Rocket Science: Daryl Morey Brings Hard-Core Statistical Analysis to the NBA

Houston's pro basketball team pins (at least a part of ) its hopes on a brainiac GM

The autumn sunshine filters in through the draped windows of the Houston Rockets' downtown practice facility, bathing the gymnasium with its muted golden glow. On the court, a tall, solitary man nonchalantly begins to bounce a ball with his head down and thoughts seemingly elsewhere. His dribbling echoes throughout the gym with a familiar rhythmic thud.

As he crosses half court, the man lifts his head and eyes the hoop in front of him. If he were to focus his vision a bit higher, perhaps he'd see a pair of proud banners commemorating the Rockets' two NBA championships, one from '94 and the other from '95. Those were the glory years, back when Hakeem, Clyde and Rudy owned this city. Now? Not so much.

That's why he's here. The Rockets are hoping this wunderkind's mind-boggling skill-set and brilliant basketball brain can bring another banner to Houston. But he's not a player. In fact, he never played the game beyond the high school level. Nor has he served time as a coach or scout.

Daryl Morey is a new kind of stats guy.
Daniel Kramer
Daryl Morey is a new kind of stats guy.
After serving a one-year apprenticeship, Morey gets his time in the spotlight.
Daniel Kramer
After serving a one-year apprenticeship, Morey gets his time in the spotlight.

Instead, his credentials include an MBA from MIT and a computer science degree from Northwestern. In other words, he's more likely to blow your mind with an eye-popping regression analysis than with a killer crossover. He's been nicknamed "Deep Blue," which seems appropriate since his brain has been described as a "supercomputer." But not everyone is a believer. The doubters decry his age (he's just 35) and lack of NBA experience (a mere five years).

His name is Daryl Morey, the new general manager of the Houston Rockets. He's working 60-to-80-hour weeks, only taking an occasional break to attend his kids' soccer games. He's here to usher in a new golden age. And if his methods happen to raise a few eyebrows along the way, so be it.

It didn't take long for the critics to howl. Less than 24 hours after Rockets owner Leslie Alexander announced the decision to make Morey his next GM, a stunned basketball community scrambled to make sense of this selection. The headline on screamed, "Daryl Morey? Are You Serious?" while the story went on to accuse the Rockets of ignoring better-qualified, more proven prospects and instead taking the cheap way out. To the naysayers, Morey was nothing more than a glorified number-cruncher.

But Alexander saw something else entirely. He saw a weapon, someone whose talents were capable of lifting the Rockets to greater heights.

"With the high level of competition in this league, you can never have too much information," Alexander said at the time. "If we combine the best information with our basketball people, we should be able to make the most informed and best decisions in the NBA. Daryl will be an important part of that process."

Maybe Morey was a bit raw. But Alexander felt that concern was easily alleviated. The Rockets owner brought his prized acquisition to the team in April 2006, allowing Morey the opportunity to serve a one-year apprenticeship under longtime general manager Carroll Dawson. The man the Rockets affectionately call "CD" would show him the ropes and make the transition as seamless as possible. Then when Dawson retired at the end of the 2007 season, Morey would be given the keys to the franchise.

For 13 months, everything went according to plan. On May 10, Morey officially took over as the Rockets' new general manager, and his first order of business was to reconcile the club's up-in-the-air coaching situation. Houston had just lost a gut-wrenching seven-game series to the Utah Jazz, marking the third time in four seasons the Rockets had fallen in the first round of the playoffs under the stewardship of head coach Jeff Van Gundy. Rumors of Van Gundy's imminent demise were everywhere.

What followed next was a textbook case of "he said, she said." The Rockets insisted Van Gundy gave the team his blessing to seek other candidates, in case he decided not to coach anymore. But Van Gundy said he told the Rockets all along that he wanted to come back as coach.

The end result: Van Gundy was fired, the Rockets' brass suffered a black eye and local media pounced on an opportunity to rough up the rookie GM. Morey was labeled "overmatched" and portrayed as a liar for the way the messy divorce played out in public. Meanwhile, Alexander was dubbed "Clueless Les" for choosing Morey as his man in the first place.

Five months, a new head coach and several player additions later, the critics have either changed their tune or gone into hiding. These days, Morey is earning raves around the league for his off-season acquisitions that have transformed the Rockets into one of the deepest teams in the NBA. For his part, the new GM seems rather unfazed by the extraordinary roller-coaster start of his tenure.

"No one walks up to the person they're criticizing and says something," says Morey. "That's general human nature: They don't really have the courage to do that even though it would actually help the person more than the quiet whispers. You can defend yourself and also maybe learn from it. But frankly, I think it's a little premature to say we've done anything. We're all excited, but I'm a little nervous to veni, vidi, vici the season."

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