Daryl Morey's Creativity Is Exactly What Philadelphia 76ers Needed

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2020

FILE - This is a July 26, 2019, file photo showing Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey during an NBA basketball news conference, in Houston. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is stepping down on his own accord, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, because the move hasn’t been announced.(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Daryl Morey's next move following his Oct. 15 separation from the Houston Rockets was a source of much intrigue in NBA circles.

As one of the most innovative, accomplished and respected general managers in sports, he immediately became the top candidate for any front-office opening in the league—if he decided to stay in basketball. He could have pursued other interests, or at least taken a gap year after his tweet about protests in Hong Kong.

As it turns out, he's following in the footsteps of his polarizing former protege, Sam Hinkie, jumping from Houston to Philadelphia.

Just as the 76ers did last month when they hired head coach Doc Rivers barely 72 hours after he parted ways with the Los Angeles Lakers, Philly moved quickly when the biggest name in the executive ranks became available. On Wednesday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Morey is close to a deal to become the Sixers' new head of basketball operations.

It's a no-brainer decision for an organization that has had three front-office regimes in four years, from Hinkie's NBA-brokered resignation in 2016 to the Bryan Colangelo era that ended with a burner-account scandal to current GM Elton Brand, who is expected to stay on and work under Morey. 

For a franchise under enormous pressure to maximize its title window with superstar cornerstones Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, going from that self-inflicted instability to someone of Morey's stature making decisions is a massive upgrade.

Throughout his 13 years running the Rockets, Morey became synonymous in basketball with the word "analytics," which can really mean whatever you want it to mean, positive or negative. He prioritized efficiency in shot selection and built monstrously effective offenses around James Harden. He was as creative as any GM has ever been in manipulating the salary cap and finding new ways to add talent through trades and free agency. At times, he also discounted the relationships' aspect of the job, although not nearly to the degree of some of the scores of imitators he spawned in other front offices.

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All of that is to say: If you want to make any argument for or against Morey and what he represents, you can probably find something to back it up.

But Morey's guiding principle throughout those 13 years, and what will surely remain in his new job with the Sixers, isn't a dogmatic belief in threes and layups as the only valid shots. It's the belief that you need stars, preferably more than one, to compete for a championship.

Morey took over the Rockets in the final years of the Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady era, and as those two Hall of Famers' bodies were falling apart, his sole focus was on getting his next star. He structured contracts and draft-pick protections in unorthodox ways so that the next time one of those players became available on the trade market, he'd have the pieces to get a deal done.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

It just so happened that Harden was that guy in 2012, and once Morey had him in the fold, every move he made in the ensuing years, right up until this February's trade deadline, was focused on putting the best team around him.

Sometimes that meant creating cap space to land Dwight Howard in free agency. Sometimes it meant quickly trading for a handful of non-guaranteed contracts to make the money work in a deal for Chris Paul. Sometimes it meant trading his team's only center, Clint Capela, to go all-in on the super-small lineup that saw Russell Westbrook playing some of the best basketball of his career in the style that had become head coach Mike D'Antoni's signature.

Not every one of his moves worked out. He gave up too much for Westbrook last summer, and the heavily hyped reclamation projects of Ty Lawson in 2015 and Carmelo Anthony in 2018 backfired. But if there was one constant, it was his willingness to take big swings, which is the approach a team in the Sixers' position needs.

As for the at-times-awkward pairing of Simmons and Embiid, that's a puzzle Morey will be able to solve if anyone can. The easy knee-jerk reaction is that Morey's full-on embrace of the three-pointer is incompatible with Simmons, who does not shoot them. But that's an oversimplification.

In Houston, Morey went all-in on threes, layups and free throws because his best player was one of the best in the history of the league at creating those kinds of looks. He hired a coach in D'Antoni who encouraged playing that way, and he loaded the roster with other shooters for Harden to pass to when defenses keyed in on him.

When Morey traded Paul for Westbrook in the summer of 2019, it was a massive downgrade in shooting efficiency. However, he followed it up with a four-team deal at the trade deadline that shipped out Capela and allowed the undersized P.J. Tucker to move to center full-time, giving Westbrook the space he needed to do what he does best.

Morey is all about maximizing the stars he has. He isn't going to build the same team around Simmons and Embiid that he did around Harden and Westbrook; he's going to figure out which players to put around those two that best complement what they're great at. And unlike his old boss in Houston, Tilman Fertitta, the Sixers' ownership group has demonstrated a willingness to spend money that will help him acquire and keep the kinds of role players he'll need. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

How Morey will build around Embiid and Simmons remains to be seen.

With giant contracts for Tobias Harris and Al Horford on the books, the Sixers have limited flexibility. But in Houston, Morey always found a way. The June 2017 trade for Paul came out of the blue after a series of deft moves to manufacture matching salaries. Back in 2012, he signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to strangely structured offer sheets that made it difficult for their teams to match, exploiting a loophole that has since been closed. 

In total, Morey made 77 trades, big and small, in Houston. If there's an off-the-beaten-path way to make something happen, there's no one else more equipped to find it. There's always a team willing to take on bad contracts for picks or cash, or a team that undervalues a player Morey sees something in who can help.

That, more than a strict belief in any one on-court philosophy, is what has defined Morey's career. It's also what makes him the perfect choice to lead the Sixers as they finally look to get over the hump and contend for a championship.

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.