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Lowe: How Daryl Morey challenged NBA norms and almost won it all

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Any eulogy for Daryl Morey’s groundbreaking tenure as Houston Rockets general manager should probably start with the 2017-18 season — when Houston took a 3-2 lead in the conference finals over perhaps the greatest team ever assembled, and might have upset those Golden State Warriors had Chris Paul not suffered a hamstring injury at the end of Game 5.

Morey’s critics — and there are many — might clown him today upon his resignation for failing to win a title; underestimating the importance of chemistry and culture; and tossing away much of Houston’s future to build a team — centered around James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but without any centers — that is not good enough to win the title now and only projects to get worse as the Western Conference gets better.

Some of those criticisms have merit, even if some of the critics delivering them do so at least in part out of some visceral and almost personal distaste for what Morey represents: the invasion of analytics into basketball decision-making, and all the stylistic consequences of the revolution Morey portended. Morey is not the only analytics-savvy person to assume a position of enormous power within an NBA team. But he was the forerunner, and his influence on the game — on the rise of the 3-pointer, the advance of metrics to evaluate defense, hiring patterns within teams, much more — has been massive. It is reasonable to argue NBA basketball is both more mathematically efficient and (with some teams) less interesting to watch because of Morey.

But just remember that 2017-18 Rockets team that won 65 games and pushed Golden State to the limit — including in a Game 7 that was closer than some people remember, and close enough for the Rockets (in a fit of bitterness that came back to bite them) to produce a report arguing referees cost them the series.

Morey was good for the league because he was willing to go for it. Some teams cowered before the Warriors’ dynasty once Kevin Durant signed there. Morey didn’t. He has long argued that any team with a 5% chance to win the title in any given season should go all-in — that any title window, even a 5% sliver, is too precious to squander with risk-averse behavior. He lived up to his word after Houston acquired Harden, a trade years in the making that altered the NBA’s landscape in ways that still reverberate.

After the Warriors’ 16-1 scorched-earth run to the title in Durant’s first season there, Morey told ESPN he still wasn’t backing down — that he had “something up [his] sleeve.” That something turned out to be a megatrade bringing Paul from the LA Clippers.

No team besides Houston won more than a single game in any playoff series against the Warriors over 2017 and 2018. Houston got three in 2018. There is no shame in losing to the Durant-era Warriors. Sometimes, a historically great team — this one enabled by a fluke salary-cap spike — is just too good.

The second Paul-Harden team bowed out to the Warriors one round earlier in 2019, in one fewer game, even with Durant sitting out the end of Game 5 and all of Game 6 with a calf injury. The Warriors, dancing and sneering all over Houston’s home floor down the stretch of Game 6, broke the Rockets’ spirit and closed down that era of Houston basketball.

But it wasn’t an era, really. Paul and Harden lasted two seasons before their relationship chilled, and then it was time to pivot again — to chase another star, another identity, another chance to find something sustainable around Harden.

Maybe the constant reshuffling around Harden — the lusting for superstars intrinsic to Morey’s stars-over-everything philosophy — cost Houston some ineffable continuity or trust that every champion must have. It’s certainly a tempting logical leap. Just remember in taking that leap how close the Rockets got in 2018, and what a juggernaut it took to derail them. Morey’s way could have worked.

Maybe the constant reshuffling is linked to Harden himself — the challenges of his style of play. If so, is that about Harden or Morey — or both of them?

Harden and Morey have become so closely connected that it is very hard now to untangle one from the other. From the moment Houston acquired Harden late on a Saturday night in October 2012, Harden became the on-court avatar for so much of what Morey believes about basketball: an algorithm come to life, all 3s, layups, and free throws.

Acquiring Harden was Morey’s masterstroke. Houston has made the playoffs all eight years since, the league’s longest-running streak. It was the culmination of almost a half-decade’s work that began as Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady declined.

Yao and McGrady were true-blue superstars. Morey understood any team hoping to win a championship had to feature a top-10 player, and likely two. There were exceptions, of course. But exceptions were by definition long shots, and Morey was interested only in what gave his team the best shot. History said that was two stars, and you can’t get the second without one already on the roster.

The easiest way to get a star is to tank. Easiest is not the same as easy. The NBA’s lottery does not guarantee anyone the No. 1 pick, and even picking there does not guarantee the chance to select a franchise superstar. Every path to a superstar is a bad-odds path. Some are less bad than others. Tanking is the least bad. That is why Sam Hinkie, Morey’s longtime lieutenant, triggered The Process in Philadelphia — and why Morey would likely not be averse to taking that route if his next job (he does want one, sources say) comes with a green light from ownership to play the draft game and circumstances that favor it.

(There is uncertainty around the league over whether Morey’s role in igniting the NBA’s China controversy — with a tweet in support of Hong Kong — might make some teams wary about the fallout of hiring him. In a vacuum, Morey should shoot toward the top of the candidate list for any open front-office job.)

Leslie Alexander, the former owner of the Rockets, wanted Houston to stay relevant. Morey would have to tread water while somehow cobbling assets to trade for a star.

Every move the Rockets made was geared toward that theoretical superstar trade. They acquired extra first-round picks for Aaron Brooks, Jordan Hill, and a young Kyle Lowry. When Harden became available, they threw everything they had at Oklahoma City.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was skepticism about how good Harden could really be. He came off the bench in Oklahoma City. Some potential suitors did not share Houston’s belief in Harden’s star potential. There was much snickering, including in the local Oklahoma City media, when Harden shot 2-of-17 in an October 2012 preseason game both Durant and Westbrook sat out: That’s what life as a No. 1 option is.

The Rockets saw it all along. They were not the only team to see it, but they were the only one among those that did in the right moment — and with the right assets — to strike an agreeable deal.

Morey then spent his working life crafting an on-court identity around Harden, and searching for second and third stars to complement him. After years hoarding picks, Morey began trading them.

He lured Dwight Howard from the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2013 — considered a coup then. A year later, he tried to sign Chris Bosh away from the Miami Heat as the Heat were reeling from LeBron James‘ departure. Morey was confident enough in Houston’s chances that he gave the Lakers a first-round pick to take Jeremy Lin — and unlock the cap space required for Bosh. (The Rockets also lost Chandler Parsons that summer after declining a cheap option on him, but pivoted by snagging Trevor Ariza — who became an indispensable role player.)

Houston made the conference finals in 2015, and Morey then traded another first-round pick to acquire Ty Lawson from Denver — where Lawson had fallen out of favor in part because of a DUI arrest. As part of the deal, Morey somehow persuaded Lawson to make his contract non-guaranteed for 2016-17. Part of Morey’s legacy to date is his stretching the collective bargaining agreement to its breaking point. He helped pioneer the concept of reverse-protected picks in trading Lowry to the Toronto Raptors, and was ahead of the curve extending players — including Harden — before most teams would have contemplated doing so. In other cases, Morey’s creativity backfired — including in his attempt a year ago to sign Nene to a bonus-laden deal designed to make his contract an artificial trade asset. (The league vetoed it.)

Houston fell to 41-41 in 2015-16; the Harden-Howard synergy dissipated. Howard walked that summer — a mutually acceptable divorce, something that would become a pattern. The Rockets then veered from character, splurging on Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson — non-stars. There were rumors Morey was on thin ice. He acknowledged the moves ran counter to his track record. “Last year hurt us in terms of perception around the league,” Morey told ESPN at the start of the 2016-17 season. “We felt like if we didn’t have a more successful season this year, our ability to be a top destination would be hurt.”

Morey traded another first-round pick for Lou Williams in 2017, but the Rockets fell in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs — with Harden wilting in the clincher. Anderson’s salary became an albatross. Gordon’s extension, which runs through at least 2023, looks like one now.

The Rockets appeared stuck — before Morey traded Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, another first-round pick, and some other assets for Paul. Clint Capela was the only homegrown first-round pick left on Houston’s roster. Morey also landed P.J. Tucker for about $8 million per season — a shrewd signing. They leaned into a switch-everything defense and more isolation on offense — reinvention after reinvention.

Two years later, the Paul-Harden partnership expired just as the Harden-Howard tandem had. (In fairness, Howard had trouble finding a home before landing with the Lakers this season.) In one last, wild swing, Morey swapped Paul, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps for Westbrook. It was an overpay for a much worse fit. Westbrook’s jumper so impinged on Harden’s driving lanes that the Rockets had to trade Capela and another first-round pick for Robert Covington.

Harden has become the only constant. He isn’t the center of Houston’s universe so much as he comprises the entire universe. They get the players he wants and trade away those whose relationships with Harden fray — no matter the cost.

They play the way he wants. Perhaps that has a shelf life. Players and coaches talk often about how staying involved on offense — touching the ball, moving around — motivates players to go hard on defense, and keeps morale high.

Mike D’Antoni hoped winning would resolve any chafing from everyone else about standing still to watch the Harden show.

“There is something to the human nature of it,” D’Antoni said in 2016. “But I don’t want to believe it. Because when they feel their paycheck every two weeks, shouldn’t that make you play hard on both ends? Look: You have to be a star in your role. And here, your role is: When James gets the ball to you, shoot it, and then run back and play hard as heck.”

Players did chafe, off and on. Houston has not had much of a Plan B in tough playoff games. The math says Harden isolating is the best option, and the Rockets under the Morey-Harden regime obeyed the math. The monotonous predictability of it is one reason Harden has struggled in the biggest moments of his biggest games. Harden refuses to move away from the ball. Take it from him, and he recedes into nothingness.

Morey and Harden have been equal partners in building the Rockets. If Houston has sacrificed culture, continuity, and damn near every future asset at the altar of efficiency, that is on both of them.

Contrary to the popular caricature of him, Morey has said chemistry matters. But he would probably also say it doesn’t matter quite as much as we think it does — that we sometimes fetishize it, or assign it importance in hindsight. Star talent matters, above all.

That philosophy got Houston to the precipice of history. Houston falling short does not invalidate Morey’s tenure.

The Westbrook trade — driven more by Harden and Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta than Morey, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon — leaves a stain. For the first time since acquiring Harden, the Rockets’ short- and medium-term future feel rickety. They are out so many picks that retooling via the draft and trades will prove difficult. If things go south, they may have to explore the trade market for Harden, who has two guaranteed seasons left on his deal — plus a $47 million player option for 2022-23.

The Rockets are not nearly ready to go there as they fill their coaching vacancy. They want to win, as they did year after year after year under Morey. Perhaps the best sign of Morey’s success is that the league at large mimicked Houston’s embrace of the 3-pointer — an imitation that flattered Morey, but also reduced his mathematical edge.

He tried to bump it back up by dispensing with centers, and going all-in on small ball. In Year 1, it failed. Houston’s next reinvention — another cycle of churn — falls to someone else now.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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