Building a basketball team is not a job for any of the archetypes commonly associated with the role. It is not a job for the Politician. It is not a job for the Numbers Guy. It is not a job for the Guy Who Has Played the Game. It is a job for a person whose internal hard drive contains interlinked packets of all of these things. It is a job for the Polymath, the Synthesizer, the Pattern Recognizer. It is a job that demands a manic pursuit of information, an obsessive consideration of hypotheticals and counterfactuals, an unequivocal openness to new ideas, and a relentless desire to A/B test scenarios until all but the optimal has been exhausted.
In other words, it is a job for a guy like Daryl Morey. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the news that broke early Wednesday afternoon. One moment, the Sixers were a ghost ship adrift in a slow, terminal loop back to the nothingness from which they’d come. The next, they were a Sea Isle City booze cruise.
The difference, as it often is in this modern era of professional sports, was the hiring of a bona fide leader. In reaching an agreement with Morey to become the president of basketball operations, the Sixers have acknowledged that the first step toward charting a sustainable future is hiring a captain who understands it. Morey, whose tenure in Houston saw the Rockets win more games than any NBA team north (or south) of San Antonio, has spent the last 13 years consistently positioning the Rockets a step ahead of the curve. Despite being in a conference that included three of the NBA’s most successful dynasties, the 48-year-old Wisconsin native built a series of rosters that produced seven seasons of 53-plus wins, two conference finals, and six conference semifinals under three head coaches. All of this, without drafting a single player inside the top 10 and only one inside the top 14.
Morey may not have won a title, but aside from the Spurs, Warriors, and Lakers, what Western Conference team has? (Answer: the Mavericks.) There are lots of executives with rings who would not have been the right executive for this job. From a results-based perspective, the top line on Morey’s resume is his consistent ability to identify his marquee talent and build a team that best complements their skills. His first act in Houston saw him surrounding Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady with a revolving cast of characters. He built his second act around James Harden, using every subsequent season to find the right formula around him. The third act saw the arrival and departure of Chris Paul, the pursuit of Jimmy Butler, and then finally a trade for Russell Westbrook.
It is this spirit of calculated experimentation and openness to ideas that make Morey the perfect fit for the Sixers' current moment. In Ben Simmons, they have a player whose best current NBA comp might be Westbrook, albeit with a higher basketball IQ and a lower desire for the rim. In Joel Embiid, they have a player with the same sort of singular attributes at his position that Harden brings to the backcourt. The Sixers’ chief failure last season was in their vision for the type of team that would maximize those two players' talents. Morey will inherit far less flexibility for pursuing that vision than his predecessors had. But you can be confident that he will achieve whatever maximum his constraints allow.
You can also be confident that he will not wed himself to the idea that the future belongs to Simmons and Embiid. Morey has long understood that the key to dominating any marketplace is understanding exactly how that market acts in the present and how it will act in the future. Sustained success requires measuring aggregate value over a window of time that expands perpetually into the future. An organization’s assets are its draft picks, its 15-17 roster spots, and the amount of payroll it has to spend. Success is a puzzle composed of the collective output of all of those things. If moving a piece like Embiid or Simmons can create a more complete puzzle, Morey has demonstrated an ability to see it.
This isn’t about analytics, though Morey’s background will prompt plenty of tuts and scoffs. When the Rockets hired him as general manager in 2007, he was a 35-year-old with a computer science degree from Northwestern and an MBA from MIT who had spent the first part of his career gradually working his way through the sports business world toward the field of play.
But Morey has shown himself to be nothing like the egghead boogeyman that so terrifies the purists. Building a basketball team is equal parts economics, game theory, performance quantification, and talent evaluation. The job of a team president is to build a staff that supplies him with the most complete and accurate information in all of those areas. Where Morey has differentiated himself is in the synthesis and application of all of that information.
It is an X-factor that exists at the fringes of the normal distribution, and Morey has shown himself to have it. His hiring is a sign that Josh Harris understands that building a championship basketball team is an endeavor that requires every bit of the high-level strategic thinking that building a blue-chip investment fund does. During his first decade as Sixers managing partner, he navigated his organization like a hiker who had stumbled across a house vacated by bears. Sam Hinkie’s mattress was too stiff. Bryan Colangelo’s bed had sateen sheets. The communal sleeping area was just plain weird. Now, with the hiring of Morey, Harris has finally found a partner who will enable him to wake up on the right side of the bed. Like Goldilocks, he’d arrived at an inflection point, and he chose the right adventure.