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Before The Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey Was A Numbers Whiz In Boston


Like so much these days, this next story started with a tweet - a tweet in which an NBA team executive offered support to the people protesting Chinese rule in Hong Kong. Now Chinese state television is canceling broadcasts of the NBA's preseason games, and other basketball business deals are in jeopardy. The person at the center of this international incident is Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. As Callum Borchers of member station WBUR reports, Morey first built a reputation as a numbers wiz in Boston.

CALLUM BORCHERS, BYLINE: Daryl Morey isn't new to controversy.


CHARLES BARKLEY: I'm not worried about Daryl Morey. He's one of those idiots who believe in analytics.

BORCHERS: That's basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley slamming Morey on TNT a few years ago.


BARKLEY: All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common. They're a bunch of guys who ain't never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.


BORCHERS: It may sound juvenile, but disputes involving Morey, until now, have basically come down to jocks versus nerds. He's a pioneer in the field of sports analytics, relying more on hard data than scouts' eyes to evaluate players. He taught a class on the subject at MIT when he worked for the Celtics and co-founded MIT's annual sports analytics conference in 2006. He acknowledged at this year's event his ideas about how basketball should be played sometimes rankled people with more experience on the court.


DARYL MOREY: Taking really, really challenged shots, if they're from the right zones, is a big advantage and not playing in this way that's more aesthetically pleasing but that's more brutishly effective - everyone thinks they're ruining basketball.

BORCHERS: Well, not everyone. Morey hasn't won a championship. But since he took over the Rockets as a 34-year-old phenom, he's consistently assembled one of the NBA's best teams.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Twenty-six three-pointers for the Houston Rockets - a new NBA record.

BORCHERS: At the same time, Morey's conference at MIT has become a big draw for sports executives who want to learn from him and other analytics experts.

BEN ALAMAR: Every single team in a major league in North America sends high-level people to that conference.

BORCHERS: Ben Alamar is a former analytics guru for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers. He says he's seen the rest of the NBA become more like Morey.

ALAMAR: Daryl really ushered in a whole new way of thinking about how to run an organization that really checks for human bias and corrects for that and allows us to think more clearly and more rationally.

BORCHERS: Morey declined to be interviewed for this story. In fact, lots of people who know or work with him also declined. Perhaps it's because the Hong Kong situation is so sensitive.

ANDREW ZIMBALIST: Oh, my. Well, it's very complicated.

BORCHERS: Andrew Zimbalist is a sports economist at Smith College. He says the Chinese market is hugely important for the NBA. More people watch NBA games in China than in the United States. And popularity means money.

ZIMBALIST: The NBA has a contract with the media company Tencent for $1.5 billion.

BORCHERS: A numbers guy like Morey probably knows all this, which makes his public support for Hong Kong protesters all the more notable. A purely analytical approach to the bottom line might have been to stay quiet and let the money keep flowing. Zimbalist says Morey may be data-driven in his job, but he's not a robot.

ZIMBALIST: I know Daryl. I think that he probably has some urge in him to express himself on more meaningful matters than whether somebody is going to score 20 or 21 points in a game.

BORCHERS: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said Morey has a right to express himself. But Silver has also lamented the, quote, "fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet." The NBA seems to wish Morey had stuck to the analytics that he's known for.

For NPR News, I'm Callum Borchers in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Callum Borchers