Daryl Morey gained notoriety a few years back as the first National Basketball Association general manager hired for his analytics prowess -- but is this man, with the number nerd's dream job, doing his current team or the league justice?
The freshly started 2012-13 season marks Morey's sixth with the Houston Rockets. And the MBA from MIT (where he also teaches an analytics course) has had teams with winning seasons for each of the previous five seasons. One of his teams even won a playoff series. Before Houston, he served as senior vice president of operations and information for the perennially successful Boston Celtics. He is but the seemingly most successful example of a growing group of analytics and statistics experts involved in pro basketball: At least 20 teams have analytics professionals on staff today.
And yet, despite the apparent growth and significance of "money ball" in the NBA, Morey isn't delivering on the analytics promise for the Rockets. He's had winning records for the last five seasons, but he's not been to the playoffs at all for the last three.
Most, if not all, NBA watchers have deemed his most recent off-season a cataclysm. He virtually declared the failure of his past five seasons by blowing up his team, trading Samuel Dalembert and Chase Budinger for draft picks. Purportedly, the plan was to continue maneuvering during draft time to get a coveted early first-round pick. Or Morey hoped to somehow land superstars Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. None of this worked.
I won't bore you or myself with the details of who these players are or how NBA drafts work, and will instead make my point: Morey essentially trashed his work of the past five years to land a superstar. As anyone knows -- even casual pro basketball fans -- the way to winning in the NBA (let alone win a championship) is to have a superstar (or three in the Miami Heat’s case). Morey made it plain that whatever analytics-based master plan he had been following for the past five years was not working.
He followed up his failure leading up to draft day with a couple of other possibly hugely disappointing (and apparently not well reasoned) moves. One was giving $25 million to last season's media darling, Jeremy Lin, from the New York Knicks. This despite having waived him at a rock-bottom price at the start of last season. Now, Morey is falling for one of the worst knee-jerk reactions an executive can have in any sport: Chase the free agent cashing in on fluky success. Again, is this his admission of past analytics failure?
His other mistake? After his failed draft maneuverings, Morey was left with three first-round draft picks, all in the middle of the round. In football, that would be amazing. In the NBA, it's a handicap. The Rockets are likely to have gotten three role players (not superstars), yet without the court space to develop their limited talents. There are only five players on the court at a time, and only so many minutes in a game.
What's worse, one of them, Royce White, is making headlines -- for missing parts of training camp and for his anxiety disorder and fear of flying, not for impressing people with his precociousness on the court. With White in particular, you have to wonder if Morey is chasing a dream that he saw in the data, without considering old-school scouting considerations like character and team cohesion.
Ultimately, Morey's failings will not discredit the work of analytics in basketball. After all, just as I am writing this, the 21st NBA team hired an analytics expert: the Philadelphia 76ers. But what it might show is that success in the NBA is a daunting challenge, and that analytics is just one weapon. In other words, you might not want to make a quant the boss. Or if you do, you might just want to also have a legitimate superstar (or three) on the court to make him look good.
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