Any arguments? Good.
Case for the cause? The Houston Rockets since 2007 when Rick Adelman, the head coach who had earned rave reviews for his offensive execution during his eight years in Sacramento, came on board to put the Rockets on some next level tip. It would have worked too if not for repeated disaster in the form of season-crushing injuries to their two best players. With All-Stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming derailed by back, leg and foot injuries the Rockets’ role players have gotten used to filling in… and stepping up.
Back in the 2007-08 season the Rockets went on a 22-game winning streak (second longest in NBA history), half of it done without Yao. Last season the Rockets made another unlikely push to the playoffs without the sidelined McGrady, only to lose Yao again in game three of a hotly contested second round playoff series versus the Los Angeles Lakers. You remember, the one that went the full seven? The one where Chuck Hayes gave Ron Artest a run for his money as the Rockets’ best defender.
“I guess it’s an ego thing,” says the 6’6 Hayes. The label of being “undersized” doesn’t faze him, with superior positioning and power making up for his lack of inches. “If you’re confident enough to think you’re going to score on me then I’m confident enough to let you know that it’s not going to be that easy.”
After a moderate start in the NBA Hayes has quietly become one of its most effective frontcourt defenders. His career numbers are unimpressive but that rarely tells the story of a specialist. In some circles the words “best there is” have been uttered and while it is way too early to anoint him beast, the sentiment speaks for itself.
“There’s a lot of great players here in this league and I am honored to have that label,” says Hayes. “To me defensively, it just becomes personal. It’s mano-e-mano… me and my man going against each other and seeing who gets the better hand.
Adelman doesn’t hesitate to bring up Hayes’ name in a post-game press conference, though he is rarely prompted to do so by the media. The 18-year coaching veteran knows where his bread needs to be buttered if the Rockets are to survive without their biggest weapons. Teams attack the paint relentlessly against the Rockets in Yao’s absence and Hayes’ value glows in its darkness.
“He’s our best defender,” says Adelman, who must also rely on the gritty Louis Scola, Carl Landry and possibly the non-guaranteed Pops Mensah-Bonsu to hold down the frontcourt. “He’s such a tough guy for us that when we don’t have him in the game out defense isn’t half as good.”
“He appreciates what I bring,” says Hayes of Adelman. “I try to reward him by letting him know that he can trust me to bring that every night.”
That trust is important mostly because nothing has changed in Houston. Yao is expected to miss the entire season with another foot injury and McGrady is fresh off of micro-fracture knee surgery, a procedure that has seriously hindered the effectiveness of many a pro. There are some (more every day) – Jason Kidd, John Stockton and Amare Stoudemire come to mind – that return with great conviction and achievement but many more fade. Danny Manning, Allen Houston and Chris Webber were never the same. Jamal Mashburn and Terrell Brandon retired after unsuccessful comebacks from the surgery. The jury is still out on youngsters like Greg Oden. With straight-outta-high-school mileage on him and bumping the wrong side of 30 the odds are long that McGrady will return to his All-Star form. There was even talk early in the summer that Yao’s condition could be career-threatening. It all just leaves the Rockets in a lurch but that has never once seemed like the approach.
“We have fighters,” says Shane Battier. “We have a lot of character on this team. We don’t have a lot of guys who give in to adversity. As long as you have those types of guys you have a fighting chance. I don’t care who it’s against. You’re going to compete and you’re going to win your fair share of games.”
Battier is one of the names that are expected to pick up the slack. Not known as a high scorer he’ll have to become a tad more selfish in the starless Houston system, something that rides in opposition to his reputation as one of the most unselfish players in the league.
“We have to play fast,” said Battier after going 8-of-9 from three-point land in an October 15 preseason win over the Raptors in Toronto. “We don’t have a choice, we’re not very big. In year’s past we could really grind out a win by throwing the ball to Yao and watching him operate and start playing off of him (but) we don’t have that luxury this year. We have to be really aggressive and hit a lot more threes. We have to attack earlier in the shot clock and find ways to manufacture the points that Yao created for us.”
Making up for the points “McYao” contribute is one thing, but in the best of times they are the crux of the defense as well. Battier is another and other will have to step up to meet the demand. Getting outside themselves is what the Rockets have been conditioned to do, for better or for worse. Hayes has been christened in this philosophy, perhaps more so than any other Rocket. He went undrafted in 2005 and was a call up from the NBDL in January of 2006 when Houston’s injury problems began. He did enough over the next two seasons to earn a four-year contract worth as much as a reported $8M if he meets numerous incentives.
“Since I’ve been here injuries have hit this team,” says Hayes. “We’ve always had guys that have been resilient and respond. Over the past five years we’ve had somebody important to our team go down and somebody’s always stepped up.”
While Hayes’ value goes far beyond the box score statistical lines last season his game stumbled on many levels. He registered career-lows in points (1.3), rebounds (3.5) and shooting percentage (37.2%) in the 12.1 minutes he played per game. Nagging injuries played their part but his failure to contribute more on the other side of the ball must be addressed if Hayes wants to stay out on the floor longer. His numbers always dip during the playoffs, another area of concern that would probably improve with more star power in the line-up but that kind of help is a long way off. Hayes has been asked to do more in recent years but his stamina and tendency to rack up quick fouls has been an issue and is reflected in his minutes. He must find some type of balance between his great defense and his limited offense if the Rockets’ habit of bucking the odds is to continue.
It could be argued that the Rockets’ run of hard-luck injuries helped to build Hayes. Developing under a frail roof of franchise players awarded him the minutes and the development time turned him into a player that was a big key during the 22-game rope of victories two years ago and the unpredictable push against the Lakers last May. He is proud to be part of what looks like another never-say-die Rockets roster. At the same time, he is well aware of the impact that the various and extended injury woes of Yao and McGrady has had on the team’s overall picture.
“It comes to a point where it’s like, maybe we just have bad Karma as a team,” offers Hayes with a chuckle. “Maybe as a team we need to go meditate to a higher power. We’re not doing something right.”
In the face of Houston’s injury-depleted reality the opposite has been truer. The team has stayed relevant in the thick and prickly western conference playoff picture despite two seasons of truly devastating and untimely harm to the franchise cornerstones. Even after getting undeservedly passed over for last season’s Coach of the Year award Adelman looks poised to continue to guide the bent but not broken Rockets towards a day when good health, and perhaps Karma, can help carry them past the label of ‘pretender’.
Hayes is waiting too and in the meantime has turned himself into a valuable commodity. So far in the 09-10 Hayes is more like eight points and six rebounds a night with a much healthier 60% field goal mark. Then again it’s early and there will need to be more where that came from. In the last guaranteed year of a deal (there is a team option for next season) that will pay him $2.1M this season, Hayes’ bang-for-the-buck production has started to register across the league.