The Case for Daryl Morey: Executive of the Year

This season, the Houston Rockets find themselves in a unique position to not only contend for the NBA Championship, but also to lay claim to very prestigious individual accolades. Because of the drastic changes made since last season, Houston could very well be home to multiple season-end awards including, but not limited to, Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, and Executive of the Year.

This column is the first in a series that looks to explore Houston’s success this season and, more specifically, make a case as to why various Rockets personnel deserve to win these awards. The following is the case for Daryl Morey to win the 2016-2017 NBA Executive of the Year Award.

What It Takes To Win

Generally speaking, management’s job is to build a team that’s capable of winning championships – reasonably assuming that’s ownership’s goal for the organization. A General Manager is responsible for making basketball decisions big and small, including signing star free agents, making beneficial trades, drafting well, scouting, hiring/firing staff and everything in between. So, an Executive of the Year (EOTY) candidate should be rewarded for making moves that ultimately push the team into the top tier of the league and into contention for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

To exemplify this notion, look no further than last year’s award and R.C. Buford, General Manager of the San Antonio Spurs. Before the 2015-2016 season started, the Spurs managed to lure 2015’s biggest free agent – LaMarcus Aldridge – to a four-year deal. On top of this big signing, the Spurs inked 2014 Finals MVP and current MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard to a long-term deal, and managed to sign other key pieces such as Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, David West, and Tim Duncan for one last ride. Throw in late season signings of Andre Miller and Kevin Martin, as well as emerging prospects like Jonathon Simmons, Kyle Anderson, and Boban Marjanovic, and the Spurs had made plenty of moves to push the Spurs to an incredible 67-15 record, the second best in the league.

However, recent history has shown that successful acquisitions and transactions aren’t the only major qualifier for this award. Team success in the regular season has proven to be another major factor, perhaps even more important than management making effective roster moves. Going back to R.C. Buford and the Spurs, the 2013-2014 EOTY (his first) was an example of winning holding more importance than actual roster moves. That season, the Spurs held the best record in the NBA (62-20) and were the shining example of ball movement and "beautiful basketball." That said, the team’s core of Gregg Popovic, Duncan, Leonard, and Tony Parker were already set, and the re-signing of Ginobili was a foregone conclusion. Other than that, the signings of Marco Bellineli, Thiago Splitter, and Jeff Ayres weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire. This is not at all to discredit Buford’s work or to say that he doesn’t deserve the award, but to show that, in this case, team performance mattered more than roster moves.

Furthermore, since Daryl Morey was appointed general manager of the Rockets, there have been nine winners of EOTY and all but one built teams that won home-court advantage in the NBA Playoffs (The 2009-2010 Milwaukee Bucks were the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference). Excluding that Bucks team, the lowest winning percentage among these teams was 63.6% (the 2011-2012 Indiana Pacers). Excluding that Pacers team, who played in the season-shortened lockout year, the average number of wins for these teams was an eye-popping 60 games (rounded up from 59.625 for a winning percentage of 72.71%). Now, there are a few outliers here, including three of the top 15 best regular season records of all time (2016 San Antonio Spurs, 2015 Golden State Warriors, and 2008 Boston Celtics), but you get the point – winning matters. 

Morey’s Credentials

Given the above criteria, Daryl Morey might have the best case of any NBA executive to win this award. He’s responsible for culture-shifting moves and finding staff and players that tailor directly to Houston’s (moreso James Harden’s) strengths on the hardwood, and the Rockets are winning at a rate comparable to previous teams to employ the EOTY.

First and foremost, Morey needed to make two big moves that would alter the direction of the franchise for the foreseeable future. That started with the impending free agency of Dwight Howard and whether or not to pursue. Ultimately, this was an easy decision to make as it was clear Howard and Harden would not be able to function together on the court, but still, losing a perennial All-Star was sure to hurt the Rockets in the short-term – on paper, at least.

Then, Morey (in conjunction with ownership and Harden) would have to make a hiring decision on a head coach that would be suitable to Harden’s needs. After much deliberation, the Rockets decided that Mike D’Antoni was the perfect choice – and boy were they right. D’Antoni, who had been somewhat blackballed from the NBA after a disastrous run with the Lakers, quickly made the choice to make Harden the full time point guard and fully unlock his potential. And now, D’Antoni looks poised to be holding a trophy of his own at season’s end.

Now that those two major decisions were made, Morey’s next challenge was building a roster around Harden that could either compete for a championship right away (which felt like a long shot at the time) or set the team up to make bigger and better moves in subsequent offseasons. He quickly made the move to sign Eric Gordon to a four-year deal worth $53 million and Ryan Anderson to a four-year deal worth $80 million. At the time, those signings were controversial as it meant the Rockets were adding two guys with rich injury histories to even richer contracts. Things seem to be going according to plan though, as the Gordon contract looks like an absolute steal and Anderson, a long-time target of Morey’s, provides excellent outside shooting that opens up a ton of space for Harden to operate.

Also, the Rockets signed veteran center Nene to an extremely cheap, $3 million deal to shore up the frontcourt and be a mentor of sorts to Clint Capela. Speaking of Capela, Morey later picked up the team option on his contract – meaning that Clint is going to be playing for the Rockets on a rookie-scale contract through next season.

Following the signings of Gordon, Anderson, and Nene, Morey dropped a bombshell that James Harden had agreed to restructure his contract and sign an extension through 2020 (he has a player option after the 2018-2019 season). This was a huge move because it meant that Harden, currently 27 years old, had essentially committed to giving the Houston Rockets the absolute best years of his career. This was a move that extended Houston’s championship window by a few years.

Months later, shortly before the trade deadline, Morey made a big move in trading for Lou Williams. With this move, the Rockets simultaneously added yet another good shooter who has the ability to create his own shot and traded away a struggling Corey Brewer (much to the delight of Rockets Twitter).

These moves have translated into a significant uptick in team chemistry and, more importantly, wins. As of the date of this publishing, the Rockets hold a record of 49-22 for a winning percentage of 69%. Should this pace continue, Houston would finish the season with 56 wins, which would tie the 2014-2015 Western Conference Finals team for the third best regular season record in Rockets history. Given that the Rockets were a .500 team last year, finishing with a 41-41 record and barely limping into the Playoffs, this surge in wins (potentially a 15-win increase) is truly remarkable.

Competition for the Award

While Morey has an extremely strong case for the award this season, his competition needs to be considered – starting with teams that are winning at a similar (and superior) clip. Buford, David Griffin of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors are sure to be considered. The Spurs signed Pau Gasol, re-signed Manu, and added a bunch of smaller pieces like Dewayne Dedmon, David Lee, and Davis Bertans. Similarly, Cleveland didn’t do much to change their squad by re-upping with LeBron James (yes, he was a free agent, but it wasn’t realistic he was going to leave Cleveland after winning them a championship), J.R. Smith, and Richard Jefferson. The Cavs, however, did add Kyle Korver at the trade deadline, which should make Cleveland even more dangerous in their pursuit to repeat.

The Warriors made one of the biggest free agency signings in history when Kevin Durant agreed to start a new chapter in the Bay, but it hamstrung Myers in terms of the salary cap and the Warriors sacrificed a lot of depth in the process. Also, Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors and Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics may get some consideration for the roster moves they’ve made, but the combined transaction history and wins don’t necessarily build a strong enough case.

Finally, Dennis Lindsey of the Utah Jazz may be Morey's biggest competition in this race based on moves he made that allowed his team to make a jump similar to that of the Rockets. By trading for George Hill and Boris Diaw, extending Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, and Trey Lyles, plus signing Joe Johnson in free agency, Lindsey has assembled a squad that very well may secure Utah a top-four seed in the West. Last season, Utah missed the Playoffs by one game (ironically, the Rockets beat them out for the final spot), so this improvement is nearly as substantial.

To sum up, Houston extended a major player’s contract and added several key pieces via free agency and trade (among other things) to build a roster that wins games at a very high rate. For comparison, Bob Myers of Golden State Warriors won EOTY in 2014-2015 using this same formula. The Warriors, who already had Stephen Curry and Draymond Green under contract, extended the contracts of both Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes and signed Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa to deals. While that Warriors team won at a much higher clip than the Rockets will this year, it seems as though Morey’s moves had more impact when considering the substantial standings jump the Rockets made, and that they are likely to finish with the third best record in the league.

For nearly a decade, Rockets fans have followed the credo, “In Morey We Trust,” and that faith has been rewarded with one of the best regular seasons in Houston’s long history. It’s time for Moreyball to get its just due.

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