Daryl Morey has built winning teams wherever he’s gone, but his refusal to trade Ben Simmons may hurt the Sixers in the short and long term.
When Daryl Morey arrived in Philadelphia as the Sixers’ new president of basketball operations last summer, things did not look promising for the team. They had just been swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round and it was a demoralizing series, even relative to other sweeps.
Worse, the franchise looked stuck, locked in to a number of big-money contracts seemingly stuck running upon the same treadmill of mediocrity they had spent so many years trying to avoid. However, almost immediately Morey remade the team. He traded Al Horford and Josh Richardson, drafted Tyrese Maxy, and acquired Seth Curry and Danny Green, giving the team the shooters they had long lacked. It was a remarkable series of moves, especially considering how little maneuverability the team appeared to have just weeks before.
On the back of these moves, the team vaulted up the Eastern Conference standings, earning the number one seed for the first time since 2001. Yet they collapsed in the postseason and Ben Simmons bore the blame, his infamous Game 7 pass under the basket coming to symbolize every frustration that Sixers fans had accumulated towards him over the last four seasons. Whether he deserved as much criticism as he received is a debate worth having, but as is often the case, what was actually due someone had little to do with what happened. The already combustible situation devolved and now Simmons and the Sixers find themselves stuck with each other, eager to move on, but not sure how.
Morey did not create this situation, but he did inherit and exacerbate it. His refusal to work out a trade earlier, ameliorate the interpersonal conflicts that underlie so much of the situation, or work with the coaching staff to develop strategies that would have avoided the Sixers postseason collapse all played a part in bringing the team to this point. It was either naively optimistic or negligent.
Daryl Morey may have to adapt to make things work for the Philadelphia 76ers
During Morey’s time in Houston, he built a consistent winner into a legitimate contender through his stubborn insistence on acquiring stars and shooting an ever-increasing number of three-pointers. Though he did not bring analytics to the NBA, he became the face of the movement, prizing efficiency over all other concerns. The Rockets won a lot of games, but questions about these methods arose. Not regarding their efficacy — their success was evident — but about what this shift signified.
It’s a cliche to say that analytics ignore the heart of the game, that in the quest to quantify everything, something more essential is missed. It’s an overstatement, but there is something to it. Morey has come to embody this tendency, at times seeming to treat players like disembodied, abstract assets rather than human beings with concerns and emotions of their own. Of course, there is a certain amount of harsh objectivism necessary to hold any front-office position, but having that as a primary trait is bound to go awry eventually.
There is something often admirable about staying true to oneself, but it depends what exactly one is being resolute about. In Houston, that uncompromising nature got Morey James Harden and a consistent winner. However in this case, his adamant refusal to accept less than an ideal trade package for Ben Simmons is foolish, and will eventually do harm to the franchise in both the short and long-term if it does not get resolved imminently.
Judging from Morey’s stance and his insistence that this situation will continue until he gets what he believes to be an adequate return for Simmons, no end is in sight. It is true that a lack of leverage did not hurt the Rockets or the Pelicans when they dealt James Harden and Anthony Davis, but it is also true that as great as Ben Simmons often is, he is at least a tier or two below these two. More likely is that it will soon be untenable for Morey or anyone else in the organization to claim that waiting for a return commensurate with Simmons’ ability is more beneficial than just cutting their losses at this point. Sometimes you just have to admit that you have lost. Morey seems unable to do this.
Morey has proven himself to be one of the most capable executives in the NBA over the last two decades. He has helped change the way fans and other general managers think about the game and has consistently displayed the ability to put together winning teams. However, he now needs to realize the limits of his control and acknowledge that there are areas where no amount of strategic planning or statistical analysis can be of use.
Even without Simmons, the Sixers still have a franchise cornerstone in Joel Embiid, a player who single-handedly puts his team in the championship conversation. The priority thus needs to settle this situation immediately and then figure out how to make this team a true contender. Months ago, it may have been possible to do both simultaneously, but that moment has since passed.
In just over a year as the Sixers general manager, Philadelphia fans have gotten to see both what makes Morey such a desirable presence in the front office and what makes him so maddening. Sometimes the world does not bend to one’s desires. Sometimes there is no data to manipulate. Sometimes you have to face a situation head-on, confronting a strange swirl of particularities that cannot be prepared for ahead of time. This is one of those times. Instead of working towards an optimal solution that is no longer possible, he needs to figure out what is possible and operate within those parameters. If he refuses, the team may lose much more than Ben Simmons.