Daryl Morey is a guy who is difficult to dislike, even from afar.
To steal a phrase from one of our erstwhile civic lightning rods, he presents well. Part of it is genetics. His soft, round face is contoured with the upward crinkles of contentedness, and his voice is pitched up an octave from where his broad frame suggests. But it is the way in which he wields these attributes that makes you think the Sixers have finally found their forever executive.
Take, for instance, the last two men who occupied the role that Morey will fill as the Sixers' singular authority on personnel matters. Bryan Colangelo and Sam Hinkie both owed their undoing to their habit of coming across as the smartest guy in the room.
This was a problem for Colangelo because he obviously wasn’t, and a problem for Hinkie because he probably was. Unlike his predecessors, Morey comports himself with the easy, receptive air of a man who has never read his own biography. For the last 13 years, he has built the Houston Rockets into the second-most winningest team in the Western Conference while building a reputation as the most creative executive in the league.
He traded for James Harden, and hired Mike D’Antoni, and came within a game of advancing to the NBA Finals over one of the greatest teams the sport has ever seen. Yet when he says that good ideas originate at all levels of the chain of command, and he mentions interns as an example, he actually sounds like he means it.
“You make great decisions by having great people who are all working toward the same goal and not worrying about what title someone is or, honestly, what role,” Morey said. “When you come into an organization and say ‘I know the way, I know the answers,’ it won’t work.”
Granted, I’m a sucker for anybody who doesn’t talk about eating a cheesesteak in their introductory news conference. But that’s only because the people who talk about eating a cheesesteak are the ones who eat theirs with mustard and Swiss cheese. Morey’s abstention from performative culinary appropriation belies a degree of emotional intelligence that is necessary for survival as a wonk in this land of milk and scrapple.
Even if it turns out that he is simply a vegan, Morey is still a solid bet to hold this job as long as he wants it. Ours is a town that wants you to take your job seriously but not yourself. On Monday afternoon, he came across as a man who will succeed on both counts.
The most successful leaders are those who approach their jobs with a rigid adherence to end goals and a malleable approach to their means. They recognize that the framework for optimal decision-making depends as much on concrete, external realities as personal ethos or abstract theory, and that the best way to control for the fluid nature of reality is to understand it as thoroughly as possible.
On Monday, we heard these things from Morey in a couple of notable forms. The first was his unequivocal endorsement of Joel Embiid, whom he identified as the primary source of his enthusiasm for his new job.
“There aren’t many opportunities where you get a chance to win, and I really felt this was the right fit,” Morey said. “Joel is a dominant, dominant big man. I’m excited to get back to that. I worked with Yao Ming and we got very close [to a title] in Houston with Yao Ming. I think we can go all the way with Joel.”
It was an interesting thing to hear him say given his place among the avant garde of a league that is increasingly de-emphasizing low-post play. Last season, Morey seemed to stake out ground on the extreme end of that philosophy when he traded away Clint Capela and built a largely centerless roster. But, then, the Rockets did not have access to a center like Embiid, which meant Morey had a different reality to work with than the one he has here in Philly.
“I used to get the question in Houston, ‘What would you do if you had Shaq?’” Morey said. “My answer was, I would give him the ball about 100 times per game.”
Objectivity often requires a certain amount of distance. Sitting in Houston, Morey clearly saw Embiid and Ben Simmons for what many of us here in town forget them to be: two players who immediately turned a 20-win team into a 50-win team and kept them there through several different roster iterations. Their ability to do so despite their youth is a testament to the singular nature of their talents.
The closer you look at Morey’s career, the more you realize that the bedrock of his philosophy lies in the acquisition of the best possible talent. It is the market’s scarcest resource, and, thus, it is the resource that should dictate every other decision. If Ming and Tracy McGrady are the two elite talents available, you start there and construct the rest of your team around them.
All of this suggests that Morey’s first order of business will focus on swapping out Al Horford and Josh Richardson for two players who better complement Embiid and Simmons. He is a well-established master at adding talent in such a manner. The market for Richardson could well determine the shape that next year’s team takes.
However reality unfolds, the Sixers should be thrilled that they have an executive who understands the need to unfold with it.
“Really all our job is, is to make great decisions,” Morey said, “so we’re going to use great people all working together and use data.”
Morey’s track record of making such decisions is the biggest reason to believe he can succeed where those before him failed.
Hinkie’s tenure was a failure of public relations more than anything. Brand never really had a tenure. As for Colangelo, we’ll end with a nod to Morey’s wardrobe on Monday. His shirt didn’t have a collar.