When you do five weeks of research and interviews for one story, a lot of good material ends up on the cutting room floor. What follows are some of the more interesting tidbits from Daryl Morey, Billy Beane and Carroll Dawson that I couldn’t quite squeeze into this week’s feature. – Jason Friedman
JCF: I read that you seriously disliked school. How does someone with degrees from MIT and Northwestern hate school?
DM: I always hated school because it’s sort of pretend. It was very hard for me to ever get motivated by turning things into teachers because I knew it really never had an impact. I just never did school very well. I was able to not go to class and do okay, but it never really was something I got too excited about. I relied on my friends a lot in terms of notes, so they were always nice to help me out.
JCF: If your first big break had been in baseball, would we be talking about Daryl Morey, MLB GM right now?
DM: It’s no secret, I was actively seeking any job in any major sport out of STATS. That was my goal. I was going to take whatever opportunity came my way: be it basketball or anything else. That’s one thing I tell people trying to get into the industry –because you know how hard it is—that you’re not going to get your pick of teams or location. When there’s a slight crack in the door, you’ve got to pounce on it like a pit bull, never let go and work your ass off to make it work. There’s really no other way to succeed in this industry. So I could have definitely been in baseball. I could have been in football. I think for someone with a passion for sports and someone who hasn’t won the DNA sweepstakes that people talk about, you don’t get to choose your first job. So I could have easily ended up in baseball, no question.
JCF: Do you feel like your methodology makes you a pioneer of sorts in the NBA?
DM: Well, I think until we achieve some success, I don’t really feel like a pioneer of anything.
JCF: Do you feel any added pressure to succeed on behalf of the other big statistical analysis proponents?
DM: I understand that perspective, in terms of my success maybe meaning something to others. That said, I don’t think it adds any extra emphasis or pressure. I think the importance of us winning is already high enough. So I don’t put any sort of weight on that.
JCF: Do you ever find yourself in awe of how quickly you’ve moved up the NBA ladder?
DM: There’s not enough time, right? I’m very excited for the time when maybe I can look back and hopefully accomplish as much as my predecessor, Carroll Dawson, and have a retirement ceremony. But right now, the day-to-day focus on winning makes it difficult to have much perspective.
JCF: What about the lofty expectations placed upon the Rockets this year? You’ve got people picking you guys to win the title, which seems crazy since five months ago all anyone could talk about was the fact the Rockets haven’t made it past the first round in a decade.
DM: Yeah, I think it’s premature. I mean, I’ve tried to be cautiously optimistic. I think until we prove it on the court, I mean San Antonio’s the champs, Dallas – we beat them once last year – but they had our number, Phoenix has our number, you know until we do it on the court we’ve gotta say we’re behind those teams.
JCF: How do you feel about being labeled a “numbers guy?”
DM: Any person who gets to a certain level in an organization has differentiated themselves in some way– just like any NBA player has as a shooter or rebounder—so what will always be focused on is what differentiates my background in terms of having worked with some of the great minds of statistics and then, obviously, focusing on having an expert level aptitude in that. That said, it’s a people world, it’s not a numbers world. I think generally when I meet people they’re struck that I a quiet leadership or confidence. I’ve led fairly large organizations and made much larger decisions than player decisions that had much larger than multi-million dollar impacts. I also ran the leadership center at MIT. So I think for me, what differentiates me personally is not the numbers, it’s sort of marrying two very important aptitudes and then backing that leadership up through competence in many areas: basketball in general and focusing heavily on being on the leading edge of a lot of the new concepts and using evidence to help your decision-making.
JCF: And you feel like the Rockets are now leading the pack when it comes to bringing those two elements together?
DM: We’re investing multiple people, major investments in systems tracking. It’s that investment and spending that – and again, until we accomplish something it won’t be proven that that’s a prudent investment – we obviously think it’s a good bet. We’re, in my mind –and I’ve got a pretty good pulse on what other teams are doing – significantly ahead in our investment in the area and our focus on helping it differentiate us going forward. And not in a minor way, but a significant difference in investment. Most teams are doing something, frankly. But it’s a half person or full person. The farthest I think --barring us where we have five or six people, hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars investments—the most teams are doing are maybe two people.
JCF: What drives you?
DM: I think there’s a long history of fighting people who don’t believe in either the approach or the person and I think that motivates me greatly. Along with, I have a general intense competitive nature and I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to sports is a lot of businesses you’re in, you can be the best, you can make all the right decisions and nobody knows. And in basketball you get a constant reminder about whether or not you’re the best and whether or not you’re doing the right things. I think that’s very attractive and I love the accountability and I love the ability to do things better and advance the state of the practice in an area I love.
JCF: Do you feel as if this is basketball’s Moneyball moment?
DM: I think it’s overblown until there’s some evidence that it’s better. I don’t think that there’s been a team that’s invested a lot and had success. So until that time, I think you need to sort of temper that this is going to be a better way to do things until the success is in there.
In a competition of thirty teams, you have to bet on how you’re going to differentiate yourselves from the competition. And we definitely made this bet. We think it’s a good bet and we hope to prove it out.
JCF: Do you think you’re a generally dissatisfied person?
DM: I think the enemy of the best is the good. Especially in a competition of 30, where only one teams wins you know “good” isn’t good enough. You have to always be focused on improvement. I’m anticipating that’s going to be the big thing we’ll struggle with. We’re going to be good, and to be the best and to win the whole thing, we’re going to have to not be satisfied with good.
I think if you were to study the psychological profile of lots of senior executives, you’ll find a similar approach: A lot of it’s not fun, so what keeps you going? At some level, you get stressed out that you’ll never be happy because once you’re at one plateau, you’re just focused on the next. Jeff [Van Gundy] and I talked about this a decent amount, too: There’s definitely a balance where you’ve got to try and be happy with where you’re at. We could probably do that if we were trying to beat the market index, which is the average. But the problem is, with any sporting event, we’re not trying to beat the average, we’re trying to beat everybody.
JCF: Give me an example of a player who defies the numbers.
DM: I think the player that there’s a constant debate about in sort of the analytical basketball community is a player like Allen Iverson. He’s one that takes a lot of shots—they don’t always go in—but led a team to the Finals. So I think he’s someone definitely that I think is much better than an analytical look might show.
That’s crazy, because an area that hasn’t been studied enough –it’s been discussed a lot and no one’s come up with a definitive approach—is a trade-off of usage and efficiency. An analytical approach might tell you to have an entire team of Andres Biedrins because all he gets are lay-ups and dunks, or a player like Anderson Verejao, where of course an entire team of those would be a disaster because they have no one who can actually create a shot, no one who can break down a defense. So that’s just an example that trade-off is one that still—we’ve done a lot to look at that trade-off here—but I think in the community it’s still pretty nascent.
JCF: What’s one of the biggest things you’re focused on heading into this season?
DM: I feel like with Yao and Tracy especially, we’ve got a window here of a couple years. It’s not forever and it’s not one year, but it’s a period you can think about, and I just feel a tremendous responsibility to those two players –and the other players on the team, but to those two in particular—to make sure that they don’t end up like –and I don’t want to pick on another GM—Kevin Garnett who you could easily argue he’s been the best player in the league, and it just never came together around him for whatever reason. You know, I’m pretty cognizant these two guys have put their heart and soul into the Rockets and that I’ve sort of been entrusted with their careers on some level, and I take that very seriously.
JCF: ESPN’s John Hollinger projects Yao to be one of the best –if not the best- players in the league. What do your projections say?
DM: I have to say generally when we’re planning going forward, we actually don’t count on him improving. But the reality is – and this is the exciting thing about Yao—he’s in an age range where historical players like him – and he’s obviously unique in many ways to anyone historically—but if you compare him to a rough set of players who have been similar to him, they still are improving for the next year or two. I think with Carroll Dawson working with him and Jack Sikma, we’ve really got a good set of coaches to continue his development and history would show he’s got a very good chance of improving. That said, we don’t count on it. He’s frankly already the best center in the league. He wants to get better, but we can likely win a title without him getting better, we just need to get the right pieces around him.
JCF: What would you say is Morey’s best asset for the job?
BB: To say he’s a very analytical person is an understatement. He sort of thinks before he speaks and acts. This is an emotional business and it’s easy to let emotions start to rule your decision making, but everything he does, he sort of looks at every angle and I think in any business, not just sports, I think that’s the preferred type of leadership you’d like to have. The hurdle that I faced that he didn’t face was that I’m not nearly as bright as him. When you’re as bright as him, then there’s a lot less hurdles to get over.
He has a very comfortable demeanor and that’s a strength of his. I think that sort of quiet self-confidence that he has makes people feel comfortable as opposed to making them uncomfortable which is really going to be an asset for him.
JCF: What do you guys talk about when you’re on the phone sharing ideas?
BB: You have two very different sports which lend themselves to sort of different analyses and stuff like that. But I think you’re always looking for any sort of common thread, or something he may be looking at that may be applicable to what I’m doing or vice-versa. He’s a great guy and stimulating to talk to. I’ve always seen myself as a macro guy and Daryl has the unique ability to be not just a macro, but also a micro guy. Believe me, he’s just as good a resource for me as I am for him.
JCF: What were your first impressions of Morey?
CD: I could see right away that we could make a Rocket out of this guy. When I hire any of these people that are with me, I used to tell them, “Look, if you’re in here to promote yourself, you’re not going to be here long.” I said “We’re going to promote the owner and the head coach and we’re going to work together and when we win, there will be enough credit for everybody, if that’s what you’re in to.” But I always kind of kept it as a family deal. Well, Daryl, I could tell right away he could be a Rocket. It wasn’t a job to him. This wasn’t a way for him to get a name or something like that. He liked the city, he liked the team and he could be a Rocket. And I liked that part about him right away.
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JCF: What is your working relationship like now that Daryl has taken over?
CD: He calls me all the time and we talk about things–a lot to do with talking to agents and how to deal with things like that, that he hasn’t gotten to know as well as I do – so we spend a lot of time on the phone. He’s not a know-it-all guy. He understands that it helps to have the whole picture and he understands how delicate everything is and he goes about it the right way and I trust the guy and I think the owner does, too.
We’re in a good ol’ boy state, being from Texas, and if you grew up in the north it takes a little bit of an adjustment because the people skills are different. And I thought he made great, great progress as far as opening up and being a warmer guy. Because if you live in Boston --and I’m not knocking Boston or New York -- there’s a different personality up there; it’s sharper, it’s more curt, it’s more pointed, it’s just different. Of course if you live in Texas it’s a good ol’ boy state and he has adjusted to that part real well and his people skills are getting more Texanized. His personality’s changed a little bit. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but if you’re in Texas you gotta do as the Romans do and I think it’s worked pretty well for him.
This is the way I look at it: I think Daryl’s a very lucky person to come in and take over a team this good and I think the Rockets are very lucky to have him. So when it turns out good for both parties, I think it’s just a good deal.