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Others disagree with him on more fundamental levels. When the 76ers were hiring a G.M. last summer, they interviewed two analytic candidates, Hinkie and Celtics assistant G.M. Mike Zarren, before hiring Tony DiLeo, an old school G.M. Afterward John Mitchell of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a story, one many around the league interpreted as reflecting the viewpoint of the Sixers' staff, saying Morey was engaged in "an unchecked tail-chasing mission that has been going on ever since he was named general manager there five years ago." It also called him "the poster boy for reasons not to position an analytic as the basketball-operations rubber stamp." Van Gundy is not surprised. "A lot of basketball people want to see Daryl fail," he says, "not because they don't like him, but because they don't like the numbers movement."
On the afternoon that I visit, all is quiet in Morey's office. The previous night, the Rockets beat the Hornets 100--96, and after a morning practice the team is en route to Portland. Morey himself is just back from Atlanta, where he was scouting college players. As part of his approach to evaluation, Morey has seven staffers and one independent evaluator rank their top 35 picks every few weeks. By using a mix of outside sources, old school scouts, analytical types and hybrids like himself and Hinkie, he endeavors to avoid groupthink. The goal is a pool of 60 or so players whom the team likes.
As Morey prepares to watch tape, he is interrupted by frequent buzzes from his Blackberry. Josh Levin, a journalist from Slate, asks him to be on his podcast. After deliberating for all of a second, Morey says yes; he's a believer in rigorous, methodical thinking when it comes to big decisions and low time investment when it comes to small ones. A few minutes later the Blackberry buzzes again. "It's from Nate Silver," Morey says. "He says he's in for this year's conference."
That would be the Sloan Analytics Sports Conference at MIT, which Morey founded in 2006. As much as anything it has helped him ascend to his current status as a geek God. ("It's unbelievable," says Alexander, who seems more puzzled than impressed. "They all want to be him.") Each year dozens of big names, from Mark Cuban to Malcolm Gladwell to Michael Lewis, speak for free at the conference. Every young MBA with a love of sports arrives toting a laptop and big dreams.
Morey is now trying to hire one of these dreamers for a low-level position that combines basketball, programming and analytics. He answers a call from a prospective applicant. "O.K.... Yeah, I'm listening. E-mail me your info," he says. When Morey gets off the phone, he looks up. "That was the head of a hedge fund in New York City. He says he's thinking about applying for our position or maybe our internship."
The Blackberry buzzes again. "It's about Royce White," Morey says. "He saw the doctor today, so that's good." White has become a thorny problem for the Rockets. The previous weekend they assigned him to the D-League, which they use more than other franchises, treating it much the way a baseball team views its farm system. White didn't report, and then on Monday he didn't show up for a game against the Heat. Making matters more complicated, White has been unleashing a stream of tweets painting management as unsympathetic to his anxiety disorder. At least on this afternoon Morey doesn't seem perturbed. The team took a risk with White, and with every risk there is the potential for failure. It is also early in the season. Considered from a risk-reward standpoint, the chance White won't work out is high—say, 60%—but because he's so talented, there's still a 10% chance he could become an All-Star. That is not something that can be said about the majority of NBA players.
The best way to mitigate risk is with information, and in this regard Houston goes to extraordinary lengths. In addition to the team's proprietary databases and evaluation systems, which Morey is hesitant to discuss publicly, the Rockets were the first NBA team to install SportVU, which is based on Israeli missile-tracking technology and uses tiny webcams installed in an arena's rafters to record the X/Y coordinates of each player 72,000 times a game. This leads to an ocean of data that allows teams to determine, for example, how many dribbles a player takes in a game or how efficient a shooter is when a defender is four feet away versus one.
Morey pulls up the previous night's game on his Dell laptop. (A hard-core PC devotee, he spurns both Macs and iPhones because "I like stuff that's fast and the most powerful.") He watches games on Synergy, a service that chops up an NBA game into single possessions. Even though Morey's already seen the game, he visibly tightens up, crossing his arms, scowling and haranguing his players. It is a reassuringly human moment; just like the rest of us, Morey yells at the screen. Just as at his son's soccer games, he can't help himself.
For the same reason, Morey now sits across the arena from the Rockets' bench during home games instead of behind it. "I'm bad," he says. Asked what makes him most upset, he thinks for a second. "It's when three things come together: 1) It's really important, so like a key moment in the game; 2) we make a mistake; and 3) it's a mistake we could have avoided. I'm not very presidential at those moments."
Most of the time, Morey goes out of his way to paint himself as a geek—he uses the word four times during the five hours I'm with him—but I get the impression he uses it as a cover. Michael Canter, his colleague at Stats Inc., remembers meeting Morey and thinking he looked "like he was going to trip over his own feet." Soon, however, "it became clear that his easygoing demeanor belied his intellect and drive."