Morey Q&A: Secrets of the Rockets' GM

Just two years into his tenure as general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey has already left an indelible imprint on the NBA. The 36-year-old is basketball's answer to Oakland A's GM and "Moneyball" protagonist Billy Beane, using elaborate statistical research and technological innovations to help make personnel decisions -- only with an academic background at Northwestern and MIT and an athletic career that ended long before the pros.

After years of first-round disappointments, the Rockets finally broke through in April, knocking off Portland to advance to the second round.

With Houston now battling the Lakers in the conference semifinals, Morey talked about finding bargain players, dealing with an economic recession, riding a statistical revolution and being willing to try new and different things to build a winning team. You can find the wide-ranging interview below.

Ed. note: This interview was originally conducted at the start of the Lakers-Rockets series, with a few questions added thereafter.

Jonah Keri: What did the Rockets do to beat the Blazers?

Daryl Morey: Obviously a lot of things went right. I'd call out our defense, we've hung our hats on that. One thing I've learned is that Brandon Roy is an unbelievable player. Shane [Battier] and Ron [Artest] had more trouble with Roy than with anyone this year …

Keri: … even more than with Kobe?

Morey: … and Kobe. LeBron had an off night the last time we played Cleveland, so maybe we were lucky. But we did do a pretty good job of controlling LeBron when we played him, especially the second time. [Against the Blazers], we won the rebounding battle, which was a big factor coming into the series. Either Yao dominated, which he did in Game 1, or we did a good job of taking advantage of opportunities that opened up when they focused on Yao.

Keri: When Yao was healthy, we heard so many people saying that fronting him was a must, that if you let him catch the ball in the post, he'd kill you. If you're a coach preparing to play the Rockets, is that the magic bullet -- just deny Yao the ball?

Morey: I do think [we've seen] the extension of Yao's game. In the past if he was fronted, he was much less effective. We've also seen an improvement in the rest of the roster, in the quality of our role players. A lot more attention was paid to Yao, especially in Games 2 and 3 [versus Portland]. They were essentially doubling him before the catch, and it's very rare to see any player double-teamed continually like that. We've been able to take advantage of those situations. We have better perimeter shooters now.

We've also got a guy like Luis Scola at or near the top of the league in terms of taking advantage of what you give him. He won't beat his man one-on-one. But give him space to operate, like he had when he played with the Argentinean team, and he'll take advantage. [Aaron] Brooks, [Kyle] Lowry and Von [Wafer] can really put the defense in jeopardy, by beating their guy to the basket.

Keri: Why don't more teams play zone?

Morey: Hmmm. That's a tough question. Well, first of all the defensive three-seconds rule doesn't allow you to play a true zone like you would in international ball and college. Another key factor is training. It is a very different defense to coach, in a pure sense. Not many coaches in the NBA have focused on that, they're largely man-focused.

That said, a lot more zone is played than fans realize. Not a 2-3 or 1-3-1 or full-court pressing 2-2-1 zone. But a good 33 percent … maybe closer to 50 percent of the time in the NBA, you'll see part of the floor being played in a zone sense. On the strong side, you have an on-ball defender, the double-team comes, for sure there's a hybrid man-zone that happens immediately. Even without the double team, teams will bring a defender over from the weak side. The Lakers do this all the time. They overload the side the ball's on, and play zone on the weak side. Teams are playing more hybrid defenses, you could call them zones.

Keri: How does the team play differently with Tracy McGrady out?

Morey: It's a very different team with him out. The staple of the offense was Yao and Tracy running the pick-and-roll. With Tracy out, it's more what people would think about with Coach [Rick] Adelman, a lot of motion and guys getting open. It's different, one way is not better than the other. Tracy's become famous for not getting out of the first round, but I challenge people who blame it on him to go look at the numbers. He's one of few players who actually get better in the playoffs.

Keri: You mentioned Kyle Lowry -- the team already had Aaron Brooks at point guard. Was this more a case of shopping for what you liked than what you needed?

Morey: I learned this from [Celtics managing partner] Wyc Grousbeck. You've got your pieces you need to win the title. Obviously Yao is one of those. With the rest of the roster, you're trying to upgrade as much as you can, whether it's for helping you win or for trade purposes.

A lot went into the Lowry acquisition. McGrady going out that week factored into the decision. Kyle is the youngest player on the roster, someone we felt could really help us going forward. But we also thought he was a very good player right now. He gave us another player who could attack the basket. Rafer [Alston] was an underrated player, especially defensively. But he didn't give us what we needed with McGrady out. That, plus Lowry being younger and Coach liking guards that can attack the hoop. With Aaron and Kyle, now we're clarified in terms of our style of play. We can push the ball up the floor. If nothing's there, we get it to Yao. If nothing's there, we can drive and kick out for shots.

Keri: At the beginning of a season, do you have a set plan for injuries? Especially with players who can be injury-prone, do you try to budget for a certain number of games you expect your starting five to miss?

Morey: We do budget for that. It's just part of being diligent in our job. We try to take a pessimistic … a realistic view of how many games each player will play. Whether that's traditional insurance, or also non-traditional insurance in terms of having the right support players on the team. Coming into this year, both Shane and Tracy were coming off surgery. So we acquired Ron, we felt he had elements of both those skill sets, where he could carry us if we had an injury. Von Wafer, one of the big reasons we kept him, aside from liking his potential, was that he was at a spot where we had the most injuries. We didn't want to be right (laughs). But in this case we were.

Keri: Is it fair to judge the GM's track record and a team's accomplishments when you inherit players, or does something like that need to wait? In your case, do we need to wait until McGrady, and maybe also Yao, are gone?

Morey: I never think about that. The owner of the Rockets has to think about that in terms of whether I'm doing a good job. At the end of the day, I'm trying to make the best decisions to help the team win. Yao is our best player, he was here before, we'll keep him as long as we can. Look at Danny [Ainge] up in Boston, he did a terrific job. He had Paul Pierce, who was arguably their best player certainly last year, certainly their best player in the Finals. Danny was smart enough to know to keep him. Even though they were building, he knew that Pierce was a cornerstone. There are lots of decisions, and also non-decisions, that go into this job. In the same way that it can be impossible to separate a coach from the players, it's also impossible to separate the GM from the coach from the players. You just have to ask: Is the GM helping the team have playoff success? Is he giving the team a chance to win the title?

Keri: In baseball, and maybe this is because of the long tradition of the game, but when Billy Beane and other analytically oriented GMs started popping up, there was a lot of resistance to change, almost hostility toward some of the new faces and new ideas. Have you found similar biases against you, being an outsider, in a way?

Morey: I don't have really a sense that that kind of resistance exists at all. Baseball helped. Some of the trends we're seeing in basketball now, baseball already went through the rocky times beforehand, with the perception that statistical analysis wasn't valuable, that it shouldn't be respected. Also, I would add that GMs and owners in basketball, they're all very intelligent, successful people, all looking for an edge. There are a lot of ways to gain an edge, too. Another team might be ahead of us in other ways, better facilities or a better coaching pipeline, or something else. We have to do everything we can to create an advantage for ourselves.

Keri: You, Sam Presti, Kevin Pritchard … there's a wave of younger GMs that have come into the league the past few years and made an impact. Is it a case where you guys are more tuned in to analysis, or to managing the luxury tax? Or are there other reasons?

Morey: If you look at GMs a few years older than Kevin, Sam and I, they were seen as the young guard 15 or 20 years ago, too. It's a natural progression. Analytics are definitely part of our tool kits, and both Sam and Kevin do a fantastic job, not just in that way, either. Some of it is a desire to create a long-term partnership on the personnel side. You want someone who can stick around for a longer amount of time. Plus the owners are getting younger themselves, so they might be looking for a fresher perspective.

Keri: On the statistical front, are you, or people in the organization, searching for a catch-all measure of player value, like VORP in baseball? Is John Hollinger's PER that stat? Or is basketball too context-dependent for a catch-all measure of value?

Morey: There's certainly value in a catch-all stat, especially from a public or media perspective. I look at it this way: I don't think people who minimize it are right, or the people who trumpet it. Being able to rank players that way is a way to simplify for mass audiences. But in terms of decision-making, it really is almost useless. Everything becomes more contextual. How will this player fit in our system, with the plays we run, with our defensive scheme? Those are the questions that rule the day, not whether a player is No. 7 or No. 6.

Keri: What's the big nut to crack right now, statistically speaking?

Morey: From a public domain standpoint, it's defense. Even more so than in baseball. That for sure is a big frontier that will have the most impact on winning.

Keri: How much does personal observation factor into your decision-making? Do you ever worry that, like watching Derek Jeter make a great play and thinking he's a great defensive shortstop, your eyes might be deceiving you?

Morey: Good question. You've got a spectrum at work here. In some cases you have plays that give you a history of highly reliable data, like going 2-for-1 at the end of a quarter, so you focus on the data in making your decision. You can definitely hurt yourself if you use observation too much, thinking there's a pattern based on the last two or three outcomes, something like that. But in basketball, there's so much in play -- the difficulty of analyzing interaction between players, whether it's on the court or off, with their personalities. Did you make the shot because you were open? Because you're a good shooter? Because it's your favorite side of the floor? On the move or standing still? No objective factor is going to capture all of those perfectly, ever.

So I do think observation will always play a key role. Baseball lends itself better to the 2-for-1-type question. In baseball sometimes observation gets in the way. I don't think that's the case as much in basketball.

Keri: What caused the Rockets' 22-game winning streak last year? As someone who's statistically inclined, did you see it as good play, but also just a lot of random chance?

Morey: For sure there's good fortune. For sure, you're playing great. Those two things have to combine. It can't all just be playing great, or good fortune. The way I thought about at the time was this: Who's the best team in the league right now?

Keri: Probably Cleveland.

Morey: OK, so the Cavaliers are the best team in the league. Who was the worst team this year? Maybe Sacramento. So let's say the Cavaliers play 22 straight games against Sacramento. It's very unlikely they're going to win all 22. And we were obviously playing better opponents. So you take these things in stride and recognize them for what they are, a lot of which is good fortune. But you also don't want to minimize it. We were playing great, and guys were working their asses off, especially late in games. We would have lost a few of those games if not for a bunch of late gut-checks.

Keri: Teams have made great strides in their analysis with the improvement and increased availability of play-by-play data. Are we seeing a similar trend in basketball?

Morey: The league does gather play-by-play data at the court level, we try to use that as much as possible. We're also tracking everything else under the sun. Public resources, but also our own internal efforts.

Keri: Can you offer an example?

Morey: You can tell how often a player gets a rebound when he's on the floor, versus just that he had eight for the game. You can figure out that eight based on minutes played, but also how many chances he got, how many times the ball was in his area.

Keri: I'll ask you the same question people asked Billy Beane after "Moneyball" came out: Is there a way to talk candidly about the value of a certain player or a certain philosophy, such that it enhances the public's knowledge of the game, but without giving away the real top-secret sauce?

Morey: What we try to do is keep things pretty close to the vest. If something is in the public domain, we're pretty comfortable talking about it. But otherwise we're good about keeping things quiet.

Keri: You talked at length to Michael Lewis about Shane Battier, a player you acquired because his contributions exceeded the obvious stats. Who else on the roster fits that mold, and how are their contributions best measured?

Morey: Any time a player's value is in large part tied up in the defensive side of the ball, he's going to be underrated. Chuck Hayes is an extreme example. You couldn't understand why he's in the league if you just looked at the standard box score stats. If you just looked at points, rebounds and assists, you'd think we all need our heads examined.

Keri: What makes Hayes so good defensively? Is it defending multiple positions? Defensive rebounding? Something else?

Morey: Not to give a smart-ass answer, but yes. He does all of those things well. He can … well he can come close to guarding 1 through 5. To guard the 5, you need particular strength, and he has that. It would be a little tougher for him to guard a 1. But against 2-3-4-5, he's one of the best. He has a unique combination of lateral quickness, strength and speed all wrapped up in a great defensive mind. Because he's so limited in other ways, much more so than Shane, he wouldn't be an NBA player if those things weren't true.

Keri: Since we're talking about defense -- Dikembe Mutombo, Hall of Famer?

Morey: Surefire Hall of Famer. His play already warrants it. He provided a unique aspect on the defensive end, where he got the glamour stats like blocked shots. But he also discouraged high-percentage shots for other teams. For sure he's one of the top-five players in the game of all time in that area. Add in his off-the-court contributions as well, which are extraordinary -- maybe the most significant of any active player. Add to that his ability to play late into his career, which is astonishing, add to that his impact in the locker room, his mentoring and leading by example. We gush about him, but it's all genuine. The impact he's made is almost hard to compare. It's almost a little intimidating to try and live up to some of the standards he has set.

Keri: There's a lot of talk about the luxury-tax threshold going down quite a bit in the offseason. What are you expecting the number to be? How do you prep for what could be a significant drop?

Morey: Every team has an internal budget targeting that number. I don't want to say what ours is. Most teams are forecasting flat to down, for sure. In a macro sense, for the league, it's not a big difference. But for individual teams, it matters more. For us, we're close to the number now. It's a good year to take advantage of the situation if you can. We won't be able to do that as much. Now I'm not complaining. I wouldn't trade spots with most teams, we're still playing in the playoffs. But teams that are more in rebuilding mode, with smaller payrolls, they can acquire assets by helping other teams get under the luxury-tax limit.

Keri: More broadly, how does a professional basketball franchise handle a situation as uncertain and volatile as a global recession?

Morey: Each team is going to be affected differently. We've been affected less. One reason is because Houston's economy has been more resilient, since it relies more heavily on the energy industry. Two, it's because our team is performing well. On the basketball court, a free agent who before was going to make $5 million, he might get $3 or $4 million in the environment coming up. We may see some of the environment that we've seen in baseball last offseason. No one wanted to take a deal below what they could have had in the year prior, so they kept waiting for someone else to be the first to sign. Same thing in a down housing market, you don't want to be the first to sell your house below what you hoped to get for it. And I think it'll be the same in basketball: Players, player agents -- no one will want to be the first one to sign.

Keri: How and why did the idea for the first MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference happen? What does the conference hope to achieve?

Morey: It's part of a larger trend, the use of objective data to help inform and make better decisions. I think the sports world is coming later to it than other industries, like say, consumer packaged goods. But it turns out to be an even better fit for sports than for other industries. The hardest questions in other industries are new products and competitive dynamics, and those are really more art than data-driven. In sports, those questions are moot. You know what sport you're competing in, and the competition is low on the business side, even though it's high on the team side. So data can be applied to more specific uses when you're running a sports franchise.

Keri: Where do you see the Sloan conference, say, 10 years from now?

Morey: This was Year 3 for us, and we had about 500 people attend, Ten years from now, I'd like to gather even more really interesting folks, all like-minded, and become something like the Davos of sports conferences. That would be a gratifying outcome to myself and the many others who work on it.

Keri: And the conference comes from your MIT roots, of course, since you got your MBA there. Is that where you first got heavily into sports analytics?

Morey: It's been a lifelong thing. At an early age I was reading Bill James' Abstracts, as a personal propensity I was interested in that. At that time, baseball was the only sport where you even had data to do analytics. I took that love of numbers and carried it over to my feeble high school playing career (laughs). Then when I was at Northwestern, it was serendipity, where I had the good fortune of being next to a premier stats house in Stats, Inc. So I got to work with Bill James, or at least at the same firm that Bill James helped found. Like most people, I struggled mightily to get a job in sports. So I left for five or six years, got back in, got some good fortune, and took advantage of those opportunities.

Keri: Who were your favorite players and favorite team while you were growing up with stats and your "feeble high school playing career"?

Morey: The Cleveland Cavaliers. Price, Daugherty, Nance, Hot Rod Williams, Sanders. Besides the current Rockets team, that team will always be the team I'm most fond of.

Keri: Did you have a favorite style of play then? Do you have one now?

Morey: Right now it's all about the style of play that helps you win. I did love how the Cavs played as a team. They were not superstar-driven -- they had a lot of very good players, but they really worked as a team. They would have had a lot of success if not for the Jordan Bulls. Still to this day, I wish the Cavs had beaten the Bulls. Still in my head I want to feel like those Cavs teams were better. But the evidence is pretty overwhelming for the other side (laughs).

Keri: Lightning round. Three keys for the rest of the Rockets-Lakers series?

Morey: Make Kobe work, slow down their transition game, rebounding.

Keri: Which Lakers weakness can best be exploited from here on?

Morey: They don't have any major weaknesses.

Keri: How can the Rockets win without Yao?

Morey: It will be very difficult as he is our franchise player. Without Yao we have to continue to play strong defense. Our pick-and-roll defense will likely improve with Chuck Hayes getting minutes. On offense, we need to get out in transition, spread the floor, attack the basket, find shooters and knock down the shots.

Keri: What went right in Game 4?

Morey: We did [all of that].

Jonah Keri has covered baseball and basketball for a number of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Baseball Prospectus. He's writing a book about the Tampa Bay Rays' climb from cellar dwellers to pennant winners (Ballantine/ESPN Books, Spring 2010). You can reach him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.