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General manager Daryl Morey leaving Rockets on Nov. 1

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is stepping down on his own accord, a little over a year after sparking a rift between the NBA and Chinese government. Morey said he made the decision to pend more time with his two college-aged children, who are taking a year off from school during the pandemic, and to “see what other potential challenges could be out there."

The Rockets announced the move Thursday night. Morey said he’s leaving the team Nov. 1. Tilman Fertitta, who has owned the Rockets since 2017, said Morey told him of his decision the day the team got back to Houston from the NBA bubble about a month ago.

“Daryl is one of the premier GM’s in the league and I’m disappointed ... (but) Daryl made it real clear he wasn’t staying here forever," Fertitta said in an interview with The Associated Press. “When I bought the team, he told me that. And he decided this is the time that he wants to change his life."

Fertitta added that Morey is helping him through the transition and they'll promote vice president of basketball operations Rafael Stone to general manager. Morey caused an international uproar last year when he tweeted support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. Morey tweeted an image that said: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” His tweet was in reference to pro-democracy demonstrations in the semiautonomous Chinese territory that had been mired in escalating violence between protesters and law enforcement.

The tweet caused businesses in China to cut ties with the Rockets and broadcasters there refused to air the team’s games this season. NBA telecasts in China, however, resumed during the recent NBA Finals.

Morey said Fertitta's support for him never wavered, even in the wake of the tweet. “From Day 1 Tilman has been behind me ... and I will always appreciate that," Morey said. “And it’s never been a factor in anything here."

Fertitta scoffed when asked if he thinks he can repair some of the business relationships the team lost in China now that Morey is leaving. “It isn’t even anything that's popped in my head or considered," he said. “I didn’t even think about the two tied together."

The Rockets have made the playoffs 10 times since Morey was hired in 2007, including the last eight seasons for the longest active streak in the NBA. Morey was responsible for the blockbuster trade that brought James Harden to Houston from Oklahoma City. The Rockets reached the Western Conference finals twice under Morey but were unable to win their first championship since consecutive titles in 1994-95.

Fertitta is grateful for Morey’s contributions in his time with the team and said he’ll always consider him a part of it, even though he is stepping down. “It’s been a great run and I appreciate everything Daryl’s done,” he said. “If I have any questions or need his support, he’s there for me and this organization ... he will be a Rocket forever. And that’s just the way it is.”

The move comes after coach Mike D’Antoni told the team he would not return after the Rockets lost to the Lakers in the conference semifinals. Houston went 640-400 with Morey as the general manager and won a franchise-record 65 regular-season games in the 2017-18 season. That was the second time they lost in the conference finals under Morey, falling to the Warriors in seven games after also losing to them in the conference finals in 2015.

As Morey prepares for his next chapter, he said his proudest accomplishment was that 65-win season. “I think that was the best team in the league that year," Morey said. “But to be fair to Golden State, who is maybe the best team all-time, they were a little better than us."

It was difficult for Morey to decide to leave the team without having helped the Rockets to another title. “Yeah, very, but unfortunately in our business unless you’re Golden State or have a certain player, there haven’t been a lot of titles to go around," he said referring to LeBron James. “But I wish we had snuck in there and won one."

Morey is an MIT graduate who became one of the early proponents of the use of analytics in the NBA. He was always making a trade or deal of some kind and was also responsible for the signing of Dwight Howard in 2013 and for trading multiple players to the Clippers in 2017 for Chris Paul. He then dealt Paul to the Thunder before this season for Russell Westbrook.

In perhaps his most unconventional move, he got rid of center Clint Capela in a three-team trade in February and the Rockets played “small ball" the rest of the season without a true center. Morey worked as Houston's assistant general manager for one season under Carroll Dawson before he retired after the 2007 season and Morey was promoted to his job.

Though he's taking a break for now, Morey hasn't ruled out a return to sports or maybe even the NBA. “I’m sort of open on what’s next," he said. “But I do love sports. I do love the NBA. And I do think a big part of of doing this is to see — I haven’t had a chance for many years to just see what new challenges might be out there."