Daryl Morey cited personal reasons for this being the “right time” to step down after a 13-season tenure as the Houston Rockets‘ general manager.
Morey’s resignation will be effective on Nov. 1, the team announced Thursday, as he will continue to assist owner Tilman Fertitta and the Rockets’ front office in the franchise’s search for a new head coach.
“For me, it was just a great run,” Morey told ESPN on Thursday night in a telephone conversation that also included Fertitta. “Personally, the timing worked for me. My youngest son just graduated from high school, and it was just the right time to see what’s next with family and other potential things in the future. It just felt like the right time.”
In the aftermath of Houston’s elimination from the NBA’s restart in Orlando, Florida, Morey approached owner Fertitta with the idea of leaving the job, and the sides quietly worked through an exit agreement to conclude his 13 seasons running the franchise’s basketball operations and 14 years overall with the team.
Fertitta declared Morey’s job “safe” two days after the Rockets’ elimination, saying he would trust the general manager to lead the coaching search and would sign off on Morey’s selection. Fertitta initially thought Morey’s desire to step down was due to stress from having been in the NBA’s bubble — “The bubble does funny things to you,” Fertitta said — but Morey didn’t change his stance, and the sides worked out an amicable agreement.
Morey isn’t ruling out a future return to the NBA on the team side, but he has become increasingly determined to explore what else might interest him professionally, sources said. Morey also saw an opportunity to spend time with his two college-age children, who are each taking a gap year academically during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fertitta said Morey warned him in March 2019 — when the GM signed a five-year contract extension — that this could be a year when he decided to step away because of his son’s high school graduation.
“He had always said, ‘I’m not going to be here forever,’ and, ‘At some point, I might want to go back to the East Coast,'” Fertitta said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen. I knew that this was that year, but Daryl’s been here [almost] 15 years. I was surprised, but yet I remembered the previous conversations. He’s reminded me of that a few times.”
The Rockets are promoting executive vice president of basketball operations Rafael Stone to general manager. Stone, a former Williams College basketball player and Stanford law graduate, has served as the Rockets’ general counsel since 2005 and was promoted to executive vice president of basketball operations in April 2019, shortly before former Rockets executive Gersson Rosas left to become the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ president of basketball operations. Stone has played a significant part in the Rockets’ team-building throughout his tenure and will become the 10th current Black executive to hold the general manager title in the NBA.
Houston is also promoting Eli Witus to assistant general manager.
“It’s total continuity,” Fertitta said. “That’s one of the reasons that we promoted Rafael. You’ve got to understand, Tad Brown’s been the CEO of the franchise for a long time. We’ve had very little turnover [in the front office], and when people have left, it’s been for better positions — basketball people getting GM jobs. There was no reason to even think about going outside of the franchise.
“Rafael was here from the very first basketball meeting that I ever had, sitting right next to Daryl. I love the way that Daryl and Rafe would dispute something that we would all be talking about. It’s always been a collaborative effort and very positive. As much as I hate for Daryl to leave, I want him to be happy. And at the same time, we’ve got a deep bench. With Rafael and Eli, I feel very, very comfortable.”
Fertitta said he will rely on the front office to advise him on whom to hire as the Rockets’ head coach. Sources said the Rockets’ search is focused on three primary candidates: Jeff Van Gundy, the ESPN analyst and former New York Knicks and Rockets head coach; Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Stephen Silas; and Rockets director of player development John Lucas, a former head coach with the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Tyronn Lue was also a serious candidate for the Rockets’ vacancy. He has agreed to a five-year contract with the LA Clippers to replace Doc Rivers as head coach, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Sources said Van Gundy had his second interview with the Rockets in Houston on Thursday, and Silas will have his second interview on Friday.
Under Morey, the Rockets have the league’s longest consecutive playoff appearance streak with eight. Houston advanced in the Western Conference playoffs in each of the past four years, highlighted by 2017-18, when the Rockets had an NBA-best 65-17 record before losing to the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the West finals.
“No, we didn’t win a championship, but it takes luck to win a championship, I believe,” Fertitta said. “Unless you get lucky and are able because they raised the cap.”
Morey picked up Fertitta’s thought: “Stick an extra superstar with the three others that you have,” he said, referring to the Warriors’ signing Kevin Durant during the 2017 offseason. “That helps. Don’t remind me.”
“I just feel incredibly fortunate that I got the chance to be part of the Rockets organization all those years ago,” Morey said. “Obviously, I somehow managed to make it a little longer than most, and it just felt like the right time. I think the whole Rockets organization has done amazing things. Obviously, [fell] a little short of the title, but if your team is not the Warriors or had a certain player on it, not a lot of teams have won. It’s tough out there, but obviously I have a lot of great memories and a lot of pride for being a part of the Rockets organization.”
Nevertheless, Morey’s final season on the job became engulfed in scrutiny after a tweet supporting freedom in Hong Kong led to China’s pulling the NBA off its airwaves and suspending sponsorship agreements with the league.
China returned the NBA to its airwaves for the first time during the NBA Finals.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Fertitta supported Morey despite China’s calls for his dismissal. Silver estimated the league’s losses in revenue could cost it in the neighborhood of $400 million.
There had been league-wide uncertainty about Morey’s job security since his tweet affected the NBA’s and Rockets’ business relationships with China, costing Fertitta millions of dollars in sponsorship money. Through it all, Fertitta remained consistently adamant that he was committed to Morey, calling him “the best general manager in the league” in an interview with ESPN on the night of the tweet. Fertitta never seemed to waver in his plan for Morey to continue running the Rockets’ basketball operations.
Fertitta and Morey were both adamant that the issues stemming from that tweet did not weigh into Morey’s decision to resign.
“It was just personal,” Morey said. “I think it was an intense season for everyone in the league, but that didn’t factor in.”
Despite the economic turmoil of the pandemic, Fertitta has publicly and privately insisted that he is committed to keeping the Rockets a contender in the Western Conference, even if that means elevating the team’s payroll into the luxury tax.
Morey has been the Rockets’ general manager since 2007-08. The team has the league’s second-best regular-season record over his 13 years as general manager and 14 years with the franchise.
Under Morey as general manager, the Rockets made 77 trades — the second-most in the NBA since May 2007, behind only the 76ers with 78. Among the deals were trades for James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
Fertitta, who purchased the Rockets for a record $2.2 billion in September 2017, praised Morey for “a great run” with the franchise. Fertitta also said that he anticipates that Morey will continue to be an unofficial adviser for him on basketball matters, even if he is hired by another NBA team.
“I’m going to miss Daryl,” Fertitta said. “But I’m also going to pick up the phone and call his ass if I’m worried about doing something or not. If he ends up back in the league, I think that he’ll probably end up in the East Coast. That’s where he always told me he wanted to end up, so I think that he’ll tell me anything, because he knows that he won’t have to face me until the Finals.
“We would both trade information to get there and play each other, wouldn’t we?”
As Fertitta laughed, Morey said, “I would love to. Absolutely.”