HOUSTON – When the Houston Rockets take on the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals on Thursday at the Toyota Center, the man who built their groundbreaking roster will be nowhere to be found.
Daryl Morey, the 44-year-old general manager whose Rockets trail 3-2 in the series, will be watching on television in an undisclosed location in the back.
“I can’t watch in the bowl,” Morey told USA TODAY Sports during a behind-the-scenes visit with the Rockets between Games 2 and 3. “Not for big games, I’m not in the bowl. I can’t do it. I’m a disaster. I would be the worst coach in history, because I’d be screaming and yelling and I’d get 40 techs. I’m usually by myself (in the back).”
The NBA playoffs are a nerve-wracking time for all involved, with legacies on the line and much more in the balance. But it may be worse for front office executives like Morey, if only because they’re rendered so helpless this time of year.
The coaches get to coach. The players have to play. And Morey, who surrounded James Harden with all those shooters and saw it pay off in the form of a surprising 55-win regular season, is left to his own devices. Literally.
“Every possession matters in the playoffs, so if there’s something – and one great strength from (Rockets coach) Mike (D’Antoni) is he takes input from everyone, all the way down to the intern. So if there’s a good idea that comes up, he’s going to use it. He’s not going to care where it comes from.”
No matter what happens next, this season has been a renaissance for Morey just as it has been for D’Antoni and Harden. They all faced scrutiny of some sort as recently as last summer, D’Antoni as a coach whose best days were behind him, Harden as a star with limitations who was roundly blamed for the Rockets’ regression. They went from the Western Conference finals in 2015 to a first-round exit less than a year later. But Morey was the one whose very ethos was being questioned – again.
It’s been that way since 2006, when Rockets owner Les Alexander hired a headhunter to find his next general manager and wound up taking a chance on a 33-year-old from the Boston Celtics who had worked his way into the NBA through a consulting firm. Morey, a Northwestern grad who received his MBA from MIT and has long since become the de facto leader of the NBA’s analytics movement, had spent his previous three years as senior vice president of operations and information with the Boston Celtics.
“When I hired Daryl, everybody said, ‘What are you doing hiring an analytic guy?” the 73-year-old Alexander told USA TODAY Sports while seated in his office. “They all thought I was crazy. (Then-general manager Carroll Dawson) was retiring, and (the headhunter) said, ‘Well I have this young guy from the Celtics. He’s a little different. You should interview him.’ So I interviewed him, and – if you talk to anybody, I really like smart people. I fall in love with smart people. Everybody here is smart. If they’re not smart, they don’t last. So he came in, and he was really smart, and I loved the analytical part. I wanted some edge. Everybody can do the same thing, and I wanted an edge. And so I hired him.”
But in all of Morey’s time in Houston, from the end of the Jeff Van Gundy era through the Rick Adelman years and the Kevin McHale tenure that he brought to an end with his firing early last season, we’ve never seen synergy like this between his front office and the coaching staff. Their shared philosophy of taking only three-pointers and layups, once considered so extreme back when D’Antoni was leaning this way with his Seven-Seconds-or-Less Phoenix Suns, is becoming more of a league-wide norm. And with their core of Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, and Lou Williams all under contract at least through next season, there’s surely more to come.
It’s enough to make Alexander grin.
“For the last 20 years, I’ve been saying we should play fast, take threes,” Alexander said. “And when things changed last year (with McHale being fired and J.B. Bickerstaff taking over as interim coach five games in), I badly wanted the coach we have now.
“Everybody in town wanted me to hire a young guy. So I was going to ruin James’ career until the young guy learned how to coach? Anything you do, you’re not as good the first day as you are 10 years later. You can’t be. So I didn’t want a guy to learn with James, I thought that was ridiculous. And I loved the way Mike played. And when we met him, he was a great personality, a great fit. “
A decade after finding Morey, Alexander had found an edge – again.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.