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Q&A with Daryl Morey: Talking Trades in the No Balls Association

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It’s been awhile since we’ve talked to our favorite number-crunching GM, and with the trade deadline just around the corner (February 21) it seemed like the perfect time to catch up with Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Needless to say, with the Rockets rolling—after last night’s 92-77 victory over Cleveland, they’ve now won 14 of their last 17 games—and a pair of blockbuster deals sending shockwaves throughout the NBA, there was plenty to discuss.

JCF: For about a month now I’ve been wondering if perhaps there was a rule in place that prohibited you guys from winning by double digits. How does it feel to finally experience a relatively stress-free final two minutes at home?

DM: Well I thought I was going to go gray pretty young. But it was a great job by the coaching staff and our players to get the lead and then put it away against a team that has been playing great and can come back in a hurry with LeBron and their shooting.

I thought our depth really showed. With Luther out, Bonzi really stepped up. I thought Scola played great, Carl (Landry) brought a lot of energy and Rafer might have had his best game of the year. I thought he was unbelievable.

JCF: He really was super. I know he’s generally public enemy No. 1 for Rockets fans. When things aren’t going well, he’s the easy target. But he’s so incredibly valuable to this team.

DM: He came to play. And Shane (Battier) was off the charts, too. It took me a couple players to name him, because he’s like the Valedictorian at school who everyone assumes he’s going to do the right thing. But we don’t win without him tonight, either.

JCF: You mentioned how your depth really carried the day, and that was supposed to be one of the strengths of this team when the season began. But these days, that depth is being provided by guys like Aaron Brooks and, especially, Carl Landry, who’s just been a revelation these last few weeks. Did you have any idea you’d be getting this sort of production from him this soon?

DM: Not a chance. While you always hope for this scenario, if you had told me before the year Carl Landry is playing now, I would have thought it was because there were many injuries to the team. But it’s not been that at all. Carl has just gotten better and better and you can’t keep him off the floor. [Last night] we’re facing one of the top rebounding teams in the league, and because of him, Bonzi, and Scola we beat them up on the boards which really never happens. The energy he brings is infectious. He doesn’t allow any letdowns when he’s out there because he doesn’t know any gear but full-speed.

JCF: Yeah, when he and Scola are on the floor together, your offensive strategy might as well be chuck it up from the outside and just let those two crash the boards because it seems like they grab every single rebound and loose ball.

Anyway, the big story this past week has obviously been the big trades which have gone down in Phoenix and L.A. It’s funny, because last year ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons dubbed the NBA the “No Balls Association” because he felt GMs would rather stand pat than put their necks on the line by making a risky move. I guess it might be time to rethink that label, huh?

DM: Well, not to steal from a former player here, but Steve Kerr has big balls [laughs]. I don’t think he’d be lumped into Bill Simmons’s No Balls Association.

I actually don’t agree with Bill on that [his “No Balls Association” theory]. At the end of the day, you’re judged by your wins and losses, no matter how you got there; whether it was through trades or not. If you don’t make a trade and get lots of wins and win the title like San Antonio’s done, there’s no reason to have balls [laughs]. Then, you know, Miami put a team together [through trades] and won a title, so it can work either way. But at the end of the day, it’s just constructing a team that wins; whether you do it in-house or through trades. Clearly the GMs that don’t trade as much, they think they can take a certain route.

JCF: What about your reaction to the Pau Gasol deal?

DM: I think it’s great for L.A., and I think—given the goals that were laid out for Chris [Wallace] in Memphis—he did much better than people are saying. You can only judge a trade based on what you’re being asked to do, and what goals you’re working with, and given what goals Memphis was working with I think they did much better than people are criticizing them for. So that deal was one I thought made a lot of sense for both sides given where the franchises were and what they’re trying to do.

JCF: I know you don’t buy into that “Keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality, where you feel your hand has been forced to make a deal just because L.A. and Phoenix have. But do you feel any added pressure at all after seeing those trades go down?

DM: Well you live and die by the team and trying to improve the team every day. For the same reason people criticize our Homeland Security System, where our security level gets raised—it feels like we should always be vigilant. And that’s how, personnel-wise, at the Rockets every day we’re vigilant and trying to improve the team. You can’t force the timing and the fact that other teams do it, have made moves to upgrade, there are emotional reactions to every game and to everything that happens in the league. But at the end of the day our job is to focus on what gives up the best chance to win, and we do that everyday. So I think from a rational point of view it doesn’t change what we do at all.

JCF: I think it’s interesting how you talk about the emotional vs. the rational reactions of someone in your position. As a GM I know you’re going to have a certain amount of loyalty to your players and you’re going to develop relationships with some of them as well. So how do you stay unbiased in order to properly evaluate the talent you have on your roster vs. the talent throughout the league?

DM: There’s definitely a danger—as you pointed out—to have confirmation bias. And I think what Bill was talking about with the No Balls Association, that’s what leads to it. People always want to see their own choices pan out. To fight that, you do it in many ways. You basically think and talk through it with the staff. Would you do the reverse deal? And if you can’t come up with sort of an unbiased reason why or why not, that helps you think through whether or not you’re overvaluing your own guys.

And secondly, we have folks who are peripherally involved in the process who—as we’re ranking and judging the players—we pull them in from the outside—they’re not normally involved in any sort of day-to-day decision making—and that way you get less group think, and less of an overriding focus on everyone wanting to see the decisions of the past pan out.

JCF: That having been said, do you feel like this current Rockets roster is good enough to compete with the top teams and challenge for a title?

DM: I think, objectively, we’re short. The teams that have won [in the past] have generally performed better than we have up to this point. That said, we’ve got a lot of factors working in our favor to say, “We don’t know how good we can be with the current group.” You know, rationally, we’re short, but there’s always an adjustment period with a new coaching staff. There’s an adjustment period with new players. A lot of our players are in their first, second, third years in the league and should improve. We haven’t had health, especially with Tracy.

So I think it’s an open question if we’re good enough. And frankly the question isn’t, “Is this group good enough to win?” the question is “What gives us the best chance to win?” And those sound the same, but they’re actually very different. And even if you know you don’t have the group to win, it still may be the best of all available options.

JCF: That brings me to my next question. When you have a situation like the one Danny Ferry is facing in Cleveland, where LeBron is looking around and publicly pleading for a deal to help the Cavs, I assume that just makes GM’s job harder, right? Because now, instead of dealing from a position of strength, you become a desperate team in the eyes of your fellow general managers.

DM: Yeah, I think you’ve gotta be careful with your players. Luckily, all our players have a great approach. All the players need to believe that the team can win, and I think all our players do. In my opinion, it’s not a healthy mental state to feel like we can’t win with our current group. Not only does it hurt how you play, but it’s obviously an implicit negative opinion of your teammates who you have to walk in and stare at in the locker room right after you make the quote. So, yeah, I don’t think it’s a good approach.

JCF: Speaking of believing you can win, I know the guys got together and watched the Super Bowl. Now I know that winning a championship in football is completely different than doing so in the NBA where you have to slug your way through four best-of-7 series. But when you see a team like the Giants who spent much of the regular season looking like a slightly better than mediocre team only to get hot and claim a title, do you then look around the room and say, “Why not us?

DM: Yeah, we’ve said that all along, whether the Giants won or not. I do think there might be an emotional, “Hey, why not us?” But as you pointed out, the best teams win at a higher clip in basketball, so you need to climb into being one of those best teams. So our time is now. Hopefully [last night’s win] was the continuation of what’s been a pretty good run for us for a good while, but we can’t count on an April flurry to make us feel like we can do [what the Giants did]. If we feel like we can do that, we’re going to be in trouble. A.) We might not even make the playoffs in the West and B.) That kind of storybook ending is nearly non-existent [in the NBA].

But we dug ourselves a hole and we’ve dug out of it for the most part, and now we need to continue to play how we’ve played. And if we continue to play how we’ve played, then we are championship contenders. But generally you need to look at the totality of it and, rationally, we haven’t played good enough up to this point. But if we can continue how we’re playing, and signs are positive, then we’ll be right where we’d hoped we’d be when the season started; when some people picked us to win the whole thing, and pretty much everybody picked us to be one of the top teams in the West.

- Jason Friedman

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