Ball Don't Lie - NBA


Makes sense, right? The guy that keeps throwing out stats and numbers to back up his observation picks the "numbers GM," the guy given a series of derisive nicknames ("it's a compliment, really!") by famous sports scribes while being alternately derided and somewhat feared as the boring future of team-creatin'. Not "feared" because people are scared of what they don't understand. Feared because, beyond the initial "he went to M.I.T.!" stories, we're out of easy column ideas with Daryl Morey.

The problem with your initial assumption about my appreciation for Houston's GM comes with the fact that while Morey does utilize one or several (I'm not sure) numbers-based systems for judging talent, his findings are kept secret, and we have no way of telling if he completely blindly follows what the numbers say like a raving madman, or if he mixes that data with scouting and anecdotal evidence.

We're guessing the latter, but because we have no way of knowing what his formulas are actually coming up with, the idea that he's using numbers in any significant way beyond how Red Auerbach used them means absolutely nothing to us. Because we can't see or judge the formulas, they become a moot point. For all we know, he could be doing brilliant work with the statistics, or he could be judging point guards based on their birthdays mixed with a pace-adjusted count of how many times they can say "Admiral Halsey" in a 30-second span.

Here's what we do know. Morey was given a smallish personnel sway over a solid Houston team that was coming off an injury-plagued 2005-06 turn that put the Rockets back into the lottery, while becoming the full-on GM a year later. Since then, he's made no huge moves. There hasn't been a giant turnaround, bent on either getting under the salary cap, or compiling expiring assets in order to trade for a superstar.

And if the Rockets are lucky, they'll finish with the same amount of wins this year as they finished with last season (55). Which would be just three more wins than the team's 2006-07 turn.

So why am I giving it to Morey?

Well, if it weren't for this guy's moves, Houston would be in the proverbial slop. Much, much more so than any other team would falter save for the moves of their particular GM.

You see, Morey was given the reins of a team with one superstar, and two guys making superstar money. The Rockets were capped-out, have been for years, and will be for the foreseeable future. And while it's not the end of the world when two players take up over 70 percent of your cap space, how well that 100 percent usually does depends on the contribution of that 70 percent.

And when one player is alternately brilliant but quite injury-prone (Yao Ming, though not this season), and alternately so-so as well as very injury-prone (Tracy McGrady), you better figure out a way to work around what is a pretty dodgy set of circumstances.

That means finding undervalued talent. That means accruing depth with very little resources in which to work with. That means finding guys who can contribute just as much as the so-called superstar, at 1/15th the price.

Or, in the case of Von Wafer, 1/25th the price. Once you factor defense and usage in, Wafer is giving the Rockets exactly what McGrady was giving them, while working for about $800k a season. McGrady goes down, be it for the season or a fortnight, Wafer steps into some of those open minutes, and the team continues apace. In most cases, the team plays better, because Wafer doesn't chuck and consider himself an All-Star, unlike McGrady.

(So, that's it. You're giving him the award because he signed Von Wafer, and because Tracy McGrady is a ballhog?)

No. I'm giving him the award because he, unlike most if not all other GMs, understands that players one through 15 count. That it's not OK merely to fill out that end of the bench with names that you've heard of ("I remember Jake Voskuhl! UConn, right?"), but guys who have to actually contribute when called upon. Because when you're an average team looking to overachieve and take that next step, every minute counts.

In the end, I'm giving it to Daryl Morey because he understands that points scored and advantages taken in the eighth minute of the second quarter mean just as much as points scored and advantages taken with a minute left to go in the game.

There's no magic to the Rockets. Rick Adelman has done a fine job coaching and the players work hard, but the reason this team has done so well despite major injuries and nearly 40 percent of its cap space going to a wasted roster spot in McGrady is because Morey has put together a roster of players that will usually contribute more than the players on the other team from the opening tip until the final buzzer. That's not a cliché, that's the truth.

And that's the best job of GMing that I've seen this year. And that's what this award is all about.

Danny Ferry? Fine job. Essentially turning Joe Smith into Mo Williams and then getting Joe Smith back was a masterstroke. Securing Delonte West was terrific. But he's also had to work around his previous mistakes. Morey inherited a capped-out team. Ferry created his, due to his work over the summer of 2005.

And there are smaller, important distinctions between the two that will no doubt be overshadowed by dunderheaded "65 wins vs. 55 wins, brah. Nuff said"-commentary.

The Cavs signed Lorenzen Wright last summer, a guy whose name you'd recognize, but someone who had clearly lost it. And in a stretch in mid-January, Wright was forced into playing big minutes for the Cavaliers in a couple of games, and spot minutes in others. Now, there are a few reasons why the Cavaliers lost two of those four games; but there are a few reasons why the Rockets could have lost two of four against teams they were better than or evenly matched-up with during their own stretches.

The difference? The Rockets have the depth to hold things up despite myriad injuries. Luis Scola begats Carl Landry who gives way to Chuck Hayes; all unheralded players who defend like mad and are efficient offensively besides shortcomings.

Wright? He gives the Cavs nine points and nine rebounds during that four-game stretch, is overmatched defensively, misses seven of ten shots, and isn't heard from again for the rest of the season. Darnell Jackson suffered through the same fate from mid-March to early April.

(So, you're basing your argument around backup-to-backup power forwards?)

Do you want to know who I think did the best job of putting a team together this year, or not? The difference is small, and quite boring, but there is a difference.

The best teams in the NBA will only win by an average of eight or nine points. And that's a ton. Most other teams are trying to work from that negative four point-to-positive four point margin. And that's where Morey helps turn the tide. First, read this quote, and breakdown from Howard Beck of the New York Times, on what counts most to Morey:

"We track everything imaginable," Morey said. "Each pick-and-roll, what's the result of it? Each guy on the floor, how efficient they are. A lot of it, we end up not using. But we track it so that we have it available in case the question comes up where it becomes relevant."

Whatever revelations Morey has found for assessing players, they remain proprietary for now. But at the team level, he said, there are four statistics that are now widely accepted as indicative of a team's success rate: "effective" field-goal percentage (a combination of 2-point and 3-point percentages), rebounding and turnover rates (which determine how many more possessions a team gets), and free-throw edge (in attempts, not percentage).

That last part is significant, and it's something that a lot of fans don't see when they casually work through a game.

Let's say Chuck Hayes picks up two offensive rebounds over the course of the first minute and a half of the fourth quarter, and both times he gets fouled on a putback attempt. Hayes will knock in two of his four attempted free throws, everyone will laugh at his free throw stroke, the crowd might groan at the thought of only scoring two points when four were possible, and the whole thing will be forgotten seconds later.

But four minutes later, with Yao Ming having been fouled a couple of times and Ron Artest getting corralled as he dashed to the other side of the court after stealing the rock, the Rockets will be in the penalty. And the next time Aaron Brooks takes a Tyson Chandler hip to his side as Chandler overplays the screen and roll 25-feet from the hoop, he'll get two free throws, and he'll make both.

And this means the Rockets have created four points out of absolutely nothing. Four points that weren't going to be there, because in most other cases (with 75 percent of other power forwards), those offensive rebounds were defensive rebounds for the other team.

And those four points, in a league that is just trying to come out on the winning side of 96-92, mean so, so much.

I don't want to tell you that he's changing anything. He hasn't. Most teams track possessions, if not to the same extent as the Rockets, than pretty damn close to what they do. Most teams have some sort of statistical bent to their analysis, and most teams allow for that bent to at least have some impact on personnel decisions. This guy isn't a genius. He's not a step and a half ahead of his colleagues. He's just better at being a GM than anyone else, right now.

Otis Smith inherited Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and Hedo Turkoglu; and his biggest move was to wildly overpay Rashard Lewis in 2007, a move that could cost him Turkoglu this summer. Mitch Kupchak has done fine work since 2006, but the Lakers have been getting killed defensively in the backcourt all year, while the Rockets managed to go out and get Kyle Lowry to shore up their issues in that area.

Kevin Pritchard? Despite other GMs distaste for his style, he's a worthy winner. Danny Ainge? As much as the Celtics have faltered with their best player on the sidelines, well, re-read that sentence. And they've held onto the second seed with lower-rung draft picks that Ainge has selected. He's done a terrific job.

John Paxson gave Chicago the offensive boost it needed by trading for Brad Miller and John Salmons (while unloading Andres Nocioni's contract), but that trade (in the end) basically made up for the wins Chicago lost due to the on-court training of the coach he hired. Still, fine job.

The Denver duo of Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman did a fantastic job. They understood how Marcus Camby was probably overvalued due to his block and rebound totals (a deal that was initially ridiculed by people who don't understand the league), saved their owner a ton of money, and understood what Joe Dumars was after (expiring deals) on their way to grabbing Chauncey Billups.

My issue with them is, what happens next year? When everyone is a year older (and, save for Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, a little worse), and still making all this money? That's a minor quibble, though, as that duo more than deserves the award.

Sam Presti? He might be a victim of what LeBron James had to go through in 2006 and 2008. He'll have plenty of time to win that award.

In the end, though, Morey's done the best job.

Fair-weather NBA fans look at Houston's roster and think, "what a load of no-names. Yao Ming and Ron Artest must be doing a hell of a job holding that mess together."

People who have a deeper knowledge of this league look at that roster and think, "what enviable depth. It's a shame Yao turns the ball over too much and Ron thinks of himself as just a step below Kobe."

And that's why he won't win the award. And that's why this post will be laughed off. Too many Lorenzen Wrights follow and cover the NBA. Not enough Carl Landrys do.

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