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In the winter of 1995, long before Daryl Morey became the general manager of the Rockets and a cult hero to statheads everywhere, he was a tall, skinny, 22-year-old Northwestern undergrad working at an Illinois sports information company called Stats Inc. One of Morey's coworkers, Michael Canter, ran a primitive, 20-team keeper fantasy basketball league. Morey, whose twin loves were sports and numbers, was determined to win it.
Unfortunately, his team, the Dallas Chaparrals, was not very good. During the draft Morey had fallen victim to the bias of overvaluing players from his beloved hometown team, the Cavaliers. By midseason it was clear that he needed to make a bold move if he were going to contend (and for Morey, as we will learn, there is no value in finishing second). So he dealt his first-round pick, Nets forward Derrick Coleman, for the 200th and final choice in the league's draft. Making the deal appear even more foolhardy, the player Morey acquired wasn't even on an NBA roster at the time. Still, the way Morey saw it, the risk—though great—was necessary.
A few weeks later, to the surprise of the sports world, if not Morey, Michael Jordan ended his retirement after an unsuccessful excursion into baseball, returning to the Bulls. And just like that, Morey had flipped the No. 17 pick in the draft—who went on to become the archetype for underachieving big men—for the greatest player ever in his prime.
Morey's big bet had paid off. The Chaps were back in it.
LAST SUMMER Morey made another big bet. Only this time he risked far more, and the stakes were incalculably higher. He dismantled a young Houston team that came within two wins of a playoff spot, making 13 moves involving 31 players and four draft picks. By the time he was done, only one Houston rotation player, second-year small forward Chandler Parsons, remained.
As of October, Morey had little to show for it. He'd signed two promising but unproven free agents, point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik, but the team was perilously lacking in experience. Long the darling of bloggers and numbers crunchers—Bill Simmons famously dubbed him Dork Elvis—Morey was now doubted by his most ardent backers. "[He] needs," wrote Noam Schiller on the blog Hardwood Paroxysm, "to prove to us that he knows what he's doing."
Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 27, Morey received the call that changed the future of the franchise. He was sitting in his Lexus SUV in the suburbs of Houston, as his 10-year-old son played soccer. Morey watches from the car because otherwise he tends to become, as he says, "way too intense." Morey knows this is ridiculous. After all, it's just a soccer game and, what's more, his son claims to not even pay attention to him when he gets agitated. Still, Morey is a man who endeavors to live according to rational principles. Spontaneous eruptions of emotion can be embarrassing.
So there Morey was, watching his son's game from the front seat of his Lexus, windows rolled up, when his Blackberry buzzed. He looked and saw the name SAM PRESTI. Before that moment, Morey thought there was a 5% to 10% chance the Thunder G.M. would call that day. Morey had made a strong offer for James Harden, Oklahoma City's multitalented 23-year-old sixth man, whom Presti needed to re-sign by Oct. 31 or potentially lose as a restricted free agent at season's end. Morey considered Harden such a unique talent that he had tried to trade for him more than half a dozen times since draft night in 2009, offering packages of players and picks so valuable that, had Rockets fans been aware of them, they would have despaired.
Morey picked up the buzzing phone and, as his son's team headed toward its coach to talk second-half strategy, shoving orange wedges into their mouths, he and Presti completed a shocking trade that sent the Thunder an offensive-minded shooting guard (Kevin Martin), a raw but talented rookie (Jeremy Lamb), two first-round picks and a second-rounder. It was a lot to part with for a single player, but Morey was elated.
When the trade became official, fans in Houston were ecstatic. They were even more excited when Harden erupted for 37 points in his first game and 45 in his second. For the first time since the end of the Yao Ming era the Rockets had a franchise player. Season ticket sales jumped, and are now up 25% over last year.