The Return of Moreyball

There’s a famous scene in Moneyball (the 2011 movie based on Michael Lewis’ book about the improbable rise of the Oakland A’s baseball team) in which Brad Pitt, playing the A’s general manager Billy Beane, consults the team’s scouting department to discuss potential player acquisitions.

Beane, looking to explore whatever angles he can to gain an advantage over the A’s larger, wealthier rivals, grows increasingly agitated as the (old, stuffy) scouts debate whether a player passes the ‘eye candy’ test, focusing on physiques and aesthetics over production, including whether the attractiveness of a player’s girlfriend is an accurate measure of how confident he is on the field. Having heard enough, Beane explosively loses patience and explains why the As have to change their approach to the unwitting scouts – as major league baseball’s poorest team, they couldn’t pursue the players that look good to the MLB’s other franchises. The A’s had to be smarter, and look for any solution “as long as it’s not what the other guys are doing”.

The style of basketball which Daryl Morey implemented during his time as the GM of the Houston Rockets was often (not always entirely favourably) labelled ‘Moreyball’. The insinuation was obvious – the Rockets, much like the As, knew that in order to beat the NBA’s high-spending, bigger market, teams, they had to outsmart them, rather than beat them at their own game. In Beane’s words, they had to do whatever the ‘other guys’ weren’t. 

That meant trading Rudy Gay, the 8th pick in the 2008 draft, and an explosive college player, for functional but unspectacular Shane Battier before Gay had played a game for the Rockets. Morey knew that the NBA at the time overvalued the sort of athletic, high-potential but low-efficiency player which Gay was destined to become, but undervalued Battier, who averaged around ten points per game the season before joining the Rockets, but whose defense, ability to play within a system and (most importantly) consistently make open three pointers would prove invaluable. 

Morey’s approach seemed at odds with the prevailing wisdom in the NBA at the time, where athleticism and ‘upside’ were still paramount when assessing  young players. The Rockets took a different approach, using language which was more likely to be found in a hedge fund investment meeting than a NBA front office. Players became ‘assets’, to be traded and leveraged like investments. Draft picks were ‘undervalued’ and players’ contracts were tradable commodities, providing Morey with the means to amass a mountain of picks and valuable expiring contracts to acquire James Harden in 2012. The Rockets’ strategy is now regularly adopted by rebuilding NBA franchises (most notably the Thunder and the Pelicans in recent times), and it’s easy to forget how novel the approach was in the late 2000s, when the NBA was still littered with terrible GMs, making terrible decisions (see, David Khan in the 2009 draft for the greatest, or depending on your view, worst, example). 

Inevitably, Morey became the poster boy for basketball’s burgeoning analytics community, which was developing across internet message boards and fan communities at the time. Morey’s cult status was helped, in no small part, by co-founding the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (which was somewhat cynically labelled ‘dorkapalooza’ by frat boy-in-chief Bill Simmons). Even at that stage the analytics community had, for years, been discussing how certain new-fangled ‘advanced’ statistics could be used to identify players who may be undervalued on the traditional points/rebounds/assists metrics, as well as how the three point shot was criminally underused in the NBA.

When Morey joined in 2006, the Rockets were twelfth in three pointers attempted, shooting around 17 per game. Last season that number had increased to an astounding 45 per game, the most in the league. The reason for the leap was mathematically simple: a team can shoot 35% on threes and score more than if it shot 50% on the same number of twos. The Rockets offense became almost solely centred around a somewhat mechanical combination of threes, layups and free throws as a result, sacrificing (at least in the eyes of some fans) entertainment in favour of high-efficiency, high-value, functionality.

After his tenure with the Rockets ended in October, he was quickly snapped up by the Philadelphia 76ers last month and appointed as President of Basketball Operations. To many, this was an odd paring; Philly, a team whose two stars, Joel Embid and Ben Simmons, aren’t exactly known for being lights-out shooters from three.

However this mischaracterises what Moreyball was all about; it’s not just about shooting a ton of threes, but using whatever resources are available in the most efficient way possible. Simmons, for example, has famously shot around one three pointer per season (yes, season) during his time in the NBA. But he also shoots around 56% from two, which is a remarkable rate for a guard, and can get to the basket pretty much any time he wants. Embid on the other hand shoots around 3.5 threes a game, at a fairly unremarkable rate of 33%, but he also led the league in post-ups per game last year, in a league where the post-up is dying.

Morey is not going to suddenly make Embid and Simmons into 40% three point shooters. However, similar to how the Rockets were at the forefront of the league’s progression to volume three-point shooting during the past 15 years, by maximising Simmons ability to get efficient, high-percentage shots at the rim, and encouraging Embid to bang in the post, the Sixers may now be moving towards an offense where the three is not the preferred end-point. Morey may instead look to the recently-crowned NBA champion Lakers for inspiration in order to build a team of big, physical wing players around his two stars, both of whom the Rockets’ offence can be run through. 

The trade of Al Horford to the Thunder in mid-November perhaps provides a glimpse into the Sixers future. Not only was it a classic Morey trade, allowing the Sixers to offload Horford’s hefty contract (which appeared almost untradeable) but it also netted Danny Green in return, fresh off his title-winning season with the Lakers. Green, possibly more than any other player in the NBA, personifies the type of functional, unflashy, wing player that Morey seems to like (he’s basically the 2010s version of Battier), which the Sixers roster lacked last season. It’s almost certain that Morey is currently also looking to move Tobias Harris for a similar player, despite Harris’ albatross of a contract. Whether Morey can pull that off, and reshape the Sixers’ roster to his taste before the season begins will continue to be an intriguing sub-plot of the offseason – based on past performance, few would bet against him.