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Friday November 6, 2009 10:27 AM

Kicking Off The Campaign

Chuck Hayes for NBA All-Defense

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Houston - It’s funny what a little offense can do for one’s defensive reputation. On opening night, I tabbed Chuck Hayes as the Rockets’ “Stealth MVP,” given his immense importance to the team’s overall success, despite the fact he came into this season with career averages of 3.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.

Now, a mere ten days later, the invisibility cloak has been shed and Hayes has leapt out from the shadows of obscurity into, well… the white-hot glare of the spotlight would probably be overstating things but there’s no denying the fact the fifth-year forward is finally receiving some long overdue recognition. Just check out this small sampling from the last 24 hours, which includes Hayes being described as a “6-6 Kevin Garnett,” “The most remarkable player on the NBA’s most remarkable team,” and a legitimate contender for the NBA’s All-Defense team.

Why now? It’s pretty simple, actually. Yao Ming’s absence has opened the door for the Chuckwagon to seize Houston’s starting center spot and plow through the competition with far greater frequency than year’s past. Of course, he’s still had to make the most of those minutes and Hayes has more than held up his end of the bargain, especially on the offensive end. Through five games, the University of Kentucky product is averaging 8.8 points per game while shooting 64.7% from the floor – both of which would shatter his previous career highs in those areas.

The transformation is rather incredible, especially given the fact that, for the better part of the past two seasons, Hayes displayed a propensity to turn even the most wide-open of layups into an edge of your seat, “how’s it going to end?” thrill ride. Now he’s backing down Mehmet Okur in the post and casually flipping in left-handed jump hooks. What changed?

“One, his fitness is great,” explains Rockets’ Assistant Coach and big man guru Jack Sikma. “Fatigue, especially when it comes to finishing around the rim, is a real difference maker. And he put in work this summer on spinning the ball and having it come off his fingertips and not being in a hurry, whereas last year his shot was kind of just a quick push. With that, his confidence has grown and the guys have confidence in him.

“He has to finish. If opponents are lying off of him, he has to find his spots around the rim where he’s open. And if we’re good enough to find him and he gets the ball, it’s got to be two points, which is what’s happening; his conversion rate has been very high.”

All of which is great of course. Really, it is. It’s just that, believe it or not, this isn’t a story about Chuck’s offense. This is supposed to be the official kick-off of our grassroots campaign to get Hayes on one of the NBA’s All-Defense teams at the end of the season. So why all the offensive talk? Because Shane Battier – a guy who knows a thing or two about end of the year snubs when it comes to defensive honors – offered this gem when asked what Hayes has to do in order to have any hope of finding his name on a first or second-team list in 2010:

“As ironic as it is, he needs to score more. That’s basically what it comes down to: if you have a lot of big offensive games, people take notice of you and then maybe they notice your defense by default.”

While back-to-back double-digit scoring nights might not be everyone’s definition of “big offensive games,” the fact remains that Hayes’ offensive exploits have clearly vaulted him into the public consciousness in a way which was heretofore foreign territory for the man we like to call “The Cooler.” So now that the nation is starting to take notice, let’s turn the focus back to where it belongs: on Hayes’ otherworldly defensive skills.

Despite being generously listed at 6-6, Chuck has already risen to the challenge of checking massive centers (Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum), skilled fours (LaMarcus Aldridge) and scoring two-guards (Corey Maggette) this season. No real surprise there, though. That’s just how Hayes rolls and he does it with aplomb. There’s just one problem: it’s difficult to tell how effective he really is simply by breezing through a nightly box score. Hayes comes out well in steals (we’ll get to that in a moment) but blocked shots aren’t really his calling card. All of which might make it somewhat challenging to sell a still-skeptical public on Hayes’ credentials as a cream of the crop defensive maestro.

“I may not be top in the league in blocks but if I’m guarding, say, LaMarcus Aldridge and I make him shoot a bad percentage, then I hope they pay attention to that,” says Hayes. “I just wish there was a stat for keeping your man to the lowest field goal percentage.”

Well guess what, Chuck? You just so happen to work for the most number-crunching team in the league. Of course there’s a stat for that!

Consider these numbers (courtesy of the Rockets’ Basketball Operations department):

Steals: Hayes ranks 2nd (out of 303 players; behind only Rajon Rondo) in the entire league in Steal% (Steals per defensive possession). Keep in mind, the top spots in this category are typically reserved for point guards and wings, as illustrated by the fact that Hayes currently is the only big in the Top 10.

Lest you think his lofty status is simply a byproduct of a small sample size, since 2007, Hayes ranks 14th in the entire league in Stl% and is by far the best big (1st out of 127). No other post player is even in the top 35.

Charges: (Offensive Fouls Drawn per defensive possession) Since 2008 Hayes is top 10 (6th out of 265) in the entire league in drawing offensive fouls.

Team Defense: Since 2005, Hayes has the best Defensive Efficiency Rating (Based on team points allowed per defensive possession while the player is on the floor) regardless of position in the entire league.

I could go all Deep Blue on you and keep spewing numbers your way but you get the point. And for those who need more than numbers, no problem. Lakers' head honcho Phil Jackson compared Chuck to a tree prior to Wednesday night's Houston-LA tussle featuring the aforementioned Hayes-Bynum match-up. “(Hayes) has such a great base,” Jackson said. “You can't just throw the ball in to Andrew and expect him to score on Chuck. You can't move this guy. He's rooted on the ground."

Let’s also bring back Sikma, a man who has played with and against, coached and seen virtually every relevant big man who’s set foot on an NBA court over the last three-plus decades. When asked if he’s ever witnessed a player possessing a defensive package quite like the one Hayes brings to the table, Sikma – not a man prone to hyperbole – actually summoned the name of Hall of Famer Wes Unseld.

“He was a 6-7 guy who controlled the paint, kept people out, created space on the boards – did all those types of things. Of course, Chuck hasn’t shown as much low-post game on the offensive as Unseld but, defensively he’s similar. For instance, if we want to trap somebody, we’re hoping Chuck’s man is coming out to set the pick; we want him involved in that because he’s got great feet. He’s got a low center of gravity and he moves those feet side to side so well. They’re not big long steps, they’re short quick steps and he’s able to maintain angles on his man defensively and keep him from the hoop so well (note: if you wondered why Yahoo! Sports’ Kelly Dwyer remarked that Chuck’s “footwork belongs on Mt. Rushmore,” now you know).”

So there you have it. The numbers are there (even the offensive ones, as if that should even matter). So, too, are the testimonials. Call him The Cooler, Chuckwagon or just plain old Chuck. Just don’t call him “stealth” anymore. It no longer applies. The veil has been lifted. Now it’s time to spread the word.

“If you want a treat, watch Chuck Hayes for a game,” says Battier. And if you want to spoil yourself (and learn a plethora about defense in the process) watch Hayes for an entire season. All we ask in return is that you recognize, appreciate and reward his one of a kind, defensive artistry in the proper way when the time comes.

Chuck Hayes for All-Defense. The campaign is officially underway.

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