chosen Boston Celtics statistical analyst Daryl Morey to be his next general manager." The article went on to juxtapose Morey with Dawson:
Dawson, 65, has been with the Rockets for 26 years, the past 10 as general manager. A former Baylor coach, he was an assistant under Del Harris, Bill Fitch, Don Chaney and Rudy Tomjanovich.Morey's position with the Celtics is his first in sports. He teaches a course at MIT, where he received his masters in business administration in "Analytical Sports Management."
Dawson, left, oversaw a pair of Houston titles with Rudy Tomjanovich.
In other words, Dawson's tenure with the Rockets spanned three different decades and two different centuries, plus he had been an assistant coach for a quartet that, between them, owned 68 years of head coaching experience, a handful of NBA Coach of the Year awards and an encyclopedic basketball pedigree. To wit, Chaney, who was a head coach for 22 years, is the only player to have played with Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Fitch, a two-time NBA coach of the year, entered the 2009-10 season as the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history. And as for Tomjanovich, all he did was coach Houston to the franchise's only two titles and earn five All-Star selections as a player. These were the people Dawson was running with for a quarter of a century.And Morey? Well, his three-year stint with the Celtics was the only time he'd been around the NBA. But he does teach a course at M.I.T., which is where is got his Master's in business. The article spared any mention of T.J. Rayford.
"There was a lot of skepticism," Doolittle remembers. "I talked to a couple of NBA execs, and they didn't say anything critical about Daryl, but they were skeptical about the quantitative approach. And there was one GM a couple years ago who I asked, ‘Here's this guy with this unusual background, how do you think it'll work out?' He was just very skeptical – skeptical that a numbers guy was going to make much headway over a traditional basketball executive."The headline on HoopsWorld.com read: "Daryl Morey? Are You Serious?" And during a conversation with Morey on his "B.S. Report" podcast, ESPN.com personality Bill Simmons recalled the decision to hire Morey thus: "When you got hired everyone was like, ‘What the hell are the Rockets doing? Why have they hired this 33-year-old M.I.T. guy?' On the message boards it caused almost a riot – ‘They just hired some nerd! This is ridiculous!'"
Ridiculous or not, Morey got the job. He then proceeded to impress people around the league. Eventually.
After his year-long apprenticeship under Dawson ended in May of 2007, one of the first things Morey did was fire coach Jeff Van Gundy, who had taken the Rockets to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. The Rockets claimed that Van Gundy had given the team his blessing to interview other candidates; Van Gundy maintains that he was adamant all along about his desire to stay in Houston. Critics claimed that Morey was "overmatched," and Alexander was dubbed "Clueless Les" for having turned the team over to someone who, at his last job, was analyzing how much tickets should cost. Former Sacramento Kings coach Rick Adelman – whose contract was not renewed by Sacramento after the 2006 season – was brought in to replace Van Gundy, and Morey's tenure as the Rockets' GM was off to an eventful start.If people thought Morey flubbed the Van Gundy situation, they were probably none too impressed with Morey's first NBA Draft. With the 26th pick of the 2007 Draft, Morey selected 6-foot point guard Aaron Brooks from Oregon, who many considered too small and lacking a true position. In a pre-draft analysis, DraftExpress.com surmised that "Brooks isn't going to be a starting point guard for an NBA team someday. [He] could warrant a roster spot on an NBA team looking for a pace pusher for the end of the bench…"
Morey startled some by taking Brooks in the first round.
This pace-pusher was Morey's first pick as a general manager. Throw in the fact that the Rockets already had a trio of point guards on their roster, and Morey was raising eyebrows – and suspicions that he was indeed overmatched. Morey rounded out his first summer on the job by signing Steve Francis, who played – what else? – point guard.
In his first few months on the job, Morey had dispatched the head coach and loaded the roster with point guards. The squawking intensified heading into the 2007-08 season.The critics were muzzled when the Rockets reeled off a 22-game winning streak, the second-longest in NBA history, during Morey's first season as GM. The team even survived a serious injury to All-Star Yao Ming, which limited him 55 games, and made it to the playoffs.
The season was vindication for Morey, and vindication for statistical analysis, which is at the heart of everything that Morey and the Rockets do. Morey's reputation as one of the world's most forward-thinking basketball minds wasn't achieved simply by differentiating between offensive and defensive rebounds, or by looking more closely at assist-to-turnover ratio. This is, after all, a guy who used to chill out by reading four-pound books about baseball stats.Indeed, there are all sorts of obscure things in a basketball game that Morey and his troop of statisticians track and calculate and analyze. In a 2009 article for the New York Times Magazine, author Michael Lewis – who wrote Moneyball, the definitive book on the statistical revolution gripping the sports world – analyzed basketball statistics in general, and the Houston Rockets in particular. Lewis wrote,
There are other things Morey has noticed too, but declines to discuss as there is right now in pro basketball real value to new information, and the Rockets feel they have some....The Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team's elements. To get at this they need something that basketball hasn't historically supplied: meaningful statistics. For most of its history basketball has measured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure — points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots — and these measurements have warped perceptions of the game. ("Someone created the box score," Morey says, "and he should be shot.")
Nonetheless, the Rockets didn't miss a beat. After Alston was dealt, Brooks, then in his second season, was thrust into the starting role. With Brooks at the helm, Houston finished the regular season with a 53-29 record – winning 25 of its final 33 games – and went on to win its first playoffs series since 1997. In the second round, the Rockets took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to seven games. In Game 4 of that series, with L.A. leading 2-1, Brooks netted 34 points en route to a Houston win. Brooks led the Rockets in scoring in each of the final five games of the series.For his encore in 2009-10, Brooks started every game, was the only NBA player to hit at least 200 three-pointers and ranked No. 19 in the league in points per game. Alston, meanwhile, was shipped from Orlando to New Jersey. Shooting 34 percent and scoring nine points per game, the Nets bought him out and released him. Alston then signed with the Miami Heat, but they suspended him for the season in March after a bizarre sequence in which Alston skipped games and practices and wasn't communicating with the team. On the year, he made more money than Brooks.
Which brings up another facet of Morey's managerial acumen: economics. Alexander, after all, said that he hired Morey in no small part because he was convinced Morey could execute a "business-like" approach, dedicated to efficiency. And efficiency in pro basketball has everything to do with understanding which players have real value but won't break the bank. "In a sport with a salary cap like the NBA," Doolittle says, "you need to be able to not just manage players, but to understand where production comes from and maximize the resources on your team."
Per dollar, the return on Scola is huge.
Morey also freed up nearly $6 million in the summer of 2009 when he applied for – and was granted – an "injury exception" for Yao Ming. The obscure NBA rule grants teams extra money should it be deemed likely that a player, in this case Yao, will miss an upcoming season. Morey's implementation of the injury exemption allowed the Rockets to spend more money to sign free-agent forward Trevor Ariza. Morey turned Yao's broken foot into $6 million and a starting forward.
Money, of course, is but one resource. GMs must also consider the other expenditures required to compile their rosters, namely players and draft picks. Morey has flourished there as well. The Houston Chronicle was right – the Alston-to-Orlando trade ended up being a stunner, but not the way that was implied. Instead, what's stunning is that Alston may never step foot on an NBA court again, while Brooks looks like he could be a future All-Star. And then there's Scola. The main bargaining chip to acquire Scola from San Antonio was Vassilis Spanoulis. Spanoulis logged a career total of 31 NBA games, all of them in 2006-07. He now plays in Europe.Morey was up to his same tricks last February, orchestrating a mid-season trade involving three teams. Morey sent the aging, injured and expensive Tracy McGrady to New York, and a pair of forwards to the Sacramento Kings. In return, the Rockets landed shooting guard Kevin Martin, defensive stopper Jared Jeffries, high-flying rookie Jordan Hill and conditional rights to New York's 2011 and 2012 first-round draft picks.
"(Morey) really took advantage of Kings GM Geoff Petrie in that deal," Doolittle says. (Petrie, by the way, was a two-time NBA All-Star and the 1971 Rookie of the Year.) "Petrie is very astute, but I don't think he fully appreciated what he had in Kevin Martin. When he's healthy, he's probably the most efficient scorer in the NBA in terms of being able to generate points off of the fewest number amount of shots." Proof: Martin once scored 50 points on 11 field goals – the lowest number of field goals for any 50-point scorer in NBA history. He is also the only NBA player to ever average eight free throws and shoot 40 percent from three-point range in a season. And he did it twice."The Kings didn't think he'd fit with [Rookie of the Year guard] Tyreke Evans, who's going to be an All-Star-caliber player," Doolittle continues. "But I don't think they gave it chance to see how it'd work, and I think they made sort of a rash decision and the Rockets took advantage of that. It was a terrific move by Daryl to get that done."
As good as these moves look on paper, the jury is still out on Morey. Geeks across the nation are surely heartened that one of their own has risen to an NBA GM post, but neither Morey nor Alexander will be content with anything less than a championship. Nobody in Houston is hanging their hat on 2010's 42-40 finish, even if the team overachieved in light of the fact that Yao Ming was lost for the season before it even began."We haven't won anything yet," Morey says. "We always beat what the expectations are – whatever Vegas thinks we'll do, we've beaten expectations consistently. We won a playoff series last season (in 2009) as the road team. But in my own goals, until we break through we really haven't accomplished that much."
Says Alexander: "I think he's done a great a job. But until he's won a championship, he hasn't completed the task."
"That's another moment of serendipity…" Morey says, referring to Leslie Alexander's search for a new GM. Alexander, after all, had been looking for the right guy for months on end. What if Alexander found that guy before Morey got an interview? What if Alexander had different criteria for who the right guy would be?
What ifs line the path that Daryl Morey took from Ohio to Northwestern to MITRE to M.I.T. and so on. But now, there is only one What if that really matters: What if a basketball-obsessed computer dork were handed the keys to an NBA franchise? The answer is being written.
You can reach David Vranicar at email@example.com. You can also comment on this story on the Purple Reign message boards.