Over the offseason, Morey spoke about raising the team’s risk profile in order to build a team that could compete with the Warriors, who have won two of the last three championships and show few signs of slowing down. Because he has never played professional hoops, earned an MBA from MIT, and boasts deep ties to the analytics movement, Morey has been criticized as someone who just blindly follows a set of principles, acquiring assets and then “crossing his fingers that they pan out.” In reality, Morey’s success has proven him one of the most flexible team-builders in the league, someone unafraid to turn the roster over even after winning seasons in the hopes of exploiting new market inefficiencies.
“Defense was more undervalued earlier in my career,” Morey said. “Now offense is more underrated, so we’ve shifted our focus. Sometimes you have to take what players are available and what is undervalued at the time.” And sometimes, to give yourself a chance to beat a historically great team like the Warriors, you have to take risks. After last spring’s disappointing playoff exit, Morey acquired the nine-time All-Star Chris Paul in a blockbuster, eight-player trade with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Whereas skeptics questioned the logic behind pairing together two ball-dominant point guards like Harden and Paul, the Rockets saw an opportunity. “There’s always more risk when you take multiple players who are helping you and consolidate it into one player,” Morey said. “But from a player perspective, if Chris was healthy, we didn’t feel like there was a lot of risk.” Since coming back from a left knee injury suffered in the preseason, Paul has put up 62 assists against just eight turnovers in six games—all double-digit Houston victories.
Morey’s roster-building approach hasn’t focused solely on finding superstars. In 2009, Michael Lewis profiled the Rockets role player Shane Battier for The New York Times Magazine, dubbing him the archetypal “No-Stats All-Star” who can make a team better without putting up traditionally gaudy numbers. Today, these are exactly the types of players—ones that can shoot threes, play defense, and guard multiple positions—that teams seek out in free agency at a bargain price.
The Rockets acquired two such bargains this past offseason in P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, and impact has been immediate. After finishing last season with a decidedly mediocre defense, the Rockets are now a top 10 team in defensive efficiency. “We have to continue improving and get it into the top five,” Morey said. “If we want to be able to beat the Warriors in the playoffs, we have to get there.”
This year’s Rockets feel like the platonic ideal of the Moreyball principles, but the next frontier in analytics is always near. It’s often found every winter in Boston at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which Morey co-founded—the largest annual gathering of the sports industry’s biggest stars and promising up-and-comers. (Imagine Comic-Con, but for sports nerds.) One of this year’s highlights was a research paper by Panna Felsen and Patrick Lucey that analyzed different NBA shooting styles while focusing on injury prevention and post-injury recovery. Another notable paper by Rachel Marty and Simon Lucey tracked more than 1.1 million three-point shots and identified the optimal angles to attempt shots from beyond the arc.