Daryl Morey on stats, surprises and shutdown defense

Rockets GM Daryl Morey talks to star center Dwight Howard
Rockets GM Daryl Morey talks to star center Dwight Howard

By Nick Zazulia

You rarely hear basketball fans praise a missed shot by their favorite team.

You will if you talk to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

In a telephone interview before the season started last week, ​Morey used that as an example of how the game has changed in recent years. As the first NBA GM with an analytics background, Morey helped pioneer the use of advanced metrics to build an NBA roster.

James Harden
Houston’s Bearded Bomber, James Harden, was Morey’s signature acquisition in a blockbuster trade with Oklahoma City prior to the 2012 season. Since then, Harden has been named to three straight All-Star teams. (Houston Rockets/Courtesy)

He has no rings so far, but the returns have been promising. At the dawn of the Rockets’ ninth season with Morey at the helm, they have a .595 winning percentage under him and no losing seasons.

And after an underwhelming 0-3 start to Year Nine, a Monday night win over the Oklahoma City Thunder has the Rockets’ hype train rolling again.

In a telephone interview with Medill News Service before the regular season opened last week, Morey shed some light on his career, the field of analytics and what he expects to see this season, in which many expect the Rockets to be a contender in the tough West.

Q: I know you focused on statistics in undergrad at NU before heading to MIT. Could you talk about if and how that prepared you for ultimately bringing such an analytical management style to the Celtics and Rockets?

A: I think very much in the same way taking philosophy classes prepares you for life later, the critical thinking skills in computer science did the same. (While the field of quantitative analysis has evolved), a lot of the statistical techniques are pretty straight-forward, you just need to know how to use them. It’s like a hammer, you just need to know what you’re doing with the tool.

Question: Can you identify any specific things that numbers revealed to you that really went counter to conventional wisdom?

Answer: Missed shots aren’t all that bad, because you get the opportunity to rebound them. Pretty simple one, but, for example, mostly people (just) know that 2-for-6 from 3 (point range) is the same (number of points) as 3-for-6 from 2 (point range) and don’t go beyond that. But a rebound is another opportunity for you, so that chance is valuable.

Q: Conversely, can you think of any particular times that you’ve drawn a conclusion from data that turned out to be unsound and led to bad decisions?

A: All of our decisions have been good. (Laughter)

On defense, there are some individual defenders that, without the synergy of the bigs behind them, are not as good. I’d say the second-order effects of defenders playing with other defenders is maybe more important than we thought.

For example, our defense was pretty good last year: top three with Dwight (Howard) on the floor, but we weren’t nearly as good without him.

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Q: As someone who relies on and believes strongly in quantitative

Clint Capela
Morey expects sophomore big Clint Capela to take a big step forward this season in relief of Dwight Howard. (Houston Rockets/Courtesy)

analysis, what do you think the limits or weaknesses of that lens are? What sort of things are difficult to reflect in metrics?

A: Everything is obviously reflected in some analysis: you know the final score, you know who won and who lost, who won and lost the last few trips up the floor, so everything is accounted for. It’s really just knowing what’s happening on the floor at 25 frames a second (with the SportsVU player-tracking software and cameras that are now installed in every NBA arena) and how well you can interpret that data.

Q: Who around the NBA do you think will really defy expectations this year and why?

A: Well, I’m not allowed to comment on other teams, but with the Rockets, (power forward/center and 2014 first-round draft pick) Clint Capela. He will get a lot of opportunity with Dwight Howard out (with lingering tightness in his back), and I think he will prove to be a top 10 player at the position some day.

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Photo at top: Houston Rockets GM and Northwestern alum Daryl Morey talks with star center and defensive presence Dwight Howard after a win. (Houston Rockets/Courtesy)