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Kevin Martin’s tenure with Rockets was a precursor to modern Moreyball

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Perfected by James Harden, Kevin Martin was the pioneer for the Houston Rockets and the success of Moreyball.

Houston Rockets, Kevin Martin Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Fans who were in attendance inside the Toyota Center on January 5, 2011, received a glimpse of what was in store for NBA Basketball in the near future. The Houston Rockets dropped their third consecutive game in a 103-100 defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers, on a night Kevin Martin exploded for a season-high 45 points.

What made Martin’s performance against the Trail Blazers so unique was how he scored. He shot 72.1% from the floor, but only three out of his 13 made field goals came from the mid-range restricted area. Martin connected on six 3-pointers on the night (75.0%) and drained 13 out of a possible 15 attempts (86.7%) from the charity stripe. Ten years later, Martin’s best game as a Rocket became the new norm for players in the league and how the game has evolved as a result of Moreyball.

The role of a general manager in the world of sports is to build a championship-contending team with the aspiration of bringing a title back to the franchise. On a rare occasion, a GM’s philosophy can sometimes reach beyond the confines of his team and change the way basketball is perceived around the world.

The most famous general manager who left the greatest impact on the game was Hall of Famer, Red Auerbach. As the GM and coach of the Boston Celtics for three decades, Auerbach instituted the fastbreak as basketball’s most potent offensive weapon and eternally changed the game. Only a handful of GM’s in league history has reached the feat of leaving an everlasting impact similar to Auerbach, but none more so than Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey.

Dubbed, “Moreyball” his theory has helped usher in a new era of basketball, not only in the NBA but on the game in general. Gone are the days coaches encourage their players to take 15 to 20-foot jumpers, as Morey’s analytical approach proved the mid-range shot to be the most inefficient attempt in basketball. His philosophy relies heavily upon favoring 3-point field goals, close shots at the rim, and free-throws over mid-range jumpers. In 2020, James Harden is the epitome of how effective Moreyball has become since it’s first full-time experiment a decade ago with K-Mart at the helm.

Before he arrived in February of 2010, the 6-foot-7 prodigy from Western Carolina had already established himself as one of the most quality scorers in the league. Martin spent his first six seasons with the Kings averaging 17.1 points and posted a career-best 24.6 points in 2009. Through his first 24 games as a Rocket, Martin’s skill set gave Houston the confidence to change their game plan of playing through a traditional big man — given his ability to draw fouls when attacking the basket and high percentage shooting from beyond the arc.

The following year, a revamped Rockets’ offense emphasized on Moreyball unlocked Martin’s full potential as an efficient scorer. In 2011, he averaged a team-best 23.5 points across 80 games and experienced his best season as the primary scoring option for a franchise. With the highest usage rating of his career at 29.6%, he shot 43.6% from the field, as the offense allowed Martin to utilize the best aspect of his game — a scoring threat from behind the arc.

Martin attempted a career-high 459 3-point field goals and finished the year, connecting on 38.3% of his shots from the outside. When the defense forced Martin off the perimeter, he looked to attack the basket in hopes of drawing a foul instead of settling for a contested mid-range jumper. While shooting 88.8% from the free-throw line, Martin averaged 8.4 foul shots during the season — the second-most per game attempts trailing only Kevin Durant (8.9 FTA).

Although Martin flourished individually in the new system, the most significant hypothesis in testing the Moreyball phenomenon was the overall success of the team. Although Houston fell short of the playoffs, the Rockets recorded 43 wins on the season and possessed the fourth-best offense in the league — with an offensive rating of 111.3 per game.

An injury-plagued season the following year caused Martin’s play to decline significantly in 2012. Four days before the start of the 2013 season, Houston dealt Martin to the Thunder exchange for Harden, who has since perfected and built upon the foundation of Moreyball set in place by K-Mart two years prior.

Since it’s first full-time experiment in 2011, every team in the league has since adopted Morey’s philosophy, and the revolution seems to be going nowhere for the foreseeable future. While still in search of his first title, Morey may not match the championship success of the legendary Auerbach, but his blueprint on the game as a general manager will leave an everlasting impact on the game of basketball.

And Morey has Kevin Martin to forever thank.