The Man Who Sold The World

Daryl Morey’s greatest fleecing as a GM? Selling the media and public on Daryl Morey.

The question is long overdue, but it arguably has never been more timely: When will the myth of Daryl Morey’s genius finally end?

Last weekend, the Dallas Mavericks outmaneuvered the Houston Rockets’ supposed wunderkind GM, structuring their offer to coveted restricted free agent small forward Chandler Parsons such that Morey was forced to blink. Morey, in the process of explaining Houston’s decision not to match, somewhat derisively deemed the contract “untradeable,” even as it conjured memories of the recent deals for Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik that Morey tailored in Houston’s favor.

Morey said Houston would match any offer for Parsons (left), until it was time to match an offer. (AP)

Compounding the loss of their young, dynamic, marketable player (his nickname, “Chandsome,” tells a story in itself), the Rockets could have kept Parsons at the bargain price of $960,000 for the 2014-15 season, but they declined a team option so as to avoid letting the 25-year-old hit the market next summer as an unrestricted free agent.

In short, the Rockets lost Parsons because they strategized specifically not to lose him — a confounding turn of events. Morey either underestimated the demand for Parsons or overestimated the Rockets’ chances to sign marquee free agents Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. Either way, this was a horrific misstep that, at least for now, cripples a team that was harboring immediate title aspirations.

In essence, Morey has replaced Parsons with Trevor Ariza, an inconsistent journeyman coming off a career year who also happens to be a Rocket retread who lasted all of one season (during which he shot just south of 40 percent) during his first tour of duty in Houston before being shipped out. It’s not the first time Morey has re-signed a player he previously dumped for more money the second time around.

All of this leaves the Rockets in an all-too-familiar spot: heading into yet another season positioned to be an also-ran.

Will the heretofore fawning media finally begin to scrutinize Morey’s bonafides as a GM who can build a legitimate title contender? Seven seasons, countless fluff pieces, and annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conferences later, will someone with public sway finally confront the Daryl Morey conundrum: the most-celebrated, highest-profile general manager in recent history hasn’t actually won anything.

I had a lot of time, then I went downhill.” — Morey, on his high school basketball career

Morey’s reflection on his own playing days could apply just as easily to his stint as an NBA GM. Sifting through the myriad profiles, evaluations, and columns on him since he was tapped to helm the Rockets’ front office in 2007, it’s quite startling to recognize the team’s actual dearth of achievements. Houston has made the playoffs just three times since 2007, winning all of one series.

In 2012-13, the Rockets (after a trade trumpeted far and wide as a franchise-changer) progressed from just missing the playoffs to an 8-seed; the next season (after pulling off what many labeled the grand coup of 2013's free agent period by landing Dwight Howard) the Rockets went from an 8-seed that lost a first-round series in six games to a 4-seed that lost a first-round series in six games. However many pivots in direction Morey has made during his tenure, Houston still hasn’t actually accomplished much under him, and doesn’t look to be positioned to change that in the near future.

So how is it, exactly, that Morey image persists as some kind of revolutionary figure in the media, a guru among casual fans, and a role model to aspiring front-office employees? The parameters for critique and praise of him seem to have been reshaped. In reality, the remaining, stubborn talking point in favor of his purported genius is an empty truism: give him enough time and job security, and he might have a team that contends someday, eventually, maybe.

This era of advanced statistical analysis and alternative sports journalism is supposed to mark the exposal of sports narratives out of step with reality, not the perpetuation of them. Still, Morey has emerged each season with new profiles of his brilliance which regurgitate the same erroneous talking points we’ve been fed before. Instead of serving as a corrective for misguided narrative, the media has become married to it.

What gives?

Within the vast coverage of Morey’s tenure, one quickly identifies a trend: the headlines are bold; the results not as much. Each piece is as formulaic as a clichéd bar joke; the terms brilliance, risk, forward-thinking, and advanced are bandied about casually, as if they are implicitly true, but without much substance to support them. The anecdotes drift into territory that is as absurd as it is counterintuitive.

One profile in Sports Illustrated discusses Morey’s very own thought process in seemingly advanced statistical measures. Thunder GM Sam Presti’s call to Morey regarding James Harden is described as a 5-10 percent shot that Morey measured in the back of his mind. The Dwight Howard signing is explained similarly: the probability of landing him was likely less than five percent, but the potential payoff was enormous. The justification for these percentages is unsubstantiated, but they are emphasized for dramatic effect. The reader can almost visualize a “Genius at Work” sign perpetually and cartoonishly floating above Morey’s head. He has calculated everything.

The recurrent tendency for any profile of Morey and the Rockets is it will be light on substance and heavy on optimism. The future is shaded rose, the ultimate payoff is on the horizon, the momentum is steadily accumulating, the gilded age is a doorway down. An ESPN column from the first third of last season rationalizes the then decent-but-not-impressive Rockets thusly: this team can go places far beyond what its 17-9 record would indicate. This is only one of many times that ESPN and other outlets discussed the Rockets in terms of what they could be rather than what they were.

Details that would subject other GMs to widespread ridicule improbably serve to enhance Morey’s legend. A sports site retweets confirmation that Morey browses internet messageboards for draft and trade suggestions, and frames that in the context of him being visionary. Sports Illustrated advertises an exclusive glimpse of Morey’s 1994 fantasy basketball team; A Los Angeles Times puff piece strikes a tone of reverence as it spells out Morey’s utilization of video games in evaluating prospective free agents (!).

“Say, if you’re thinking about acquiring Ron Artest …,” Morey said from Hawaii, where he was evaluating talent in person at the Maui Classic college tournament. “On the game, you can see how adding Artest can change the dynamic of your team. You can program it to run offensive sets with Artest and any combination of your players.”

Sometimes the coverage veers into outright farce. When Morey acquired undersized draft-bust Thomas Robinson, Bill Simmons mused with astonishment and sycophancy in an email exchange with Grantland writer Zach Lowe:

“All right, I’m up, I’m drinking coffee, I’m ready to go. What did you think of Houston fleecing Sacramento for Thomas Robinson?1 Why do teams continue to trade with Dork Elvis? Everyone, STOP TRADING WITH DORK ELVIS!!!!! I gotta be honest, Zach … I didn’t think trades like this could still happen in 2013.”

Months later, when Morey unloaded Robinson to the Portland Trail Blazers, many sports sites lauded his genius in finding a taker for the same player. Within months, Morey received lavish praise for acquiring and trading the same exact player. This is fodder for The Twilight Zone, not astute sports analysis.

In the end, Morey’s true distinguishing characteristic is his friendliness to the press. He gives a breadth of access and speaks openly, and it’s clear he receives deferential coverage as a result. In particular, Morey and Simmons have wagged the dog on Morey’s and the Rockets’ narrative for mutual benefit. They are each ubiquitous and self-promoting; they are each masterful at manipulating their individual brands to bolster the public perception of them as knowledgeable gatekeepers.

Never has this been more obvious, nor more shameless than yesterday, when Grantland published an apologia that anticipated and attempted to undercut any justified critiques of Morey’s disastrous offseason, and general lack of achievement. In an Orwellian warping of logic, Andrew Sharp explains that the best way to understand Morey’s failings is to view him as … Chris Paul?!

“It goes back to the beginning. The best way to understand Daryl Morey is to think of Chris Paul. You can understand why his methods aren’t perfect and why he’s not quite what he’s hyped up to be, but even if you want to criticize him when things break down, it’s important to be real about all this. Ninety percent of NBA fans would kill to have him running their team.”

It’s easy to trace the roots of this symbiotic dynamic back to Michael Lewis’ 2008 “No-Stats All Star” piece in the New York Times, celebrating Morey as the NBA’s Billy Beane, and Shane Battier as a mystical component to any winning NBA team. Nevermind that no advanced statistical measurements were elucidated in the body of Lewis’ piece, nor that the exploration of Shane Battier’s immeasurable worth was a dressed-up reiteration of old basketball cliché (a role player who can play defense and hit open 3s can help a team on the cusp of success; Bruce Bowen, James Posey, and Devean George had to have wondered where their profiles were). Forget the praise of Battier relied heavily on a problematic, vague statistic like +/-, and that his impact was overstated without the context of injuries and trades that would have qualified the Grizzlies’ decline without him and the Rockets’ dramatic improvement with him. Ignore that in the 2009-10 season, Battier played 33.6 minutes per game, averaged 8.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 1 block, shot 39.9 percent from the floor, and the Rockets were +3.9 for season when he was off the floor.

Just remember that three likeable figures coalesced into an interesting, highbrow piece that struck a nerve among both sports enthusiasts and educated casual fans alike. Myths were born and false narratives were given the blessing to flourish.

If there’s one thing on the basketball side of things that absolutely sets Morey apart from his counterparts, it’s his busyness. He has a plethora of employees constantly running mock drafts, sorting through and crunching numbers, putting out feelers to other teams. He’s not shy about overhauling his roster in one fell swoop, acquiring players only to flip them within a year or two. But to what end? At what point does the constant activity and risk-taking have to pay off in tangible playoff success (or even modest playoff success) in order to validate itself? What makes Morey different from a man at a craps table who has been rolling for 3 straight hours, but is still just about even with the house?

Houston used to have both Goran Dragic (left) and Kyle Lowry, now both standout point guards for Phoenix and Toronto, respectively. (AP)

A close examination of Morey’s signings and trades raises as much skepticism as reason for praise: when the Rockets were forward-heavy and in need of a point guard, he traded Kyle Lowry and let Goran Dragic leave, only to replace them with an overpaid Jeremy Lin — a player the Rockets had on their roster the season before, at league minimum salary, before they waived him. He traded Nicolas Batum — a do-it-all small forward who might be an even better piece on a title contender than Parsons — for Joey Dorsey and a draft pick that became Sam Young. He overpaid the offensively limited Omer Asik, then gave max money to Dwight Howard, whose presence made Asik redundant. He wasted a mid-first-round draft pick on Royce White, a red-flagged prospect who provided Houston more headaches off the court than minutes on it. He has boasted about advanced strategy while employing a coach who is known more as a player favorite than a tactician. Houston’s supposedly revolutionary offense of driving and shooting 3s has often looked disorganized and short-sighted down the stretch in playoff games.

Unsurprisingly, the leeway afforded Morey has bled over into the players he has acquired. Harden has mostly dodged harsh criticism despite his abysmal playoff performances (the man whose flailing, flopping style of basketball has earned him the nickname “Heliflopter” has produced the following playoff numbers as a primary option: 95-for-248 from the floor, 31-for-98 from 3-point territory, 62 assists and 48 turnovers). After his first series as a Rocket, which saw him shoot miserably and turn the ball over too much, especially late in games, Deadspin improbably announced the playoffs miss James Harden. Really?

Much as with Morey, Harden’s proponents want him praised like a top-tier player (he was named first-team All-NBA this season despite not playing a lick of defense), but never have him subjected to the scrutiny that comes along with the territory. There don’t seem to be many in the media who can discuss Morey or Harden objectively because they are too closely tied to a narrative that has usurped reality, one that has fostered a collective investment. During the first season after Morey “fleeced” Oklahoma City for Harden’s services, it was the Thunder who posted the best win total and win percentage in franchise history. Yet, the popular talking point was how much worse a team they were, how shortsighted their front office was, and how good and how smart Harden and Morey were. At this point, the majority of the press have to defend them, because they’re really defending their own assertions by extension.

After a panel at the 2013 Sloan conference, Morey (second from right) is flanked by Nate Silver (second fron left, now of ESPN’s Five Thirty Eight) and Michael Lewis (center), who penned the now-famous New York Times feature.

It’s fitting that Morey’s defining legacy is the Sloan Conference, which he founded in 2006. As with innumerable self-help, quick-fix, faux-profound seminars, the event attracts sports demagogues, shifty edge-seekers, and self-styled, self-satisfied experts in great numbers. Morey has become a sort of NBA Anthony Robbins: his fame, seminars, and advanced understanding of basketball are all part of an ultimate sleight of hand. And, like any magic act, he relies on the naivete and complicity of his audience.

Morey’s prominence makes both the casual fan and aspiring NBA number-cruncher feel smart, capable and ahead of the curve. He thrives on the same communion our worst politicians and conmen achieve with the desperate and simpleminded: engendering a stubborn and baseless belief in a future full of gold and champagne, while writing off the wooden nickel and RC Cola present as just a bump in the road to prosperity. He speaks directly to the desperate, cunning part of the mind that believes it might discover an elusive formula that will allow it to outmaneuver the rest of the herd.

Morey is our everyman, the personification of our own delusions of ultimate wisdom. To suggest he doesn’t have a handle on things is to admit our own run-of-the-mill sports insight and confess our persistent, predictable preference for personality over substance. We are collectively less interested in proof of Morey’s advanced thinking than in maintaining our belief that he has, in fact, subverted the old guard. Morey’s triumph allows us the feeling of being part of the in-crowd, but, in turn, our continuing investment in his myth makes us part of the problem.