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

Morey had a little more than a year to learn the ropes under Dawson.

"He came in with a handicap, because if he had had to take over when he came in, it would have been tough," Dawson explains. "I let him sit in on calls, and started taking him to different conventions and introducing him to everybody. He didn't know the people we have to deal with, where we get our assets."

"CD graciously, and with a lot of diligence, converted his network, his credibility built up over 20 years in the league, over to mine," says Morey. "That can't be underestimated. I think, as with any other business, it's built on relationships and I work hard to have those relationships."

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.

"Generally, I've found among the public there's this ­misnomer that there's this sort of single-actor general manager on any team. Every decision for every team is very collaborative, at least all the ones I've worked at. No decision is made in a vacuum. I think each general manager is only as good as the people around him. At the end of the day, we definitely take responsibility for any of the problems, but the credit goes to everyone."

Basketball isn't that much different from baseball with regard to the history of scouting. It was a mad scramble in both sports back in the day. In many ways, it still is. But 30 years ago, the task was herculean. The basketball staffs were especially small (think single digits) and with so many players across the country, the best you could hope for was to get a small glimpse of an athlete's ability. Maybe you'd catch a game or two and talk to a player's pastor and high school science teacher. Then you closed your eyes and rolled the dice.

But baseball is, by and large, a game played by individuals. So evaluating a player's performance, especially offensively, is relatively easy once you're focused on the right stats. Basketball, on the other hand, isn't nearly as simple. The ebb and flow of the game and the inherent importance of team add a level of depth and complication that can make the process of pinpointing talent seem like rocket science in comparison.

Says Morey: "I think the bottom line, though, is that — where basketball gets really interesting and exciting — is that you can't isolate things down into one or two simple concepts. Because while it's true you can isolate the team level to that, you can't do it at the player level. For example: Does a guy hit a shot because he's a great shooter? Because he got a great pick? Because the pass was good? You can't isolate that perfectly with any sort of objective evidence. So you're always developing a picture of a player and you're always integrating the two. Whereas in baseball there are fewer variables and you may be able to isolate it better."

That's the reason some NBA insiders remain wary of the number-crunchers. Take, for instance, former Rocket and current NBA analyst Kenny Smith.

"Without question, I'm going to trust my eyes more than the numbers," says Smith. "I never look at the stat sheet. I think stats have value, without question. But it makes me wary if they [the number-crunchers] put value in certain stats that I don't think have value. A player understands this. I could average 17 points a game on a bad team, because in the last eight minutes of the game, the coach leaves me in the game to get my six or seven points against second-string or third-string guys. And when you're on a bad team, guys know how to do that. They know how to get their ­numbers."

"I want to know what happens in winning time. What happens when guys are making plays to win the game, or when a team is making a 10-0 run? Who's the guy who makes the play to make things happen? I know the look. I know the look that separates aggression from passiveness, dominance from lack of dominance over a person. You can't get that on a stat sheet. Statistics should only validate what you think subjectively. It shouldn't create your subjective view."

Perhaps surprisingly, Morey doesn't take issue with Smith's opinions on the subject.

"I think that's fair," he says. "In fact, I describe what we do along those lines all the time. No matter what you think, you should want to use objective evidence to confirm or help you question your beliefs."

"I think often what you'll find when you're getting negative comments (on statistics), they're basing it on what they're used to being available, which is a regular box score. And there's no question that anything in the box score is highly misleading. So if you're basing your opinions on that — the box scores that they hand out at the games — you're going to have an appropriate negative opinion of what you can understand using analytics. I would even have a negative opinion of [statistical analysis] if that's all I'd ever seen."

"From a traditional box score I'd say there's only 20 to 30 percent that's useful relative to some of the more advanced stuff you can measure. That's why we have our — we call it our army — people who track stuff leaguewide" (see "Outside the Box: Turns out a player's scoring average isn't the big key to a win").

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