Maybe in the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey has come up with the only sports model we can still believe in.
In Houston, we have a Rockets team who has lost their fifth straight, though they are still over .500 and, despite blowing up their roster just months ago, are picked by many to make the NBA playoffs.
Across America, we have more news about Manti Te'o and his fake girlfriend, who, whether or not Te'o was involved in the hoax, did not die tragically as had been widely and touchingly reported. We also have Lance Armstrong, once my personal sports hero, finally confirming the doping he has been lying about for over a decade.
Stories about lies, about athletes who lie, about athletes with questionable character, about athletes who it seems have no regard for personal integrity. They fall like raindrops—meaning they fill the air and we can't dodge them.
Here, the NBA's premier player demands an entire hour of prime time, surrounds himself with kids from charities as protection, then blindsides his hometown team by rejecting them on national television.
There, an NFL defensive lineman takes millions in a signing bonus, then shows up to camp unable to pass a basic fitness test.
Elsewhere, Major League Baseball refuses to induct its all-time home run leader to the Hall of Fame because of steroid violations which have been denied repeatedly and vehemently, but which are so visually blatant, one need only hold his Giants baseball card and his Pirates baseball card side by side to know what really happened.
Speaking of baseball cards, we don't put them in the spokes of our bikes anymore. We carefully slide them into plastic sleeves, so as not to affect their future value. We don't scream for athletes' autographs so we can show them to friends; we want to put them up for sale on eBay.
I'd tell you to cue Poison's "Something to Believe In"—except that we can't even believe in that, not since Bret Michaels kissed Donald Trump's pompous rear end on The Apprentice.
It's not like our sports heroes were ever what they were made out to be. Before steroids and greed and attitudes, there was alcohol abuse, drug abuse, spousal abuse. Before that there was racism.
But in our time, now, we must disillusion ourselves. Sports stars are simply guys who have a particular talent for swinging a bat, tackling a quarterback, shooting a jumper.
And in the Houston Rockets, you have a team which does that harder and with more apparent decency than I've seen in a while.
General manager Daryl Morey chooses his players by what are called analytics. In other words, he doesn't look at an athlete's name or his obvious stats. He looks at advanced statistics like efficiency ratings, plus/minus ratios, per-36-minutes averages.
As a result, Morey gets value. And after all, sports are big business. Always have been, though it's more obvious of late. So value is critically important to the bottom line.
But Morey has gotten something else besides value.
In targeting guys who only stand out because of statistics, you're targeting guys who by definition are trying their best.
You remember trying your best, don't you? That's what our dads used to tell us when we went off to play ball with our friends. You don't hear it or see it much anymore.
But you do on this Rockets team.
Now, to be fair and honest, Morey's system didn't work perfectly. One look at Kyle Lowry rolling his eyes at Kevin McHale's coaching is enough to prove that. Royce White's statistics fit Morey's model, but his behavior—which I would characterize as either petulant or a product of the mental health challenges White faces—obviously doesn't.
But I look at this squad now: two games over .500, boasting top-10 talent in at least two starting positions if not three, made up of guys who eschew complaining, electing instead to play hard and play as a team, and about $8 million under the cap.
And I think to myself, how can Moreyball not sweep the NBA, and even sports in general?
The old adage says there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Perhaps Morey's focus on the latter has protected the Rockets from the former.
For example, all fans know about Dwight Howard's struggles this year with the Lakers. We in Houston also know about Omer Asik's emergence in Houston. Asik was Morey's statistical-darling backup plan were he not able to land Howard.
This year, Howard makes roughly $19.5 million. Asik makes $8.3 million. Here are their per-36-minute season stats:
Asik: .535 from the field, 13.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, .7 steals, 2.7 turnovers, 12.5 points
Howard: .586 from the field, 12.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 3.3 turnovers, 17.8 points
For almost 2.5 times less money than Howard, Asik's not doing badly at all statistically. And with Asik, you don't get complaining, refusing to take teammates' help, and inevitably turning on the coach or the system.
You just get a guy who shows up and busts his butt every night.
"We wanna win," Al Pacino says in And Justice For All. "We wanna win regardless of the truth, regardless of justice, regardless of who's guilty or innocent. Winning…is everything."
That insatiable desire to win at all costs has in large part caused sports' current situation.
But Morey's model isn't about winning at all costs. It's about winning at a reasonable cost. And ironically, it appears Moreyball makes not only the players winners, but the franchise, the bean counters, and the fans winners as well.
This upcoming offseason, Morey will most likely upgrade the power forward position. Most fans clamor for Josh Smith. Looking at one stat from Morey's model, Smith has on court/off court net differential of plus-71. Anderson Varejao has plus-78, on a far inferior team...and as a non-superstar, he'd be much more affordable.
Morey will most likely go for Varejao or someone like him—perhaps J.J. Hickson. Most fans will complain.
I will be proud.
Morey's model is most often compared to that of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. In the MLB, where making the playoffs is much more difficult than the NBA, Beane has led his club to six playoffs in the last 13 seasons, and done it with a payroll that this past year was about a quarter the size of the Yankees'.
Beane's assistant in the movie Moneyball tells him, "I believe that there's a championship team of twenty five people that we can afford. Because everyone else in baseball undervalues them."
I think in signing undervalued players, Morey has tapped into something else that's undervalued.
Putting the sportsmanship back into sports.
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