“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” – Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus“
There’s the rock and there’s the hard place. To think there is space between the two discounts the purpose of both. In a way, the hard place is where we’re trying to get to and, as always, it’s just out of reach. Sisyphus’ pushing of the boulder is, in itself, the whole story. Eventually, man and boulder become indistinguishable.
Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, was given a stone as his signing bonus and has been pushing it, always uphill, since 2007. The recent history of the Rockets is, literally, one of bone-crushing disappointment. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were consistently injured and the team only progressed to the second round of the playoffs once during their era. Since then, Rockets’ management has tried in vain to land a new superstar player.
Morey’s approach is unique in the NBA: he was the first to employ the Moneyball technique, the use of “advanced metrics,” in basketball scouting. Rockets fans, and some players, criticize Morey’s view that team members are “assets” to be leveraged in the acquisition of better “assets.” So far, in addition to the retirement of Yao Ming one year ago, the Rockets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons. Adding insult to injury, they’ve only narrowly missed the postseason, consistently picking at the end of the Draft Lottery.
In the age of the demanding and petulant superstar, Morey has learned that Houston is not as attractive as Manhattan, Miami or Brooklyn. Despite a legacy of dominant big men, the Rockets are no longer seen as an attractive team to play for. This hasn’t stopped Morey from desperately trying to call players’ bluffs and trade for them, despite threats of impending free agencies and “rentals.” He entered the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes in 2011 and, recently, has decided to test Dwight Howard’s insistence that there is only “one team on [his] list” by engaging in trade talks with the Orlando Magic.
Truthfully, it’s unlikely to happen. Even if Howard lands in Houston, there is no guarantee that he will return from offseason back surgery and even less of a chance that he entertains the idea of resigning with the team. Five years in, Morey is desperate to validate his vision of NBA Moneyball. Owner Les Alexander took a risk in hiring Morey and, with only a stable of undersized power forwards to his credit, results have been hard to come by so far, but not for lack of trying.
“Dork Elvis” and his cabal of stat-geeks trying to change the NBA are only asking for more time to perfect their science. However, there are few equations that factor in the influence of Dwight Howard’s Twitter feed. If the Howard saga has taught us anything, it’s that a player’s emotions are unpredictable. This disconnect is at the heart of why the Rockets have been unable to land a superstar player, but still finish 42-40, always on the margins of relevancy. Morey’s metrics can only predict so much.
The NBA is a league where being stuck in the middle is worse than finishing dead-last. A fan can tell you that the Charlotte Bobcats finished with the worst winning percentage in NBA history after the 2011-12 season, but only an obsessive can tell you who finished ninth and tenth, in each conference. Despite the league’s best efforts, tanking still helps a team’s chances at landing a star through the Draft and big markets dominate the attention of image-obsessed free agents. Eventually, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
NBA Purgatory is the dominion of Daryl Morey, pro basketball’s Sisyphus. He angered the gods, who demanded that a team be built through the draft and key signings, and he is doomed to continually push expiring contracts and trade exceptions over the top of a hill, past which there are no takers. And every time a trade falls through, or a Dwight Howard emphasizes that he does not wish to play in Houston, Morey is forced to walk downhill, toward his rock.
Morey is committed to his philosophy that basketball players can be explained through numbers and analysis. He believes that he will eventually succeed and another team will take his bait and remove the stone from his shoulders. But, so far, there has been no relief.
Meanwhile, Rockets fans wait for a return to glory. Why not us, they ask. If Oklahoma City can build a championship-caliber team and retain its star players, why can’t Houston do the same? A tradition of winning – two titles, four Western Conference championships, storied centers – has to count for something. They don’t understand why the Dwight Howards of the world don’t want to assume the legacy of Houston basketball.
Daryl Morey is trying to do away with the influences of tradition, emotion and ego. He belongs to a group that believes the truth lives in numbers. And, until he convinces that first superstar that he’s right, he will continue to press the issue and build a squad through charts, formulas and analyses. He is the standard-bearer of a movement that has attempted to disrupt business-as-usual in the NBA and unseat conventional wisdom. If only he could win a few converts.
“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me,” Camus writes. “I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end.”