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Daryl Morey and the Quest for Redemption

Rockets GM Daryl Morey has taken plenty of heat from the media since taking over in 2007. Finally, it's his time to gloat.

Seriously, Getty needs a new photo of Morey. Or at least more of them.
Seriously, Getty needs a new photo of Morey. Or at least more of them.
Bob Levey

I think most of us shared the same reaction to the Daryl Morey hire: huh?

After all, Carroll Dawson was getting old, but he'd never been bad at his job. Sure, there were down years and mistakes, but you couldn't fault a guy who turned Steve Francis into Tracy McGrady. He guessed right on Yao Ming, too. All in all, Dawson was a respectable GM whom most teams would be perfectly happy to employ.

I figured this Morey guy would do things the way Dawson had, since he had worked with him for a year. I had read a little about analytics and how Morey wanted to utilize them, but I figured it was just talk to sound fancy.

I could go back and find you tons of examples of writers, rival GMs, and fans disagreeing with Morey's method. For example, I could point out how Jerome Solomon hasn't been Morey's biggest fan. I could show you how one Philadelphia beat writer wanted no part in the analytics revolution just a year ago. Even columns that praised Morey were skeptical of his ability to build a contender through his system. And while The Dream Shake has almost always supported Morey fully, there's been some doubts here as well.

Let's take a step back for a second and understand what Morey had gone through since he started. I like to separate Morey's tenure into three phases.

Phase 1: Win Now!

Looking back, this was Morey's "easiest" phase. The pieces had been put together by Dawson and the team fit nicely. With limited cap space and maneuverability, Morey's major highlights came through the draft. Truly, this is where Morey started making a name for himself. Yes, he hit on trades (Luis Scola and Ron Artest's one year rental come to mind), but it was his ability to unearth gems in the draft that made him a fan-favorite here.

It's easy to look at this period now and think that the Rockets were unlucky to not do better. Injuries and the Jazz prevented them from advancing further in the playoffs. Morey let Jeff van Gundy walk and brought on Rick Adelman to lead McGrady and Yao to newer heights, but injuries derailed those dreams as well.

While Morey did his job admirably, it was difficult not to thrust a little blame on him. Why hadn't he traded McGrady for Joe Johnson? Why not flip Yao since he was always injured? Why did he push so hard for Shane Battier? How did he let Brandon Roy slip through his fingers? The first two questions are unfair, but I've heard all four in some form or another.

At the end of the day, Morey was given a wash due to the injuries. It wasn't until Phase 2 that the heat really came down.

Phase 2: Rebuild, but Still Win

I've said that the next time I really cry will probably be when the Rockets win a championship. I was 5 and 6 years old when the Rockets won their two titles, and I was spoiled right out of the gate. Winning championships isn't easy, it's hard.

I think back to all the hardships that Rockets fans have undergone since then. Hakeem, Drexler, and Barkley breaking down around the same time, Steve Francis turning the Rockets into his own AND-1 squad, and Yao and McGrady never able to fulfill their destiny together.

But of all that, it's 2010-2012 that I'll remember most when the Rockets finally win a title.

Man, was this hard. It was hard for me, and it was hard for you. I can't begin to imagine what it was like for Daryl Morey and Les Alexander.

The Rockets were a tease during this time period. We all knew they weren't good enough to contend, but you couldn't help but love them. They were under-talented and disrespected, but they always gave 100%. We saw plenty of upsets against superior teams (in this three year period, the Rockets beat every team in the NBA at least twice besides the Dallas Mavericks). The Lovable Losers, my dad called them.

It was obvious that even if the Rockets made the playoffs, they wouldn't go anywhere. Maybe they would win a game, but even that was pushing it. And they were always pushing for a playoff spot, finishing ninth all three years.

And ninth place in the West is NBA purgatory. You're not good enough to make the playoffs, but you're not bad enough to get a good pick in the draft. And you look at the East and realize you would be the fifth seed.

Fans asked for tanking, but Alexander wouldn't let Morey do it; so Morey kept wheeling and dealing, turning assets into better assets. He called every team with a superstar and offered trades. With the old CBA, he figured sign-and-trades were the best way to go. Other teams like the Mavericks emulated that same method.

Three years in a row the season ended in heartbreak. Why didn't the Rockets just blow it up? Morey became a bit of a laughing stock around the league, desperate for the one thing that every writer with a computer harped on: a superstar.

Calculators don't go high enough to enumerate the number of times I read something along the lines of "Yeah, the Rockets will be fun to watch and it's cute that they're winning with the island of misfit toys roster, but they will never be good unless they land a superstar." I'm ashamed at the number of times I yelled back at my computer, "I KNOW!" or "THEN TRADE US ONE!"

And what's more, Morey's practices were coming into the limelight for the wrong reason. The Rockets don't give extensions, which turned players and agents off. Why sign with a team when you can't guarantee security past the first few years? Plus, Morey knew he had to keep some cap space available down the line, so most deals he tried to make were for one or two years. That made it difficult to get mid-level free agents.

Through it all, Morey kept doing Phase 1 Morey things: finding good value free agents (like Carlos Delfino and Samuel Dalembert) and picking up value in the draft (Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons). Even though things weren't going well on the superstar front, Morey was doing his due diligence and trying to build the team in any way he could.

That all culminated during free agency of 2012. It appeared that Morey had given up. He traded Lowry for a lottery pick and let Goran Dragic walk. Two of the three best players had been sent off for little. The "best" available point guard free agent was Raymond Felton, and the Rockets had traded both Samuel Dalembert and Marcus Camby, leaving them with no size or defense. And through it all, the prevailing question was "What is Daryl doing?"

The signings of Asik and Lin were nice, but no one expected those two to suddenly take the Rockets where previous groups couldn't. Our very own Mike Kerns thought that the Rockets were finally rebuilding (this isn't to knock Mike; I totally agreed with him). And from everything that we could see, that's exactly what the Rockets were doing. This was a 30-win team at best, which meant the Rockets might get a top 10 pick. It seemed that the Rockets had finally realized their failures and were going to admit that the last three years had been wasted.

Noam Schiller of Hardwood Paroxysm wrote:

Daryl Morey used to be a consensus fantastic GM; nowadays, we're not sure. We know he makes good moves, but that wonder boy shine has faded, as a somewhat artificial sense of joy is no longer enough once it's clear that it isn't being vindicated by the rewards that matter. For the first time since he entered this league as an unknown MIT prodigy, Daryl Morey needs to prove to us that he knows what he's doing. It's incredibly unfair, but in this murky business, it really is the only way to judge him.

It was over. He had lost. Time to move on and hope Alexander didn't give him the boot before he could repair his own image and have a shot at getting another job. For all of his successes, he still hadn't climbed the mountain, or even started his ascent.

Phase 3: Serendipity is a Wonderful Thing

And then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked Sam Presti called Daryl Morey on October 27, 2012.

Morey had finally acquired his superstar, but there were still doubts as to how good James Harden could be. In hindsight, it's easy to say, "Yeah, I knew he would be a baller," but look at the immediate reaction in the comments section when the news broke (also, props to wwert for calling 45 wins). There was equal parts confidence and trepidation. The worry was unfounded, of course. Let it be said that our own BD34 was on board from the beginning and called Harden's stats from the beginning (26/6/4).

Everything Morey had done had led to this acquisition. The Lowry trade that was bashed at the time? That lottery pick was essential to getting the deal done. Turning a broken-down T-Mac into Kevin Martin was key and gave the Thunder a current player to replace Harden off the bench. A young wing in Jeremy Lamb gave the Thunder a future scorer to replace Martin.

The assets, the trades, the draft picks. It all turned into the superstar that everyone said he could not, would not get.

You could end The Daryl Morey Story right there and it would be a happy ending. But life goes on. The Rockets surprised everyone and made the playoffs. They pushed the Thunder to 6 games with a young team that had been together for one day before the season started. Every other team had had at least training camp to figure it out, and teams like the Spurs and Grizzlies came into the season with cores that had been together for years.

The story didn't end there, though. Morey had maintained that getting the first superstar was the hardest. There's an underlying confidence to that statement in that Morey knows that if he can manage to get the second, he'll know how to build the team around them. Now, the biggest problem was finding the second star and getting him to Houston.

Dwight Howard's agents had told the Rockets repeatedly when Howard was in Orlando not to trade for the big man. He would be leaving as soon as he could, they told Morey. Thus, Howard was put on the backburner, but the Rockets never forgot, and Morey saw his chance.

There was speculation that much like the Harden trade, Morey's career came down to his meeting with Howard. If he didn't land the All-Star, it was only a matter of time before he would be out the door. He had proven himself by acquiring Harden, but having a playoff team and a championship team are two altogether different entities. And Morey had always maintained that a championship was the goal, not the playoffs. He's said that in the NBA there is 1 winner and 29 losers. He's right.

Finally, with the addition of Dwight Howard everything has paid off. The disappointment of the Yao/T-Mac era and the Phase 2 rut are firmly behind the Rockets. We spent so much of the playoffs talking about LeBron's and Duncan's legacies. Well, Daryl Morey's legacy is firmly tied to what happens next.

And maybe the Rockets won't win the title in the next three years. The odds say they won't get one even with Harden and Howard. But you have to remember one thing.

At least he got them here.