Innovative GM Morey applies Rocket science
Daryl Morey is spending his weekend in Boston as one of the organizers of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which spends two days discussing sports analytics. It may sound confusing, but the intensive study of basketball statistics beyond points, rebounds, and assists has made Morey one of the NBA’s most innovative general managers.
Morey, whose side job is running the Houston Rockets, has used his background and fascination with statistics to become sort of the Billy Beane of basketball. His Rockets are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race despite lacking a definitive star or franchise player.
The previous regime attempted to build around Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, but injuries derailed that plan, so Morey has built a deep and talented roster filled with players who were little-known or secondary in other places.
“Yao Ming and McGrady were really the foundational pieces we were building around,’’ Morey said. “And we’re trying to get back to that. I feel like the guys are emerging into those roles, but we’re going to continue to upgrade until we have that sort of foundation that is championship-caliber, which we’re a little short of being now.’’
Because of the Yao and McGrady injuries, Morey had to make contingency plans. He acquired Kevin Martin from Sacramento and put more faith in forward Luis Scola and unheralded point guard Kyle Lowry. The three have emerged as the Rockets’ leading scorers, and Lowry has become one of the league’s most explosive point guards.
“He’s been on a great track, getting better every year,’’ Morey said. “He’s still only in his early 20s and somebody we’re really excited to have on this team and build around.’’
The Rockets lack big names, but balance is what makes them a formidable opponent. Like the 76ers in the Eastern Conference, the Rockets are difficult to defend because they have so many players who can break out.
Houston has nine players who average 7 or more points and three who average at least 15.
The issue at times has been defense. The Rockets rank 24th in the league in opposing field goal percentage and 17th in points allowed.
“You look up and down the roster, and we have different guys do things every night,’’ Morey said. “Lowry has probably carried us most this year. But the good thing about us is that we have a lot of guys who can score, even guys who come off the bench.
On Tuesday, new coach Kevin McHale will make his first appearance at TD Garden in his second stint as an NBA coach. After being forced into the coaching seat while serving as general manager in Minnesota, McHale pursued coaching jobs after being removed in 2010.
The Celtic great spent one season at NBA TV before the Rockets took a chance on his defense-first philosophy, something that wasn’t the case in Minnesota.
“Obviously, he has really tough shoes to fill with coach [Rick] Adelman being one of the best in the league and one of the most experienced,’’ Morey said. “He’s really been everything we’ve hoped for in terms of bringing his philosophy and imprint on this team.
“The first couple of times, he was out there replacing coaches, but this time, to have a full year with the guys, the coach and the players are going to grow together. Too bad he wasn’t able to have a training camp this year with the guys.’’
Morey gives input through statistical analysis, something that offers different options in terms of lineups and player evaluations. Basketball analysis has grown far beyond plus/minus differentials and assist-to-turnover ratios. There are statistics that are designed to determine optimal lineups and rate how valuable each player is to his team.
“I think it’s a valuable tool for a whole lot of reasons,’’ Morey said. “It allows you to take a step back and use something objective to evaluate your team’s performance or your player’s performance and figure out the best plan of attack.
“If you integrate that with the instincts and the acumen of coach McHale and the players we have, I think it leads to a great scheme together.’’
Has the analysis helped the Rockets become contenders in the Western Conference? In his matter-of-fact way, Morey says his methods have worked. But they won’t be considered completely effective until one of his teams wins a championship.
Morey believes the Rockets are moving steadily toward that pinnacle.
“We’re trying to put a continuous winner on the floor,’’ he said. “We’d like to get into the next tier of a winner in terms of being a championship contender. The only way is to skew young and skew towards players with upside.
“This is more heart than science. We try to bring some science into it. We don’t know who’s going to pan out, but we try to [use science] to shift the odds in our favor.’’
Cousins has made strides
The perception is that DeMarcus Cousins is difficult to coach and difficult to deal with. And he has done little to disprove that since being labeled a malcontent in high school.
But the 6-foot-11-inch forward’s production cannot be denied. Cousins, who doesn’t turn 22 until August, is averaging a double-double in his second season with the Kings (16.6 points, 11.5 rebounds). He is a prototype franchise cornerstone but has endured a lot of upheaval in Sacramento and spent considerable time fielding questions about his attitude.
An NBA scout compared Cousins’s footwork with Kevin McHale’s, and he has a solid mid-range jumper and a mean streak. Rumors that he wants out of Sacramento are just that, especially since the Kings replaced Paul Westphal as coach with Keith Smart.
“Man, that’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole life,’’ said Cousins. “I’ve got tough skin. They can say what they want. They are always going to have something to say.’’
Asked if the misperceptions bothered him, he said, “No, because they’re not really trying to understand me. They’re just following the crowd.’’
Cousins came to the NBA (fifth overall pick in 2010) with an advanced skill set, but he and Westphal clashed during the former Celtic’s short tenure as coach, and Cousins’s work ethic came into question.
His numbers have improved since his rookie season but he still shoots 44 percent, an alarming number for a post player.
“I know it’s happening,’’ he said of the improvement. “It may not happen at the speed other people want it to happen at, but I know it’s happening. I’m going to keep working hard.’’
A mentor who has emerged for Cousins is former Kings forward Chris Webber, who played seven seasons in Sacramento. He has tried to offer sound advice, not criticism.
“I have the utmost respect for C-Web, he’s a real person,’’ Cousins said. “He just gives me advice, tells me how to handle situations. He went through similar situations so of course he has advice for me. I guess you can say a big brother looking over me.’’
The Kings have been saved in Sacramento by a $391 million arena plan, and the organization has drafted Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas, and Jimmer Fredette as the potential core for a Western Conference contender. They have shown signs of progress, but it could take several seasons before they unseat the Lakers, Mavericks, and Spurs.
Cousins said he wants to be part of that effort.
“Sacramento is where I want to be,’’ he said. “I want to bring the organization back, help the organization get started back winning. I love the city of Sacramento. That’s where I want to be. End of story.
“We can dig a hole, throw that topic in there, cover it with dirt, pack it down. I want to be in Sacramento. End of story.’’
Nets’ Brooks rises rapidly
Last year, MarShon Brooks was trying to help Providence College get a better seed in the Big East tournament. Last week, he was a member of the Rising Stars roster during All-Star Weekend.
Brooks is looking like a cinch for the All-Rookie Team, averaging 14.1 points, second among first-year players to Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.
“It’s definitely kind of crazy just playing with the likes of John Wall and guys I saw on TV at the same event last year,’’ said the Nets guard. “It’s a great feeling, not only that, but I definitely belong.’’
The Celtics actually drafted Brooks but quickly shipped him to New Jersey for JaJuan Johnson in a move that was prearranged. Brooks has turned into a professional scorer, with the ability to adjust to different defenses.
It’s been a whirlwind ride for Brooks, who may be turning into a cornerstone for the Nets.
“I must say, I didn’t expect it to come so easily,’’ he said. “But once I was in training camp, that’s when I started to realize I could score at this level.
“[Coach] Avery [Johnson] is pumping me with more and more confidence, telling me what shots to shoot. The guys just embraced me from Day One, and that’s not really easy, especially from a scorer’s standpoint.’’
Johnson can be difficult with players. “The General’’ has spent the last season and a half attempting to build the Nets into a consistent winner. They are 11-26 after Friday’s loss to the Celtics, but Brooks tallied 19 points in a stunning win over the Bulls Feb. 18 and scored 18 two days later against the Knicks.
“It’s very tough, very critical, every little mistake,’’ Brooks said of playing for Johnson. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to have something to say about the [Rising Stars] game, but it brings the best out of me, and that’s all I can ask for - a tough, hard-nosed coach. I love it.’’
Brooks’s shooting percentage has declined, a sign that teams are reacting to his early success. A perfect example was the first meeting with the Celtics Jan. 4 when he scored 15 points in the first half but was limited to 2 in the second before leaving with a foot injury.
“They know my [isolation] plays, whenever my coach likes to post me up on the right wing, and now it’s tougher,’’ he said. “You start hearing different coverages from the bench, you look at different double-teams coming from different angles.
“That’s been a little tough, but I’ve been adjusting. I’ve just got to take the open shot when I’ve got it.
“I play with a great point guard [Deron Williams] and he’s making life easy on me, and if I can take the first shot instead of thinking before I shoot, that will help.’’
Clipper move is foul play
The Clippers have done it again. They are trying to exile their most popular fan, “Clipper Darrell,’’ who has stormed up and down the stairs of Staples Center and the Los Angeles Sports Arena for 14 years in his blue and red suit, shouting jokes and insults at opposing players.
Clipper Darrell, whose real name is Darrell Bailey, was offered season tickets for two years by the team if he would stop donning the team colors and cap, and he refused. The Clippers then told him not to wear the colors or attempt to affiliate himself with the organization.
The club released a statement that makes it apparent Clipper Darrell is being bullied out of his status as the team’s No. 1 fan:
“In a conversation with an authoritative and tenured Clippers’ executive last week, he was asked again to either consult with the team on all public appearances and/or commercial ventures, or stop undertaking those opportunities representing himself inappropriately. His response was an offer to stop representing himself commercially in that way and his offer was accepted in principle.
“We hold all of our fans in the highest esteem and we have been patient and generous with Mr. Bailey. He has not returned our support in an honorable way. He is not actually a fan of the Clippers, but a fan of what he can make off of the Clippers. We are no longer interested in that kind of association with him, and that is why we accepted his offer to remove our team name from his stage name.’’
It is unclear whether Bailey will attend games this season, but what seems apparent is that the Clippers are taking their newfound success a little too seriously. And Bailey, whose good-natured ribbing has been seen as part of the game experience, is the victim.
Hard bargain for Warriors
The Magic may be looking to acquire Golden State leading scorer Monta Ellis as a way to entice Dwight Howard to stay, but the Warriors have little interest in anyone on the Orlando roster. And they aren’t quite ready to hand the team over to Stephen Curry with his recurring ankle issues . . . The city of Seattle was banking that the Kings or Hornets would be on the move so their arena plan could come to fruition. But the Kings got their arena deal in Sacramento, and the Hornets appear to have a buyer who plans to keep the team in New Orleans. Seattle may have to wait several more years for a team to relocate, because the league does not plan to expand . . . The Bulls may be in search of another scoring guard, as Richard Hamilton has not been healthy enough to provide the offense they desired. Hamilton has been limited to 14 games, and there is again talk that the Bulls are relying too heavily on Derrick Rose and Luol Deng . . . Paul Silas’s job as Charlotte coach appears safe for at least this season, despite the team’s 4-30 record. Silas said team owner Michael Jordan is obviously uncomfortable - and unfamiliar - with the rebuilding process but is willing to wait for the team to get healthier and improve through the draft. With Boris Diaw and Eduardo Najera coming off the salary cap, the Bobcats will have a chance to add an impact player through free agency . . . USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said he has been following the NBA season closely, and his group will give the players plenty of rest in preparation for the Summer Olympics in London. Stars such as Rose, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade have dealt with nagging injuries in this compacted season. The US team will begin training July 6 in Las Vegas, about two weeks after the NBA Finals, and will play its first exhibition game July 12. The team will try out 20 players before settling on 12 . . . Milwaukee’s Stephen Jackson missed Wednesday’s game against the Celtics with a strained right hamstring, and it’s uncertain when he will return. Jackson has been relegated to a bench player - not the team leader and cornerstone as expected. He was not with the Bucks in Boston.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.