Rockets GM Daryl Morey is stepping down, according to multiple reports. His resignation comes almost exactly a year after he tweeted “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,” infuriating the Chinese government. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in 2019 that the Chinese government had asked him to fire Morey.
The Rockets were knocked out of the bubble by the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. It was their third second-round loss in four years.
Morey’s departure is the end of an era in Houston, but his imitators have taken over the rest of sports. Morey’s Rockets teams, as much as an eyesore as they were, leveraged the difference between what was traditionally understood as basketball and what was a slightly more efficient approach. His approach became the dominant one across sports. Team-builders aimed for the bloodless accumulation of assets that could be swapped for slightly more assets; front offices began aggressively dictating styles of play based on research. The major three American sports became unrecognizable on the field from even a decade ago.
His Rockets never tanked, and never made an NBA Finals. I’d argue that the first is more important in considering Morey, but the second will be hung around his neck, especially considering that Morey is unlikely ever to work in the NBA again. It was Morey’s friend Billy Beane who famously said that “My s — t doesn’t work in the playoffs,” but it equally applies for Morey.
Since Morey took over in 2007, the Rockets missed the playoffs just three times, treading water after injuries derailed Yao Ming’s career. Morey’s greatest success was parlaying the post-Yao mediocrity into a trade for James Harden in 2012, a move that almost instantly made Houston inner-circle title contenders. But the Harden Rockets, even as they reached spectacular heights in the regular season (55, 65, and 53 wins from 2017-19) always melted down in the playoffs.
Part of that was running into the Warriors buzzsaw. They were blown out by Golden State in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, but had a legitimate chance at prematurely ending the Warriors’ dynasty in 2018 and 2019. In the 2018 conference finals, they had a 14-point lead in Game 7 before missing 27 straight threes; in 2019, even without Kevin Durant, the Warriors dispatched the Rockets in six games.
But it wasn’t Morey’s playoff failures that ended his time in Houston. Most franchises would kill to be a stable contender like the Rockets, especially with owner Tilman Fertitta’s Wilpon-esque debts and questionable commitment to winning. It was his Hong Kong tweet, which became the biggest story in sports before the coronavirus pandemic. China’s reaction to the tweet — including pulling NBA games off TV for 12 months before airing a Finals game last week — cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars. The league’s bumbling and then delicate handling of the situation has been an ongoing economic and political headache. It’s nearly impossible to imagine any team deciding that hiring Morey is worth kicking that hornet’s nest.
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