In the 2007-08 season, Daryl Morey’s first as the general manager of the Houston Rockets, NBA teams took an average of 18.1 three-point attempts per game. This season, Morey’s last as Houston’s general manager, teams took an average of 34.1. While that jump cannot be fully attributed to Morey, as some credit belongs to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, his analytical approach to basketball as general manager of Houston has been a catalyst for changing the game as we know it. Though up for debate how much this change is for the best, it is clear Morey’s philosophy has dramatically changed how the game is played.
After inheriting a team with two aging stars in Tracy McGrady and an injured Yao Ming, Morey was left with next to nothing when both of them succumbed to career-ending injuries at the end of the 2000s. Unlike many other general managers, who get the luxury of bottoming out and building through high draft picks, Morey was tasked with keeping Houston competitive for his entire tenure. So, he bided his time from 2010-12, keeping Houston between 34 and 43 wins while looking for his chance to land the team’s next cornerstone. When the Oklahoma City Thunder began shopping for Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, in the summer of 2012, Morey jumped at the opportunity and partnership that would change basketball was born.
At the time, not many saw Harden as a franchise player. He had been a great Sixth Man for the Oklahoma City team that had just made the Finals, but most saw him as a complementary piece and not a first option. Morey could see there was more to Harden, though. He acquired the young shooting guard and knew he was perfect for the brand of basketball Morey was confident was going to take over the NBA.
Today, the idea that analytics drive NBA front offices’ decision-making is well known. But when Morey began as Houston’s general manager, not many believed in their translation to real basketball. He figured out midrange shots were a waste of time — threes, layups and free throws were much more efficient. From 1998 to 2018, an average NBA shot yielded 1.02 points. Shots at the rim yielded the most at over 1.2 points per shot. Corner threes were not far behind, yielding 1.16 points per shot. Above-the-break threes followed at 1.05 points per shot. The midrange? A measly 0.79 points per shot. And even though those stats cover 20 seasons, this has been true since at least the new millennium, if not earlier. Morey found these trends before other NBA front offices, and he took advantage.
Harden was a perfect fit for Morey’s radical idea of eliminating the midrange altogether; in his final season with Oklahoma City, a mere 19% of all his shots were midrange jumpers, most of which were short midrange, about 10-12 feet away from the rim as opposed to the typical 18-20 feet. These short, midrange shots allowed him to take basketball’s most efficient shots more of the time. Morey dove headfirst into the concept, building a team specifically designed to produce only threes, layups, and free throws. In 2019-20, Morey’s final season with Houston, the team took only 17.7% of their shots from the midrange, well below the league average of 29.3%. For reference, in 2011-12, 43.6% of shots across the league were taken from the midrange. That’s a huge change in only eight years. When Morey began his revolution, other teams began to take notice. He led a dramatic transformation of teams moving out from the midrange to three and in from the midrange to the rim.
While the team never won a championship , the Rockets won more games in his tenure than any other NBA team other than the San Antonio Spurs. Harden led them to two Western Conference Finals, where they ran into the buzzsaw of the Golden State Warriors. Houston made the playoffs in all but three of Morey’s 13 years in charge. Many times, we judge success based on if a team is able to achieve basketball’s ultimate goal: becoming NBA Champions. But many great teams never do that’ and Morey’s team will go down as a part of that group.
Some may remember the Morey-Harden era of Houston basketball as one that continually fell short of winning a title. While true Morey never built a team that won a title, he undeniably was a wildly successful and influential NBA executive. Houston was a staple in the playoffs and came the closest to knocking off the healthy Kevin Durant’s Warriors. Morey ushered in an era in which basketball dorks are essential in front offices, and he was the geeks’ “Dork Elvis.” For the foreseeable future, even with Morey no longer in Houston, NBA teams will continue to cut down on their diet of midrangers, instead opting for basketball’s more efficient shots. I wonder who gave them that idea…
Tim Brennan is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online every other week.