Daryl Morey has been Houston's General Manager since the 2007-08 season, ushering the team through some seismic shifts in both personnel and coaching. As the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming era wound down, Morey moved quickly to rebuild the team by stockpiling the assets necessary to swing a trade for James Harden. He's worked with Rick Adelman, Kevin McHale and now Mike D'Antoni, all high-profile coaches. The Rockets have kept their foot on the gas throughout Morey's reign, managing to average 47 wins without the luxury of high draft picks. He will need to work his magic again this offseason, as the Rockets don't have a first round pick and are expected to rebuild much of the roster after a disappointing 41-41 campaign (Morey's first non-winning season).
Morey joined Yahoo!'s "Vertical Podcast with Woj" earlier this week, where he discussed a wide array of topics concerning the recent past, present and future of the Rockets franchise. Some highlights included:
- On Mike D'Antoni: When he told reporters that the Rockets needed to get better on defense he didn't necessarily mean they'd hire a defensive-minded coach. However, Morey went to bat for D'Antoni's defensive chops, saying his Suns' teams were unfairly judged by the amount of points they gave up, without any thought given to the pace they played with. This is a pretty fair characterization, as the D'Antoni Suns ranked near the bottom each season in points allowed per game but were middle-of-the-pack (13th-17th) in defensive rating (a measurement of points allowed per 100 possessions). Additionally, Morey points out that D'Antoni has put Jeff Bzdelik in charge of Houston's defense. Bzdelik has a good track record, especially in Memphis, of coaching stout defense.
- On Jeff Van Gundy: He may not have hired JVG, but we learn that Morey plays tennis with him all the time! I bet those matches don't get heated at all!
- On targeting "D'Antoni guys": Morey believes the current roster already fits D'Antoni, noting that James Harden is "perfect for how (D'Antoni) wants to play." I'm skeptical on this point. Time will tell if Harden will consistently get other guys involved and get up shots in under 10 seconds, rather than reverting to pounding all the air out of the ball in isolation. Morey also gave us a window into some of the rationale behind the D'Antoni hiring by saying he thinks the veteran coach can help lure big free agents to Houston.
- On Dwight Howard: When Woj asked him the inevitable question about the stormy past between D'Antoni and Dwight, Morey was diplomatic. He more or less disputed there was any rift between the two and said the Rockets would welcome Dwight back (shudder) should he opt in. Politics aside, Morey has to be expecting him to opt out, and soon. Should Dwight drag this out, Houston's cap flexibility will suffer. Unfortunately, they never got into Dwight's revelatory appearance on "Inside the NBA."
- On team chemistry: Predictably, Morey bristled at the notion that he doesn't value chemistry ("I think it's ridiculous") when building his roster. Give him credit, he did fall on his sword for the Ty Lawson acquisition that failed miserably, saying "I've made a lot of mistakes, I mean, Ty Lawson did not work out...any time you bring in a new point guard it's a pretty significant event and that did not work." Then there was this gem: "In general, in a long string of success, obviously we had a big disappointing year last year. It was a disappointing year where we won half our games. It's not a disappointing year where we're in the lottery for eight straight years like some franchises." Shots fired.
- On Harden/Dwight drama: Morey didn't duck the question like he could have, but he made sure to point out that overall there were issues up and down the roster, not just with those two guys. Which may be true, but those are the stars. Any future big name he brings in to pair with Harden has to mesh well with the mercurial bearded superstar.
- On Harden: "We have the most important thing in the league which is we have a top-5 player." Now, of course, he has to say that. But Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul would like to have a word with you, Daryl.
- On if he's unfairly judged because of his love of analytics: Thankfully, Morey deflected the bait around the tired analytics topic. He described it, correctly, as a tool that "helps you win, so we're gonna use it...to me that whole debate is sort of boring." He hammered home the point that he and his staff watch a ton of film and don't make decisions solely based on numbers. More shots: "No reputable journalist writes that." Instead, he claimed he welcomes harsh judgment and explained that he thinks the Rockets' failure to meet expectations this year is why so much shade has been thrown his way. Makes sense. But Charles Barkley will still be hatin'.
- On free agency in the ballooning-cap era: Morey pointed out that there is more money to spend than top players to spend it on. Thus he predicts that some big names will get signed quickly, followed by several guys getting maxed that will shock us all and finally a freeze as teams worry about paying too much for mid-tier guys and agents fear that they won't get full market value for their client. No one really knows how this market will play out, but this is as good a prediction as I've heard. We could see a lot of "who blinks first" when it comes time to put ink to paper. Get your popcorn ready. As for the Rockets, Morey insists that other top players want to play with Harden. After this season with Dwight, I'll believe it when I see it. Per the note below, it doesn't seem like Durant is one of those guys itching to play with him.
Other Rockets notes:
-James Harden will be skipping the Olympics, joining stars Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge and Chris Paul on Team Zika-free. This is fine, so long as he shows up to camp in shape, unlike last year.
-ESPN's Marc Stein reported that free agent Kevin Durant is not considering Houston as his next team. This was always a long shot, but Stein's "sources" have seemingly confirmed it. Durant and Harden have been spotted together recently, but that doesn't seem to indicate anything about KD's future plans. I have no doubt that Harden is a better hang than sidekick on the court for someone like Durant.