The offseason is always one of the most exciting periods of the NBA calendar for basketball fans. Without real games to focus on, fans are free to distract themselves with the question of how to improve the team they follow, whether it’s the addition of an exciting draft prospect, a shrewd free agency signing, or a bombastic trade aimed at fundamentally altering the side’s DNA. Each and every team has the potential to morph into a contender before training camp starts.
For Orlando it’s no different. They’ve got picks in the looming draft, a small amount of money to spend when the date arrives, and plenty of assets already on the roster who could be used to grease the wheels of a transaction. There’s also no doubt that plenty of digital ink will be spilt by fans as they try to figure out how to better position the Magic for success moving forward. Fire up the trade machine!
But what if the most impactful move the Magic could make this offseason actually has nothing to do with the playing roster? What if the potential for growth exists in the decision making process? What if the front office is actually where the team could most benefit from change?
What if the answer is Daryl Morey?
Morey’s professional career has long been focused on statistical analysis and technological integration, elements that he made the bedrock of his work as Houston’s General Manager from the moment he was appointed to the position in May of 2007. In the thirteen-plus years since the Rockets have enjoyed the second-most wins in the league, behind only the longtime aspirational benchmark that is San Antonio. That’s a pretty good starting point for an evaluation of his effectiveness.
Since Morey acquired James Harden — the signature transaction of his tenure — the Rockets have trailed only the Spurs and Warriors in the race for the league’s best cumulative winning percentage. His teams have always finished with a record of .500 or above, making the playoffs in 10 of his 13 years at the helm. And although the NBA Finals have eluded the Rockets, they’ve been more likely than not to advance beyond the first round (6 out of 10 times), including two occasions on which they fell in the Conference Finals to the eventual champions. Morey and Houston may not have won it all, but they’ve certainly enjoyed more than their fair share of success.
In his time in Texas Morey has shown an undeniable proclivity for acquiring talent in general and superstars specifically. During the early stages of his tenure he stockpiled assets (primarily of the draft kind), ensuring that when a top-tier player became available in trade he would have the ammunition necessary to secure his target. He unloaded that clip the moment James Harden was in play, landing the foundational centerpiece he longed for and the precise type of player he could successfully build an analytics-driven team around. It remains his defining move.
Harden is also hardly the only superstar that Morey has gotten his hands on. He landed Chris Paul in a trade that looked like it was a chance of catapulting the Rockets to the promised land before a faulty hamstring facilitated an unraveling. He brought Russell Westbrook in and built a center-less team of gunslingers that won despite defying much of what we thought we knew about basketball. He secured Dwight Howard’s signature in a move that at the time was viewed as a legitimate coup. He also dealt for or convinced a bevy of other solid contributors to sign on: Metta Sandiford-Artest, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Robert Covington, Ryan Anderson … the list is long.
Morey has also enjoyed decent success in the draft, despite not possessing a game-changing pick in any year. He has identified real contributors later in the process, selecting players like Nicolas Batum (25th), Marcus Morris (14th), Nikola Mirotic (23rd), Chandler Parsons (38th), Jeremy Lamb (12th), Clint Capela (25th) and Montrezl Harrel (32nd). It’s another area of the team-building job where he’s managed to extract value above expectation.
Now, it goes without saying that there have been some misses along with Morey’s hits, a fact that is true of any general manager who helms a franchise for a significant period of time. Some of the contracts he doled out eventually came to be viewed as an anchor. He has, on occasion, dealt away talent for minimal return. He’s seen the play and fit of a number of superstars sour on his watch. However, despite the apparent mistakes and missteps, up until his recent exit he was always able to adapt and course correct. Morey inevitably found ways to fix his mistakes.
Why would Orlando have need of a basketball mind like this? The team is fresh off a period of relative success, having secured a playoff spot for two years running and still being possessed of enough potential-laden youth that the ceiling is not yet entirely clear. Isn’t the right approach to stay the course?
Well, for a long while now the Magic have lagged behind their peers in a number of key indicators reflective of the modern style that has enveloped the league, specifically three point shooting and free throw attempts. In the post-Dwight years they have remained a team that has launched the long ball infrequently, making a poor percentage of those that they have lobbed up. In addition to this, they haven’t been the sort of side to generate points at the charity stripe, regularly recording one of the league’s most anaemic free throw rates. In a period of basketball where offense reigns, the Magic have failed to make a grab for a decent chunk of theoretical points. Recent roster moves haven’t addressed this team deficiency.
In Houston, Morey’s teams have basically set the standard for these two offensive measures since he got his hands on Harden. The Rockets have led the league in three point rate in seven of the eight seasons since the blockbuster trade, while also ranking in the top five for free-throw rate each year. Put simply, he has provided his coaches with the firepower needed to take advantage of the direction that basketball has inexorably been heading for the better part of two decades now.
Obviously, none of this is to say that the Magic would have been better served in the recent past by launching from downtown with reckless abandon and hurtling into the lane seeking contact at any cost. The roster simply hasn’t featured the types of players needed to make that possible. However, that’s precisely the point! Morey didn’t luck into contributors he had in Houston; instead, he was the one responsible for carefully piecing together the talent needed to make this vision a reality. In building rosters in Houston he has consistently demonstrated a shrewdness of talent evaluation that pairs perfectly with his mastery of salary cap machinations.
Morey has also displayed the ability to adapt rosters to suit the needs of his key players and coaching staff. For a team like Orlando — a veritable Rubik’s Cube of mismatched talents and duplicate skillsets — this type of thinking might be a necessity to successfully facilitate winning basketball. Morey has rebuilt rosters on the fly, undertaking wholesale changes but always inevitably maintaining one thing: success. Remember, he’s yet to construct a team that has won less than half of its games in a given season.
Perhaps most impressively, Morey achieved what he did in Houston despite some genuine financial limitations. For a team right there on the cusp of meaningful contention, the Rockets have dipped into the luxury tax just once in the last decade thanks to a pair of notably frugal owners. In fact, many of Morey’s transactions have obviously juggled the competing interests of adding on-court talent and minimising payroll impact. That the team has maintained such a high rate of winning speaks volumes about his talents as a general manager. Imagine what he might be able to do in Orlando with an ownership that has already indicated a willingness to spend.
It’s tough to advocate for a direction that would require someone else to lose their job, particularly when that individual hasn’t really done anything wrong. Since being named General Manager of the Magic in May of 2017, John Hammond has generally been pretty solid; he drafted Jonathan Isaac, hit a home run in the Markelle Fultz deal, acquired impactful role players like MCW and James Ennis for cheap, and maintained much of the team’s core on relatively team-friendly deals. There have been misses — Mo Bamba looks like a reach, he’s generally whiffed on second rounders, and some of his free agency acquisitions are questionable — but his wheeling and dealing has undoubtedly helped to excise Orlando from the purgatorial rebuild they had been existing in prior to his appointment. Shouldn’t he be given a chance to try and bring to fruition what he started?
Running counter to that line of thought is this: shouldn’t a franchise do everything they can to maximise their chances of winning? Ultimately, professional sports are a business, and like any business results are the bottom line. The Magic are trending in the right direction, but Morey’s keen eye for talent evaluation, willingness to exploit calculated risks, and data-inspired approach could be just the thing to accelerate that trajectory. If Morey improves the team’s chances of being better in the years to come, it’s a step that should be taken.
It’s unlikely that Morey would even be offered, let alone accept, the General Manager position for the Magic. The reasons for his exit from Houston aren’t yet entirely clear, but it might be that the daily basketball grind is something he needs a break from. There’s also the fact that Hammond is currently in the midst of an as-yet unfinished job, one that has already produced some solid returns. Patience, as we are oft reminded, is (potentially) a virtue.
Still, it’s a possibility that’s worthy of some consideration, even if it’s only as part of the process of due diligence. Daryl Morey has proven himself to be one of the best front office minds in the NBA. Doesn’t that sound like someone you would want working for the Magic?