Under the tutelage of general manager Daryl Morey the Houston Rockets ushered in a new age of team construction and statistics.
But the Rockets GM announced his resignation on Friday following the team’s elimination from the Western Conference semi-finals at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Teams around the NBA have Morey to thank, with his model and style of team building imitated throughout the league.
Morey started as the general manager of the Rockets in 2007, when he began to implement what would turn out to be a transformative analytical model.
This model was focused on improving scoring efficiency as well as ensuring that the team could maximise its production on each offensive possession.
Much like the game we see today, Morey developed a model that focused on spacing the floor, allowing for a ball-dominating player such as all-star guard James Harden to dictate play, drive to the free-throw line or set up three-point attempts.
This also allowed Morey to identify ‘hidden gems’ throughout the league, players who fit his model but may not be favoured by other teams in the league.
The Rockets acquisition of James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012 was the beginning of what would be a decade-defining change in NBA basketball.
Rather than imitating a passing system such as the one utilised by the San Antonio Spurs or focusing on scoring from the key, the Houston Rockets made their system simple: get the ball in the hands of their best player.
Harden’s first season with the Rockets saw his points per game rise from 16.8 to 25.9 along with a seven per cent increase in usage rate. The Rockets aimed to set up Harden with a centre and three shooters and trusted Harden to find others in passing lanes and pick and roll situations.
Playing Harden as the point guard drastically improved his passing, with his ability to make plays off the dribble becoming essential to Houston’s production. This was best displayed in the 2016-17 season, when Harden averaged an astounding career-high of 11.2 assists per game.
Morey also developed a keen eye for identifying players who show upside on defence. Even casual basketball fans will know Harden’s defence is, if you were to put it politely, not passable.
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As such, a defensive wing who also has the ability to shoot became gold for Morey and the Rockets. Players such as forward Trevor Ariza, guard Patrick Beverley and wing Iman Shumpert were examples of players who were essential for the Rockets.
These players would allow for spacing on the offensive end but, more importantly, would cover for Harden’s inability to switch on defence, particularly against opposition perimeter guards, where teams would often take advantage of Harden’s lacklustre lateral movement.
It’s no coincidence that one of Harden’s best statistical seasons coincided with the induction of head coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s system accelerated Harden’s production with a strict focus on three-point and free throw attempts.
Morey and D’Antoni’s final seasons with the Rockets were as much experimental as they were effective. The acquisition of Harden’s former teammate Russell Westbrook from the Thunder looked to be a forced move from the franchise.
Combining two players who had high usage rates looked to be disastrous for Morey’s model. The team underperformed early in the 2019-20 season despite Harden continuing his incredible offensive numbers.
The trade of Houston centre Clint Capela removed a presence from the paint, clearing out the lane and mid-range areas and allowing for Westbrook and Harden to coexist.
The best of this relationship came in January this year, when Westbrook averaged 33 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 11 games, one of the greatest statistical runs of Westbrook’s career.
Houston received wing defender Robert Covington as part of the Capela trade, allowing for Morey and D’Antoni to create the ultimate ‘small ball’ line-up with 196-centimetre Forward PJ Tucker playing as the teams centre.
Eventually size proved to be the kryptonite Houston’s system, as seen against the oversized line-up of the Los Angeles Lakers, which included LeBron James at point guard and Anthony Davis at the centre position.
During a period of downsising, the Lakers reminded Houston why size still matters, eventually finishing off the Rockets in five games.
This post-season would prove to be the last for both Morey and D’Antoni, both succumbing to the possibility that they had both taken the Rockets system as far as they could.
Morey will likely return to an NBA front office in the near future, no doubt once again eager to implement his model to another franchise.
But his concept of handing the keys offensively to Harden transformed him from a perennial all-star into one of the greatest offensive talents the league has ever seen.