Nineteen months ago, right as he was signing a five-year contract extension to keep running the Rockets, Daryl Morey told Tilman Fertitta that he might not be that long for Houston. “He had always said, ‘I’m not going to be here forever,’” the Rockets owner recently told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “And, ‘At some point, I might want to go back to the East Coast.’”
As it turns out, “some point” came awfully quick. After stepping down as the Rockets’ general manager earlier this month, ending a successful albeit polarizing 13-year tenure that changed the way basketball is evaluated and played (for better or for worse), Morey is finalizing a deal to become the new president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Less than two weeks after walking away from his first opportunity to run an NBA team, Morey found a new one—and a chance to level up from GM to team president, to take the reins of a major-market franchise with a storied history that’s aching for a winner, and to assume control of a roster that already features two All-NBA talents in 26-year-old center Joel Embiid and 24-year-old everything Ben Simmons. He also gets to bring the resources of billionaire Sixers owner Josh Harris to resolve the nettlesome issue at the heart of Philly’s main post-Process challenge: how to craft a championship team around two excellent young players whose offensive games aren’t a naturally harmonious fit.
Philadelphia took a run at Morey in 2018, after Bryan Colangelo resigned amid controversy stemming from a Ringer investigation into possible connections between Colangelo and Twitter burner accounts that revealed sensitive information about the Sixers and maligned several of the team’s players. Morey decided to stay in Houston to remain in charge of a team that had just won 65 games and came within a strained hamstring and a historic hail of missed 3-pointers of knocking off the indomitable Warriors. A lot has changed in two years, though, in both Houston and Philadelphia, and “shortly after” Morey decided to step down, the Sixers once again made a push for his services. This time, they got their man, and Morey reportedly inked another five-year commitment from ownership—this time with younger stars, and on the East Coast, to boot.
Morey’s arrival raises questions about what role incumbent GM Elton Brand will play moving forward. Word of Morey’s move to Philly was followed quickly by reports that Brand “is expected to remain in his current position” as part of a “1-2 punch” in the front-office hierarchy. He’s not going to be the “1” in that order of operations, though. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of dynamic develops between Brand, who said this offseason that the Sixers needed “to strengthen our organization [by] balancing our strengths with analytics and strategy with more basketball minds,” and Morey, who is more or less the poster child for the advancement of analytics in NBA front offices—at the expense, to some degree, of “more basketball minds.”(Perhaps the reported additions of former head coach Dave Joerger, longtime Pacers defensive coordinator Dan Burke, and former Clippers assistant Sam Cassell constitutes enough of an influx on the bench to level things out.)
It’ll also remain to be seen how the arrival of a new no. 1 in the basketball ops org chart impacts the positions of recent hires Peter Dinwiddie and Prosper Karangwa, who were expected to play significant roles under Brand in Philly’s decision-making structure—which is important, because even after replacing Brett Brown with Doc Rivers and bringing on Morey, there are still some pretty big decisions to make in the City of Brotherly Love. Woj made a point of noting the “strong relationship” between Morey and Rivers, stemming from their days with the Celtics in the mid-2000s. Morey had reportedly sought to bring Rivers in to discuss the Rockets’ coaching vacancy this offseason before Doc took the Philly gig; now, they’re reunited anyway. Serendipity!
Given both Morey’s track record as a ceaselessly churning arbitrage enthusiast and the stylistic preferences Morey displayed in building his James Harden–era Houston teams, it’s tempting to envision him coming in and immediately chopping the Gordian knot at the heart of Philly’s roster by trading either Embiid or Simmons. The bet here, though, is that he won’t feel compelled to move either of the Sixers’ twin tower linchpins as a matter of course or principle; after all, the real animating principle of Morey’s tenure in Houston was a constant search for superstars of all shapes and sizes.
When Morey had Yao Ming alongside Tracy McGrady, the Rockets played inside out. He targeted Pau Gasol, and would’ve snared him if not for “basketball reasons.” After landing Harden, he swung for Dwight Howard as a pick-and-roll complement and paint-controlling defensive force. One year after signing Howard, he went after Chris Bosh to be the missing piece, and nearly got him. After the Harden-Howard pairing curdled and a Rockets team reoriented entirely around Harden won 55 games but fell short, Morey targeted Paul—acquired for a package of players Morey found on the scrap heap—to lighten Harden’s workload, ensure Houston always had an elite floor general, and try to match playmaking wits with supercharged Golden State. When the Harden-Paul partnership ran its course, he—reportedly at the urging of Harden and Fertitta—made one more all-in bet, first flipping CP3 for Russell Westbrook and then trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington to turn the Rockets into a center-less experiment intended to give Harden and Westbrook as much space as possible in which to wreak havoc.
None of those attempts got Houston to the promised land. But at every turn, Morey’s moves aimed to secure new All-NBA talent and maximize the talent already on hand. He will walk into an organization that already features two such players, so it seems likely that he’ll first try to exercise his gift for making magic on the margins rather than instantly shake up the centerpieces of the organization.
As popular as it’s been—on this website and elsewhere—to insist that the gargantuan Embiid-Simmons pairing is fundamentally flawed and incapable of success in the modern NBA, the Sixers still outscored opponents by about two points per 100 possessions when that pair shared the court even during a disappointing 2019-20 season. They were plus-4.4 points-per-100 when Embiid and Simmons played without Al Horford; those lineups scored at a rate that would’ve fallen between the league-best Mavericks’ offense and the second-ranked Clippers. When they played flanked by credible shooters—as they were with JJ Redick, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington in 2017-18, and with Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris in 2018-19—they produced some of the most effective and efficient lineups in the league. The path to building a great offense around Embiid and Simmons already exists, provided the Sixers can locate complementary players who can dribble, shoot, or—ideally—both. Last season’s Brand- and Brown-led Sixers failed to find those pieces, but this year’s model will have Doc trying his hand at turning holdovers like Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and Zhaire Smith into those sorts of contributors, and Morey—the exec who found and/or rehabilitated guys like Covington, Patrick Beverley, Gerald Green, Danuel House, and Ben McLemore—working to unearth more. This represents an upgrade.
If Rivers and Morey succeed—and, crucially, if Embiid and Simmons come back from last season’s disappointment with a vengeance—then there’s no reason the Sixers can’t figure into the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. If things once again don’t pan out and it becomes clear that it is, in fact, time to move one of the two Process jewels, then there aren’t many execs you’d trust to spearhead that sort of major transaction and subsequent organizational realignment more than Morey. Whichever way things shake out, ownership has given Morey five years to steer the Sixers as he sees fit, in hopes that he can lead the organization out of choppy waters and to a port of call it hasn’t seen since 1983.
That half-decade of runway affords Morey the chance to take the long view. There’s a certain poetry in that.
Way back in 2013, the Sixers hired an analytics-focused executive from Houston in hopes he could lead the franchise out of the doldrums and back into meaningful contention. That exec shared his old boss’s belief that the only way to win championships in the NBA was by finding top-10 players, plural, any way you can; he chose to try to do it through the draft, selling ownership on the idea that by taking “the longest view in the room,” the Sixers could position themselves to reach the top of the mountain. Sam Hinkie didn’t get to finish the climb; his old boss will get the chance to try. A new process began in Philadelphia on Wednesday. The NBA-watching world waits with bated breath for the results.