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

There's an old saying in sports that serves as a warning to coaches and GMs everywhere: If you listen too much to the fans, you'll soon find yourself sitting with them. The Rockets put that maxim to the test during the summer of '06. Prior to the June draft, management assessed the team and its shortcomings and compiled a list containing the names of five players who they felt would best fill their needs.

Shane Battier's name figured prominently. Though his box score numbers hardly leaped off the page, he stood out like a Mensa member at a Paris Hilton party when the Rockets computed his efficiency ratings. When Battier was on the floor, practically everything about his team's performance improved (see "Shane Battier by the Numbers: Beyond stats, there's stats").

The Rockets brain trust was convinced. So when draft day rolled around — about three months after Morey had joined the team — Houston pulled the trigger on the deal, sending the eighth overall pick and Stromile Swift to Memphis, for Battier.

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.

Almost instantaneously, the Houston sports public — already up in arms over the Texans' draft-day debacle a few months earlier — lost its collective mind again. They had lusted for Rudy Gay, an ultra-athletic swingman who had surprisingly slipped to the eighth spot and was now property of the Grizzlies. The fans couldn't fathom passing on a player who — in their minds — compared favorably to a young Scottie Pippen. And they certainly couldn't come to grips with the fact that the Rockets happily bypassed the potential of Gay for a supposedly inconsequential glue-guy like Battier.

Morey certainly un­derstands the furor that move created, and while he concedes the quality of trades and draft picks can't be known until several years have passed, he's also quick to point out yet another reason why this deal made sense.

"You can see basketball as a series of mini-games," he says. "When ten players are on the floor, they play for anywhere between 30 seconds and three minutes and until you sub someone in, you can see basketball as a mini-game between that five-on-five set. And you're trying to win each mini-game throughout the game, and you can then basically make conclusions on whether or not a player's winning the mini-games they're in throughout the game."

If that seems at all confusing, here's all you need to know: Shane Battier consistently wins those mini-games.

And the following season, Battier and his new teammates won a lot of the real games, too. Despite another injury-plagued season that saw Ming and McGrady miss a combined 45 games, the Rockets rolled to a 52-30 record. What's more, when Yao and T-Mac were healthy, Houston's point differential — which, if you recall, is the best indicator of future wins — pointed toward a team that could be expected to win 60 games.

Of course, the Rockets' 2007 season didn't end on a happy note. Far from it, in fact. Houston fell in the first round to Utah, a series they lost despite winning the first two games and owning home court advantage in the deciding game seven. Two weeks later, the Rockets brain trust made the collective decision to fire Jeff Van Gundy, prompting an all-out assault on Morey's and the Rockets' credibility.

"That's the media's job, is to sell newspapers, so I never begrudge them for doing their job," says Morey. "But I don't think there was much time taken to really take an in-depth look at all sides. I think with perfect hindsight, it could have played out differently for everybody. But unfortunately, none of us get the benefit of that."

"We've [Van Gundy and Morey] spoken since and traded messages. He is a great coach. I don't think he has any hard feelings. I don't have any hard feelings. I think anytime there's a parting of ways, it's difficult for everyone. Obviously, you don't want to have newspaper articles saying you're a liar. The only thing that gave me solace was everyone who knew me was like, 'What the hell?' They were just stunned that this was coming out, 'cause I've obviously got a lot of relationships everywhere, and everyone knew that the media portrayal of it was not accurate on that front. So that helped."

Multiple attempts to contact Van Gundy by the Houston Press were ­unsuccessful.

More than five months later, the Rockets have moved on. Everyone is eagerly anticipating the upcoming season. There's a new coach in Rick Adelman. There are new players, too, some wholeheartedly embraced by the public (Luis Scola) while others (ahem, Steve Francis) have some work to do before winning fans' trust. Locally and nationwide, expectations for this team are bordering on the absurd when one considers the Rockets' decade of first-round departures. Les Alexander is saying this is the most talented Rockets team he's had since the championship years, and ESPN's John Hollinger even went so far as to pick Houston as his choice to take home the title next June.

That sort of talk seems to make Morey a bit uncomfortable.

"I think with each positive thing — frankly, for us — it's probably better to come out of nowhere," he says. "I'm trying to study China a little more and — I think I'm going to get this wrong — but in The Art of War, there's a good proverb in there about keeping 'em guessing versus having everyone with high expectations."

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