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

Grousbeck certainly noticed, especially when Morey mastered the intricacies of the NBA's salary cap in just one weekend.

"I said, 'Daryl, you're going to look pretty good in green if you get this deal done,'" recalls Grousbeck.

By the end of the year, the sale was complete and Grousbeck made Morey the Celtics' senior vice president of operations and information, where his first job was to modernize the ticket-sales operation. But it didn't take long for the Celtics brass to figure out Morey's mastery of numbers could be used in other ways.

"Wyc just pointed me at the most important issues with the Celtics, and very soon you realize the most important issue for any sports franchise is getting the right players for the right price," says Morey.

The Celtics put Morey to work on a little hard-core number-crunching and gave him the authority to hire a small team of statisticians for assistance. One of their first projects: a regression analysis of 25 years of NBA drafts to determine which college statistics best equate with NBA success at each of the five positions.

Moneyball was making its way into the NBA.

Meanwhile, the Rockets needed a new GM. The club was struggling through a miserable, injury-plagued '05-'06 season and Carroll Dawson was talking retirement. But Les Alexander couldn't find the right ­person.

The Rockets owner had made his fortune on Wall Street and wanted his franchise to be run with a similar emphasis on the analytical. In the early '90s, behind the stewardship of Alexander and then-head coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rockets began tracking the game differently from everyone else. Rudy T didn't have a background in statistical analysis, but he was still able to arrive at some of the right answers by feel. His work in that area proved to be one of the hidden ingredients in the Rockets' success, which culminated in their back-to-back championships.

Still, Houston's increased emphasis on number-crunching didn't seem to have much of a positive impact on its drafts. Outside of the Yao Ming selection in 2002 — which fell into their laps when the team won the lottery for the No. 1 pick — the Rockets had far more misses than hits. Free agency hadn't been particularly kind to the club, either. High-priced acquisitions such as Kelvin Cato, Maurice Taylor and Stromile Swift all turned out to be busts. Clearly, there was room for improvement. So when Alexander stumbled upon a largely unknown young man working within the Celtics organization, he believed he knew exactly how that improvement could be made.

"I always thought you should mix the quantitative with the basketball," says Alexander. "They've done it in other sports, and I think the NBA might be a little behind in that area. Daryl, in particular, had a great background. He's always been into sports. He's always been a quantitative guy in sports. I thought he was maybe a little inexperienced for the job, but when you get a chance to get somebody like that, I think you should do it rather than wait and not get the opportunity again."

Alexander reached the decision on his own. Not even Dawson was included in the search. Says CD, "I think he thought I was too close to the people that were under me."

Indeed, many around the league had assumed the Rockets already had an heir apparent in VP and assistant GM Dennis Lindsey. And now, not only was Dawson being asked to groom someone else for the job, but Morey's inclusion meant the team was going with a potentially uncomfortable three-headed monster at the GM position for the '06-'07 season.

"Dennis handled that real well, because I'd always just considered that Dennis was going to take my place," says Dawson. "And I think that's why I was left out of the situation; Leslie thought that I was too close to him and he [Lindsey] was like a son to me and so he wanted to try a different way. But Dennis is a perfect team guy, so there wasn't a problem at all there."

Morey concurs: "I think it's a credit to Carroll and Dennis that it wasn't [uncomfortable]. We all took the measure of each other and came out of it saying, 'These are people I'd want to work with anyway.'"

Lindsey — who accepted a position within the San Antonio Spurs organization this summer — declined a request to be interviewed for this story, but said through a Spurs' representative that he and Morey are friends and believes he'll do a great job in Houston.

Meanwhile, the rest of the NBA was still trying to figure out exactly who this Morey guy was.

"Around the league, I had a lot of people call me and question the deal, because it hadn't been done that way before," Dawson says. "They'd say, 'What happened, how did this happen, who is this guy?' I had all those questions from just about everybody in the league. But I told them I'll always take up for Les because, I'm telling you, he's good for basketball. Leslie is a smart man. He didn't get to be where he is in life by making dumb decisions."

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