The Philadelphia 76ers and Daryl Morey seem like an ideal match.
For the Sixers, who introduced Morey on Monday as president of basketball operations, he is an executive who gives their front office instant credibility. And for Morey, the job is a chance to transform a franchise with marquee players into a championship contender.
But transformations require institutional buy-in from all corners of a franchise. Morey’s track record as an analytics-driven tinkerer willing to blow up “good” in order to be “great” may not jibe with other parts of the organization — the ones that judge or are judged on straight wins and losses, or that need wins to make money. And Philadelphia has been here before: Sam Hinkie, a Morey acolyte, took the reins of the Sixers in 2013 for an ill-fated partnership. Yet, with Morey, this can and should work. He will give the franchise much needed stability and direction. But it will require something owners always say they have but often don’t: patience.
The Morey pursuit began in earnest two years ago, when Philadelphia made a push for him to replace the ousted Bryan Colangelo but was rebuffed. Morey, who helped usher in the analytics movement in the N.B.A., finally made his way to Philadelphia after unexpectedly announcing his intent last month to resign from the Rockets in Houston, where he had been general manager since 2007.
But just adding a big name to the front office won’t magically fix the Sixers, who were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics despite preseason championship aspirations. Afterward, the Sixers’ general manager, Elton Brand, announced that changes needed to be made “top to bottom” — including in the front office.
Morey is one of those changes. The Sixers also announced Monday that Brand had signed a multiyear contract extension, but he will most likely answer to Morey, and it is unclear how that dynamic will shake out. In August, Brand said “collaboration days didn’t work too well” with the front office last season.
Philadelphia, under Brand’s leadership, doubled down on going big in the frontcourt — with Joel Embiid, a franchise cornerstone, and Al Horford — while the rest of the league trended toward a smaller and faster style of basketball supported by analytics. No team embraced the concept more than Morey’s Rockets, who traded a productive center in Clint Capela in February to play a smaller lineup. While the Rockets often relied on 3-pointers for their offense, Philadelphia’s other franchise player, Ben Simmons, has shot just 24 of them in three seasons.
“The best way to win in the N.B.A. is to take your talent and figure out how to utilize them best,” Morey said at a news conference on Monday. “It’s not to take your talent and hammer it into a particular system.”
One insight into Morey’s style of thinking comes from before his time in Houston, when he was an executive with the Celtics. In the 2003-4 season, the Celtics were 36-46, made the playoffs as an eighth seed and were swept in the first round.
On whether the Celtics should have tanked, Morey told ESPN last year: “We should have. We didn’t. We were trying to win every game. But that would have been a year to not be in the eighth seed.”
That’s Morey, at least partly. He would rather start from scratch than languish in mediocrity. (He has also since spoken out against tanking, saying it is bad for the N.B.A.)
There is an open question as to how radical the team’s ownership group will allow Morey to be. He made 77 trades in his 13 years in Houston, and his influence has made an impression in Philadelphia. In 2013, the Sixers hired Hinkie as team president and general manager, commencing an era known to Sixers fans as the Process. Hinkie based roster decisions on analytics and eschewed short-term gains for bigger, future ones. (Or, in N.B.A. terms: The Sixers tanked.) He honed that approach working alongside Morey in Houston from 2005 to 2013.
Hinkie focused on accumulating higher draft picks and tradable contracts rather than wins. While Hinkie’s supporters argue that the Process was successful because it netted the Sixers Embiid and set up the pick to draft Simmons, his detractors said his strategy was detrimental to the league. In 2016, Hinkie resigned. When he was in charge, the Sixers were among the worst teams in the N.B.A. Two years later, Embiid and Simmons led the Sixers on a surprising run to the second round of the playoffs, which only further entrenched Hinkie as a cult hero among Sixers fans.
On a recent podcast with ESPN, Hinkie spoke glowingly of his friend Morey’s willingness to make unpopular moves.
“That kind of being willing to do the hard right thing, I think, is the kind of thing Daryl will help with a bunch,” Hinkie said. “He’s proven with patient ownership that he can be successful.”
Under Morey, the Rockets never had a losing season. He often opted to rapidly retool rather than wholly rebuild, such as by swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook — “often” being the operative word. Morey kept the team competitive, seamlessly transitioning from the era of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady to one led by James Harden. To acquire Harden, though, Morey overhauled the roster, trading away several productive veterans and letting others leave in free agency.
The Rockets made the playoffs 10 times during Morey’s tenure, including two trips to the Western Conference finals. But Houston never made the N.B.A. finals with Morey, and critics have questioned whether his approach can build a champion, given that other teams rebuilt themselves and won rings in less time.
So there may come a time when Morey looks at Philadelphia’s dire salary cap situation and inconsistent superstar production and determines that retooling won’t be good enough, as he did before maneuvering to get Harden. The Sixers have no cap space, and two players, Horford and Tobias Harris, are signed to expensive, long-term deals that do not seem justified by their production last season.
“Our championship team probably isn’t going to have the same exact players that we have right now,” Morey said Monday. “Do I think that the players we have right now are very good and we can build around and continue to grow from there? I do believe that, absolutely.”
Morey is the kind of executive willing to pull the trigger on deals that would make his competitors squeamish. He is open to grand experiments, provided there is a statistical justification. Owners with egos and billions at stake might not take kindly if the results aren’t there right away.
Morey is likely aware of that. Take, for example, when he shared a tongue-in-cheek image of Hinkie on Twitter in May: His caption read, “He never got a chance to build.”
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