Daryl Morey: The Poster Boy for Data Analytics Has a Message for Healthcare

Daryl MoreyWhen Daryl Morey was hired in 2006 as the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, the USA Today Sports section Hoops World asked, “Daryl Morey? Are you serious?” Since then he’s been called a pioneer, a rock star, a nerd, a geek, and the poster boy for basketball analytics.

It hasn’t been an easy road. Sports, like healthcare, have been (pardon the pun) late to the game in using data to drive decision making. Remaking the Rocket’s front office to embrace a data-driven culture was the first step. His biggest challenge? Convincing the players and coaches that data isn’t intimidating and that relevant, timely statistics, when combined with their expertise and experience, would have a positive impact on their play as well as the play of the entire team.

Today, Morey believes the argument on whether objective drives better decisions is over. And, according to Morey, medicine, what he calls “the most venerable of professions” will create the next innovations in data analytics.

Trading For A Lego

Morey discovered analytics in the third grade thanks to Bill James, the man who introduced sabermetrics to baseball in the 1980s. At 21 he adapted James’s Pythagorean expectation to basketball. Morey went on to bring his analytic skills to the Boston Celtics before being hired by Les Alexander, owner of the Houston Rockets, to rebuild his losing team.

One of Morey’s first moves, based on analytics, was a trade of first-round draft pick Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift for Shane Battier of the Memphis Grizzlies. The critics howled. Even Morey was honest about Battier’s weaknesses – not a great dribbler, slow, and with a lack of body control.

Morey didn’t listen. Battier, the former Duke Blue Devil, understood the game of basketball and elevated his teammates’ games when he was on the floor. Morey believed Battier, whom he nicknamed “Lego,” could contribute even more to winning games if he had the proper data.

With his new knowledge Battier refined his game and focused where the analytics said he added the most value to his team, defending opponents’ best player and shooting three-point shots. The results were impressive. So impressive that the strategy was featured in a 2009 New York Times Magazine article The No-Stats All-Star and Morey’s rock star status in analytics was solidified.

Shifting The Odds

Successful outcomes on the Houston Rockets are judged on the probability of winning a championship over a three to five-year timeline and the measurement of success is pretty easy to figure out.

While there is no question analytics play a significant role in Morey’s strategy, they are by no means alone. It’s quite the opposite. Morey believes the real power comes from a variety of sources—databases and analysts, but also from the experience and expertise gleaned from a career playing or coaching basketball. The successful organizations bring all the pieces together to make better, more educated decisions.

Getting Buy-In

Morey is fortunate to have an owner, Les Alexander, who been a visionary his entire career. Having seen the positive impact in his many businesses, Alexander believes in the value of data analysis to help drive decision-making. His on-going, never failing commitment has enabled Morey to garner the support of his entire organization to drive long-term change. The result? A trip to the 2015 Western Conference Finals.

Morey stresses the importance of hiring the right people and aligning rewards to the goals of the organization to gain support across the organization. Team members must understand the value of information, even if the data isn’t used to help drive a decision and Morey is an expert on delivering that message.

However, there are certain players and coaches who believe time-honored practices are more correct than the data revealed and present a bit of a challenge. One example is Morey’s attempt to convince Coach [Jeff] Van Gundy, that the “2 for 1”—taking two quick shots at the end of a quarter, instead of taking just one good shot—was better. Over time, Coach Van Gundy, did come to believe the “2 for 1” that it was the right thing to do, even if he didn’t always implement it.

The Only Constant is Change

As the NBA season comes to an end, Morey and his team will review the results from the 2015 season, talk to coaches and scouts, and continue to preach the gospel of data analytics in basketball.

As Morey stated in a December 2013 Men’s Journal article, How The Geeks Took Over The NBA, “It works. The bottom line is that sports are about decisions-making, and the science shows over and over that if you use objective data and analysis in decision making, you make better decisions.”

During his HAS keynote, Morey will share his insights for creating a data-driven culture, and how to ensure teams stay engaged, motivated, and inspired, especially in times of change.

To quote Shane Battier from the same 2013 Men’s Journal article “Like it or not, big data is driving the world from the stock market to agriculture to entertainment and sports. The more data you have, the better served you are. That’s why I think teams are investing in analytics personnel—if they don’t, they’re going to get left behind.”

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