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How far can Daryl Morey take the Philadelphia 76ers?

Seerat Sohi
·6-min read

Daryl Morey is as close as a ringless NBA executive can get to being a made man. On Oct. 15, he willingly left the Houston Rockets, a contender he’d built up for 13 years. After notching a whopping 13 days with his family, he was tapped to lead basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, who have spent the past few years toeing a line between contention and implosion.

The Ringer’s Brian Phillips wrote a great article about the fantasy of this emergent American sportsman, the creative genius whose brain filters information so well as to be clairvoyant. Data gives us the illusion that we can predict and maybe even control the future. We can manipulate it to tell ourselves a convincing story about how our guy will be the president, exactly how many days away we are from irreversible damage due to climate change, and in sports, that our team will win. That’s why you had Nate Silver asking tweeps if they’d rather start a franchise with Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens or Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, and why 46% of respondents went with the coach.

It’s also why you get some very optimistic (read: deterministic) takes on his arrival: that Morey, a do-er of things, will — through some alchemy of data-mining, patience and imagination — simply pull a magical deal out of thin air. He has before, acquiring James Harden and Chris Paul for a bunch of pretty good players who likely won’t ever have to worry about making a Hall of Fame speech.

While Morey isn’t guaranteed to fix the 76ers, if someone can, it’s him. For years, Philly’s central question has been how best Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can fit together. If there’s a solution, Morey will sniff it out. If there isn’t, he’ll accept it, and unburdened by the sentimental and political value each player has with regime holdovers, he’ll make the right deal at the time.

Then there are those who skip to the heart of the matter: Morey is good, but will ownership get out of his way and let him work his magic? The process (sorry) of hiring him aligns with what they’ve done in the past: stockpiled talent and hoped, regardless of fit or role, that they’ll thrive. Morey was hired after head coach Doc Rivers. Elton Brand, who for all intents and purposes had Morey’s old job, is still around, and he just got a contract extension.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey attends Yao Ming's press conference announcing his retirement from basketball
Daryl Morey was hired to lead basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers. (Visual China Group via Getty Images)

For people who still cling to the Great Man Theory, Morey’s own measured assessment provides a trap-door to continued reverence. “You sort of have to ignore the highs, ignore the lows, ignore the praise, ignore the hate, otherwise you’ll get lost,” Morey told Yahoo Sports. “The job doesn't change — a lot of decision making. Still only one team out of 30 wins. The task is big.”

His humility, in a culture that increasingly talks up horizontal leadership, comes across as reassuring. He’ll take in all the information, consider all views, make the right call.

“I have a very collaborative style. That’s why I was excited when Elton was open to having me join. It’s because I’ve heard the same about him. Look, you make great decisions by having great people who are all working towards the same goal and not worrying about what title someone is,” Morey said when asked what the leadership structure will be. “The best ideas can come from anywhere. Interns all the way up to, hopefully, Elton and I have a good idea every once in a while.”

It’s hard not to nod along. The notion is both democratic and humble, and it sells an idea the 76ers hope is true: any leadership structure will work so long as this guy is making the final decision.

You don’t read the term “Moreyball” much anymore — not because of its failure, but because of its rollicking success. It is no longer discernible enough to require referencing. “Moreyball,” in 2020, is simply basketball. Its concepts are the law of the land, and our understanding of them has emerged from an attempt to make meaning out of every move Morey makes. We extend him a benefit of the doubt that eludes most executives. For one thing, that’s how we’ve come to understand how he analyzes risk.

  1. Morey believes that any team with more than a 5% chance at a championship should go for it.

  2. In these instances, it’s good to be shortsighted. Gotta strike while the iron’s in its prime.

Last offseason, the Rockets’ internal calculations said trading Paul for Russell Westbrook would increase their title odds by 30% (before you freak out, that means they went from about 8% to 12% against the field). So they did.

The same logic could be applied to the moves the 76ers have made since 2016, when they ousted Morey’s progeny, Sam Hinkie.

Tobias Harris #12, Ben Simmons #25, and Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers react against the Toronto Raptors at Wells Fargo Center on December 8, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Daryl Morey will have the task of trying to get more from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris? Well, when you’re this close to the finish line, it makes sense to concede more long-term assets for short-term gains.

When Butler walked at the end of the 2018-2019 season, the 76ers pivoted by signing and trading him to Miami for Josh Richardson and signing an aging Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million deal that, in a move out of the Rockets’ playbook, descends in value every year and has over $12 million tied in the unguaranteed championship bonuses.

I’m generalizing, obviously. Morey likely would have made better moves on the margins. He wouldn’t have given up the farm for Harris when the whole league knew the Los Angeles Clippers were trying to offload salary to create two max slots.

But that gets at the issue: margins. That’s what Morey controls. They can add up to great things, like Harden, but not every risk pans out. FiveThirtyEight did a study on what Morey brought to the Rockets and found that the accumulated value of the 77 trades he made in 13 years approximated Kyle Lowry’s on-court value. Kyle’s pretty good, but he’s no Kawhi Leonard.

Morey knows he’s wrestling against horrible odds. If he didn’t, he would have been clued into it when Westbrook contracted the virus that blew all of our expectations and projections out of the water. His methods don’t guarantee him anything except the possibility of sleeping at night and believing there was nothing more that could be done. The question is how far it can take them.

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