Q&A with Daryl Morey: What’s Next?

You knew we couldn’t let the Rockets’ season come to a close without hearing from Daryl Morey one more time. So what is the Rockets GM up to now that the team has been eliminated? Is Tracy McGrady really the best passing wing in the NBA? And does Morey still think Boston is the team to beat this year? Read on to find out.

JCF: So now what? Do you get a break? Or do you just dive straight into draft and free-agent prep?

DM: It’s both. Free agency arrives a couple days after the draft so you gotta be ready for both. So with the coaching staff it’s more about free agents or trade targets. Then with the personnel side it’s more draft. Then we’re also working on off-season player development plans for the players; strength and conditioning plans as well. So we’re packing in a lot of off-season planning this week, then that will free up more time to study free agents, trade targets and draft eligible players for the next seven weeks.

JCF: So you don’t mind running down your list of trade targets, do you?

DM: (laughs) They [the NBA] actually just sent out a memo! It’s always a rule [not to publicly discuss other teams’ players], but someone must have broken it because whenever the league sends out a memo that means one of the teams talked to the press about another team’s player.

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JCF: All right, well, in all seriousness, how are you feeling these days? It’s been nearly a week since you guys were eliminated, has the pain dissipated somewhat or is it killing you to watch Utah play L.A.?

DM: (laughs) I’m watching them right now. I think at this point this week, I’m too busy to worry about the emotions of it right now. I think we had to dive right in; we didn’t give ourselves a whole lot of time to mourn. It was a disappointing end, but we take comfort in the trajectory of the team with our young players, and what we were able to accomplish. Getting home court in the Western Conference with a lot of adversity was something to look back on and be positive about, even though in the end it was disappointing.

JCF: So looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest need areas-- besides just a full season of good health for Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming-- for this team to be able to go further next year?

DM: I’ll talk more in skill sets. We won’t be able to get everything because we don’t have a huge amount of [salary cap] room—we just have mid-level room. We’re looking for a guy who can attack the basket, shoot, probably a little more offensive-minded even though we want to keep our identity--we’re the second best defensive team in the league. We want to keep that up so we can’t trade it all off, but I think with an acquisition either through trade or free agency we’re looking more for someone who has the ability to score, and ideally it’d be somebody who can beat their man off the dribble and shoot.

JCF: Before the season began, you talked about how you felt a great responsibility toward T-Mac and Yao to take advantage of their primes. Do you feel a sense of urgency right now since that window—at least with regard to Tracy—could be closed in a couple years?

DM: Yeah, I mean I think both of them have many, many good years left. But I think we do feel like there is a natural two-year stretch here to hopefully make things happen because that’s what we’ve got Tracy signed for--the next two years here.

JCF: Does part of the plan going forward include trying to scale back T-Mac and Yao’s minutes during the regular season, sort of like what the Spurs do with Ginobili, Parker and Duncan? Obviously personnel issues factor into the equation, but it’s no secret that, when healthy, McGrady and Yao played heavy minutes during the regular season.

DM: Yeah, I think, all things equal, that’s the smart approach that the Spurs are taking. But in this case, all else isn’t equal; they’ve won four titles [this decade]. I put the responsibility on me to get the roster to the point where coach Adelman can rest those guys more and feel comfortable and confident that we can still win the game.

JCF: I know we’ve talked about this before, but I want to ask you again since the wound is still fresh, so to speak. How do you react when you get bombarded by the annual “T-Mac can’t get out of the first round” stories? Do you get upset considering the fact his numbers indicate he always elevates his game in the postseason, or are you just oblivious to it by now?

DM: Yeah, that’s a new question (laughs). I’d worry about more if Tracy worried about it. He doesn’t, so we don’t worry about it at all. All we’re worried about is playing hard, playing our best, and doing what it takes to advance. We’ve come up short, and as you pointed out, it has nothing to do with Tracy. I think in only one of his [playoff appearances] was his team favored to win. To me, it’s just something that the media focuses on, but it’s not something we focus on.

JCF: Well, let’s approach the T-Mac discussion from a different angle now. I heard secondhand that you recently mentioned you believe Tracy is the best passing wing in the NBA. Did you really say that, and if so, I guess that means you consider McGrady to be an even better passer than LeBron James?

DM: Yeah, there’s no question he’s the best passing wing, not only from our eyes but there’s evidence as well. If you look at passes that lead to high percentage shots, Tracy leads the league in that. That’s the key to a skill he has that, I think, is still undervalued and less known from people who don’t watch the Rockets every day.

JCF: So does LeBron rank second in that particular area?

DM: Yeah, I know he’s high up there. I don’t have the ranking in my mind. But I know we looked at it last year and part of the way through this year. I haven’t taken a look at it since the season ended, but [Tracy] is always the top guy.

JCF: So what you really focus on then are passes that lead to good scoring opportunities?

DM: Yeah, guys who get players the ball in high percentage areas, whereas a lot of assists come from a pass to an open guy who has a 20-footer. That’s not a great shot. Tracy’s passes generally lead to open three looks, or shots near the basket.

JCF: Interesting. So going back to the team-building part of the off-season for a moment, it seems like this could be an interesting summer with regard to the free agent class. On the surface, it looks like we might see a situation that leads to too many players chasing too few available dollars, which could create a bit of a buyer’s market, for once; at least from the standpoint of there being a few bargains out there once all the big chunks of available cap room dry up. Obviously, it’s way too early to make that call, but are you counting on free agency to be a major part of your efforts to upgrade the team?

DM: I think we look at everything really closely. I think it’s more likely we’ll upgrade through trade vs. free agency. I do agree with you though about the free agent outlook. But I hesitate because many years I’ve said that I think this may be the year free agency isn’t crazy, and every year I’ve been wrong (laughs). So until we go through our normal process of mapping out how much money each team has and their cap situation, I can’t say this with confidence. But my general intuition is I’ve again fooled myself into thinking it might not be crazy this year, and that will open up some opportunities for us because we’re obviously not a team that’s gonna have big cap room to go out and chase any sort of big-name player.

JCF: Now I know the draft picture is even less clear at this point, but I’ll ask you about it anyway. You had a great draft last year as far as getting guys who made significant contributions like Carl Landry and Aaron Brooks…

DM: We got a D- on our draft! (laughs)

JCF: Well, I don’t know, I think I gave you guys an F on draft day…

DM: Did you really?

JCF: Ummm, for some reason, I can’t seem to recall... But that’s obviously irrelevant, so let’s just move on… quickly. Do you feel like there’s the depth within this draft class for you to again find a player who can contribute despite the fact you don’t get to pick until 24 other teams have selected?

DM: Yeah, there’s only really two clear top of the draft guys; I think Beasley and Rose are going to go in some order. After that, there’s some depth of decent players that we feel good might extend down to 25. So if we keep the pick and don’t use it as part of a trade, I do feel like we’ll have some success at getting a good player. You can’t really project whether it’s going to be someone who can contribute in year one, you might take someone who is more of a player who might contribute over time. But whoever we get, we do feel good that we’ll have a decent shot at getting someone who helps the Rockets over the next four years.

JCF: Speaking of guys you draft who might contribute over time, what’s the latest on guys like Brad Newley and Lior Eliyahu?

DM: Hey, what about Sergei Lishouk? Come on, man. You gotta keep up with the foreign guys we have. (laughs) But Eliyahu played big minutes of the semi-finals of the Euroleague final four. Offensively, he’s a gifted player and he’s shown it. He hasn’t been as strong defensively, which is why he hasn’t had consistent minutes on Maccabi, which is one of the best teams in the world. But we feel good about his progress, and we’ll see how he contributes over time.

And Newley, he played out of the Australian league in a good Greek league this year, and he made some good progress. He set the all-time Greek league record of three pointers made in a game. So the progress on Newley has been positive as well.

JCF: So do you see either one of those guys helping the Rockets next year, or is that still further down the line?

DM: We’re obviously a team that won 55 games, so we’re a good team and I think it’s gonna be tough for anyone who’s not an established player to come in and play. So if that’s the case, it may be better for their development to be playing minutes elsewhere. But we’ll evaluate that over the off-season. A couple of those guys are gonna play in the summer league—it’s still a bit up in the air given the Olympic schedules. I think both of those players are gonna be on their Olympic squads.

JCF: One other player development question for you: Does the franchise have any interest in investing in a D-league team in order to perhaps install coach Adelman’s system and help develop young players that way? I know the Lakers and Spurs have adopted a similar approach.

DM: They have. I’ve had some public comments on this that probably stand, but until some of the structure of how the rights to players works in the D-league changes, I don’t see the Rockets owning a team.

JCF: That makes sense. So what about yourself? What did you learn in year one as a GM, and how would you evaluate your own performance?

DM: I don’t evaluate myself any different that we do as a group. And as a group we hit some of our goals which were to get home court in the Western Conference, and to give ourselves a better contract position, and to give us some players who are going to be on an upward curve going into next year. So those, as a group—and everyone worked on it, including the coaching staff who develop the younger players—we feel like we accomplished those, more or less. But we came up obviously short on maybe the most important goal, which was advancing in the playoffs. So I’d say we give ourselves mixed reviews at this point.

JCF: Finally, I have to ask: Before the playoffs began you said you felt like it was pretty much a slam dunk that the Celtics would win the East. Do you still feel that way after the scare they received from Atlanta? I know that was such a strange series when you factor in the point differential, but has your opinion of Boston changed at all, or do you feel like they’re still pretty much a lock to emerge from the East?

DM: Yeah, I think they’re pretty much a lock. I mean, they’ve got home court the whole way. I think it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat them in Boston. I’ve been in that environment. I think they have unbelievable fans and an unbelievable home court edge. And even if a team happens to beat them in Boston, the Celtics will match them by winning a game on the road. So I do feel like they’re going to come out of the East.

JCF: And out of the West?

DM: Um, out of the West… boy the West is hard to handicap right now. I think I like the Lakers against Utah. Oh boy, you know I might, surprisingly, go with the Spurs getting there, even with them getting beat up by New Orleans the first two games. I still think they have the best core, and the best coaching still left in the league. If I had to pick, I’d probably go with Celtics-Spurs right now.

JCF: That’s interesting. Since you have the reputation as the stats guy, I would think that the numbers would direct you more toward the Lakers and Hornets at this point.

DM: Yeah, they’d probably direct us away from the Spurs. But I guess I might be a little biased. The Celtics are a little more obvious, but the Spurs, you know Dennis [Lindsey] is a good friend who went there. I just really have a lot of respect for what they do there. So I think they’ll figure it out and win these games at home, and then they’ll go from there.

JCF: And I assume that, no matter what, the Celtics are probably your pick to win the whole thing, right?

DM: Yeah, that’s definitely my pick. I do think that series would go seven, though.

JCF: Well, it should be a great match-up, regardless. Hey, thanks so much for spending time with us throughout the season, Daryl. Get some rest, and we’ll catch up with you around draft time.

DM: Sounds good. I look forward to it.

- Jason Friedman

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