In the midst of a trade war, at least one U.S. export to China seemed safe: basketball. Then an NBA team executive tweeted support for people protesting Chinese rule in Hong Kong.
The executive at the center of this international incident is Daryl Morey. He's the general manager of the Houston Rockets, but he first built a reputation as a numbers whiz in Boston.
Jocks Vs. Nerds
Morey isn't new to controversy. Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley called him "one of those idiots who believe in analytics" after Morey criticized Barkley's TV commentary.
"All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common: They're a bunch of guys who ain't never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game," Barkley said on a TNT telecast a few years ago.
It may sound juvenile, but disputes involving Morey, until now, have basically come down to jocks versus nerds. He's a pioneer in the field of sports analytics — relying more on hard data than scouts' eyes to evaluate players.
He taught a class on the subject at MIT, when he worked in the Celtics' front office, and co-founded MIT's annual Sports Analytics Conference in 2006. He acknowledged at this year's event that his ideas about how basketball should be played sometimes rankle people with more experience on the court.
"Taking really, really challenged shots, if they're from the right zones, is a big advantage," he said. "And not playing in this way that's more aesthetically pleasing but is more brutishly effective. ... Everyone thinks we're ruining basketball."
Well, not everyone.
More Like Morey
Morey hasn't won a championship, but since he took over the Rockets as a 34-year-old wunderkind, he's consistently assembled one of the NBA's best teams. At the same time, Morey's conference at MIT has become a big draw for sports executives who want to learn from him and other analytics experts.
"Every single team in a major league in North America sends high-level people to that conference," said Ben Alamar, a former analytics guru for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers.
He added that the rest of the NBA has become more like Morey.
"Daryl really ushered in a whole new way of thinking about how to run an organization that really checks for human bias and corrects for that, and allows us to think more clearly and more rationally," Alamar said.
Morey declined to be interviewed for this story. Several people who know or work with him — including current and former executives with the Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox — also declined.
Perhaps it's because the Hong Kong situation is so "complicated," as Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist described it.
The Chinese market is hugely important for the NBA. More people watched NBA games last year in China than live in the U.S., and popularity means money. The league signed a broadcast deal with the Chinese firm Tencent in July that is reportedly worth $1.5 billion.
A numbers guy like Morey probably knows all this, which makes his public support for Hong Kong protesters all the more notable. A purely analytical approach to the bottom line might have been to keep quiet and let the money keep flowing.
Zimbalist said Morey may be data-driven in his job, but he's not a robot.
"I know Daryl," Zimbalist said. "I think that he probably has some urge in him to express himself on more meaningful matters than whether somebody's going to score 20 or 21 points in a game."
The NBA seems to wish Morey had stuck to the analytics that he's known for.
This segment aired on October 10, 2019.