In the nerdier NBA circles, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey is known as one of the wisest men in the NBA. Year after year, Morey has created and mastered a system of scientific player recognition that gives his team the highest chance of success at the lowest price. If you’ve watched the movie (or read the book) ‘Moneyball’, then you’ll know of Morey’s inspiration. Moneyball was about baseball's Oakland Athletics, but in the NBA, the Rockets have been running their own version of ‘Moreyball’ for years.
While basketball’s greatest and most memorable moments spring out from true passion and energy for the game, those moments only make up for a small percentage of the 48-minutes-a-game, 82-games-a-season life that is NBA basketball. The majority of the game is an elaborate chess board, with the basketball players acting as the pieces and the coaches and GMs acting as the chess players, calling each and every play. Morey’s philosophy in building the Rockets’ roster has been simple: filter through the hype and the hoopla and get right down to the cold, hard statistics to pick the players best-suited to produce the most from the least.
And so, while a roster of Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee, Goran Dragic, Chandler Parsons, Chase Budinger, Samuel Dalembert, Patrick Patterson, and Marcus Camby may not exactly strike fear in the heart of their opponents every night, this roster, led by their head coach Kevin McHale, now finds themselves at a comfortable sixth place in the brutal Western Conference (with a 32-25 record), one spot ahead of reigning champion Dallas Mavericks.
The Rockets weren’t always a team full of overachieving no-names. They had a team that won two championships with Hakeem Olajuwan in the mid-90s but had a failed experiment of teaming Hakeem with Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley. A few years later the Rockets got lucky again when they won the first pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, and thus won the sweepstakes to the NBA’s biggest and newest brand: Yao Ming. Yao and point guard Steve Francis gave several exciting, yet unsuccessful years to the squad. Francis was later traded for Tracy McGrady for more years of inconsistency, as both Yao and McGrady battled with frequent injuries. The Rockets added Ron Artest to the mix too wheras the team remained a perennial playoff side but rarely survived beyond the first round.
One by one, the ‘big names’ left, but to everyone’s surprise, the Rockets remained as resilient as ever. The one player who perhaps best symbolised ‘Moreyball’ was Shane Battier, a no-stats star who made a difference to the final result without making a difference on the score sheet. Battier has since moved on, but his spirit remains amongst the likes of Martin, Scola, and Lowry, players who do their job well night in and night out and are only concerned with the final result, not their individual stats. Lowry was having close to an All-Star year this season before getting injured. In his place rose backup Goran Dragic, who recently won NBA’s Player of the Week, taking the Rockets to a 3-0 week where he averaged 20.7 ppg and 8.3 apg. Not that he noticed those stats.
The names on the Rockets’ roster might sound like a list of the replacements – of players who are ‘poor man’s’ versions of other stars at their position – but they have all been carefully picked and analysed to be the perfect fit in a winning team. Perhaps the one complaint that their fans may have with this system is that the team isn’t good enough to be a true championship contender and not bad enough to have a chance to rebuild with the lottery.
But when the playoff begins this year, the Rockets are once again likely to find themselves in the mix of things. The Rockets may not have the most expensive-looking chess set, but they certainly have the right pieces to befuddle even the best of players. Names such as Dragic, Scola, and Martin are going to give a stiff competition to Bryant, Nowitzki, and Durant. And Daryl Morey’s own twist at Moneyball will once again turn heads.