Philadelphia 76ers: Daryl Morey’s spotted history of landing second stars

Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports /

Daryl Morey has been in the NBA in one job or another since 2002.

He’s worked for three different franchises, made roughly 560 different transactions give or take, and has never assembled a roster that didn’t close out the regular season with a losing record.

And through it all, Morey has only had two MVP- caliber superstars.

Now sure, that point could be argued. Morey’s Rockets employed players like Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutombo, Tracy McGrady, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul, all of whom are either Hall of Famers or bound for it, but when he was in Houston from 2007-20 – the only team Morey had total control over pre-Philly – they weren’t quite in that conversation anymore.

So, as the Philadelphia 76ers prepare to procure a second star to pair up with Joel Embiid long-term, what can we learn from Morey’s tenure on Houston?

What can Daryl Morey’s legacy in Houston tell us about the Philadelphia 76ers?

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At its core, the NBA is a star-driven league.

Sure, you’ll occasionally find teams that excel off the back of a strong core and put up lopsided win-loss records off the back of a “sum is greater than its parts” philosophy – Mike Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks and the current iteration of the New York Knicks come to mind – but over the past decade, there hasn’t been an NBA champion that didn’t have at least two All-Stars at bare minimum filling out their starting five.

Over his first half-decade in H-Town, Morey’s Rockets fell into the former category, and despite a prolonged tenure of success, the GM who inspired portions of the Michael Lewis book, “The Undoing Project,” knew he needed to make a change. He scoured the NBA, looked high and low, and found himself a burgeoning superstar in the making; a superstar who had only started seven games over his first three seasons in the NBA.

When the Rockets procured James Harden alongside Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick, it was far from the one-sided generational blunder on the part of Sam Presti that it would eventually become. Harden had only scored 20-plus points in 37 of his career 263 games in an orange, blue, and white uniform, and despite his impressive showing in the Thunder’s lone trip to the NBA Finals, he was far from a guarantee to upgrade his Sixth Man of the Year award into a League MVP.

Just for contest, Kevin Martin averaged five more points than Harden’s best season in OKC during his 2.5 years in Houston, and he was just a portion of the Thunder haul. Factor in the 12th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, two more firsts, and another second for good measure, and surely the Thunder would be able to replace Harden without much fuss, right?

Yeah, not so much.

Armed with the keys to the franchise and a brand new five-year contract worth $80 million, Harden went off; averaging nearly 10 more points per game while starting every single game. Harden was voted into the All-Star game for the first time in his career, named to the All-NBA, and most importantly of all, broke the Rockets’ then three-year playoff drought with a first-round showdown versus, get this, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Granted, the Thunder won that battle – only to lose in the Semis to the Memphis Grizzlies in five – but the Rockets ultimately won the war, as they recorded six more wins than OKC from 2012-19 and recorded one more trip to the playoffs than their Northwest Division counterparts.

But as the years passed and the Rockets handed over the clipboard to Mike D’Antoni, Morey knew his team needed an infusion of talent to remain competitive with the rest of the league’s superteams.

That, my friends, is where things become particularly relevant to fans of the Philadelphia 76ers.

You see, during the Kevin McHale-era of Rockets basketball, Harden only played one season alongside another current All-Star, a little-known player you may or may not have heard of by the name of Dwight Howard. Though, in theory, the duo should have formed a lethal pick-and-roll offensive attack – that is why he was signed in free agency, after all, to be the Shaq to Harden’s Kobe – but in practice, things weren’t so lethal. The pairing became increasingly unproductive with each passing season, and Howard was ultimately allowed to walk in free agency three years later to sign with his hometown Atlanta Hawks after rejecting a $23 million player option in 2016.

From there, Morey decided to forgo landing another star in the interim and instead opted to invest heavily in mid-level free agents like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon during the summer of 2016; a summer that will forever be remembered for reckless spending spurned on by an increase in the salary cap.

This strategy worked out okay-ish, as the Rockets still reached 55 wins and made it to the Conference Finals, but a 4-2 loss to the San Antonio Spurs left a bad taste in many a mouth around the greater Houston area. With a chance to procure another star once again on the table in the summer of 2017, Morey took another swing at the 1B apple and eventually invested one of the richest contracts in NBA history on a then-32-year-old “Point God” who’d yet to make it to the NBA Finals in any of his first 12 professional seasons.

And those results were actually pretty darn good… at least until they weren’t.

In exchange for seven(!) players and a first-round pick – including but not limited to Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams – Morey paired up Harden with a grizzled floor general the likes of which he’d only shared the court with in opposition during his tenure in Houston in eventual Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul, and it clicked. The duo helped to bring the best out of each other, Harden was named the league’s MVP, and the Rockets came a hamstring pull away from unseating the Warriors in a knockdown, drag-out Western Conference Finals slugfest.

Once again, this pairing should have been money. While teams don’t typically find supreme success with two All-Star-caliber guards and a roleplayer-focused frontcourt – just ask the Washington Wizards or the Portland Trail Blazers – Morey’s focus on building an analytics-derived, dominant small ball attack became increasingly potent with three guards capable of running D’Antoni’s offense.

But, again, it just didn’t work out. As Harden’s game became more and more well-rounded and he fully transcended from traditional shooting guard into a legitimate point guard, capable of dishing out shots almost as often as he took them.

Okay, maybe that’s a tad overly dramatic. Harden actually averaged more assists in the lead-up to the CP3 trade than after it, but his usage rate was notably higher than his backcourtmate, and when you’re dealing with the superstar egos of hundreds of millionaires, that can create issues.

A rift between Paul and Harden grew into the 2018-19 season, and by the postseason summer, the former was off to OKC at an incredibly expensive deal to secure Harden a new backcourtmate who he would maybe enjoy spending more time with. Paul’s assumption that Houston would be the final stop of his NBA career was proven starkly incorrect, and in his place came Harden’s old pal Russell Westbrook, who was arguably the worst-fitting 1B of Morey’s era in Houston.

Now granted, it’s hard to fault Morey too bad for procuring Westbrook from OKC. He’s a very good friend of Harden and, despite his obvious offensive flaws, is still one of the hardest-working guards in the game. If surrendering two first-round picks and the rights to swap two second-round picks is the price of keeping Harden happy, it’s better to have two stars and a few fewer picks than no stars and an uncertain future; just ask current Rockets GM Rafael Stone.

But still, again, even reuniting Harden with Westbrook wasn’t enough to keep the league-MVP happy. With rumbling of Harden’s interest in leaving Houston bubbling up to the surface once more, a matter surely made worse by Morey’s decision to leave a sinking ship for the bright lights and innumerous cheesesteak joints of the City of Brotherly Love, Westbrook was traded to Houston for John Wall, and a 2023 protected-first round pick and “The Beard” followed suit shortly thereafter; being shipped off to Brooklyn for a massive package of picks and players.

So, what can we learn from Daryl Morey’s tenure with the Houston Rockets, and how can it apply to the Philadelphia 76ers’ current search for a certified superstar to pair up with Joel Embiid?

Fit. Is. Everything.

During Morey’s introductory press conference, the MIT grad described 2020-21 as a season of evaluation for the 76ers. Granted, he then said the team was “pretty much championship or bust,” a quote that surely didn’t age well based on how the season ended, but based on his in-season decision making, it’s hard to argue with his original sentiment. Despite sniffing around some blockbuster deals – and getting pretty darn close to pulling them off, depending on who you ask – Morey largely stood pat with his current corps and only added a few marginal midseason pieces at a marginal expense.

Fast forward to the 2021 offseason – which isn’t technically upon us but will be soon – and Morey’s full season of evaluation should prove invaluable both on the court and in the locker room. Morey now not only knows how Embiid likes to play, his strengths and weaknesses as a player, and the sort of player who would fit next to him in a finely-tuned offensive attack but also understands his mindset, which, as we saw in Houston, is incredibly important when you’re potentially trading away a half-dozen draft picks to get a deal done.

It’s also pretty safe to assume that Morey will have absolutely no issue with shipping out any player on the roster if he thinks it will make the team better, even if he was just traded for and extended (Tobias Harris) or is looked at as a franchise cornerstone (Ben Simmons). He also hasn’t been particularly precious about keeping young players for the full extent of their rookie contract no matter how good they look, as he shipped out players like Montrezl Harrell, Clint Capella, and the rights to Jeremy Lamb without so much as a second thought.

And as for draft picks? Fuhgeddaboudit! Considering Morey only gave one extension to a Rocket draft pick over his final decade in Houston and actually traded away two of them before they even played a minute in a red, white, and sometimes yellow jersey, it seems rather unlikely the Sixers will entire the 2021 NBA Draft with the same number of picks they have today, especially if one of the league’s semi-disgruntled stars opts to outright request a trade.

Next. Ben Simmons’ trade value is “pretty high”. dark

Despite his relative newness to the City of Brotherly Love, Daryl Morey is no spring chicken. He’s a certified NBA lifer, a respected analytics wiz, and one of the NBA’s most respected team builders with an extensive transaction history. Assuming the Philadelphia 76ers hold the same sentiment as their fanbase that their roster as presently constructed isn’t quite good enough to win it all predictably, the man Danny Ainge apparently calls “The Slippery Eel” has all of the firepower needed to execute the sort of franchise-altering trade(s) that could set the stage for a huge second season of his tenure. Let’s just hope that said player gets along with Joel Embiid, as interpersonal issues ultimately tanked the Houston Rockets’ best chance to win a title.