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Tuesday October 27, 2009 5:39 AM

The Stealth MVP

Chuck Hayes more valuable than ever to Rockets' success

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Portland - In some ways, Chuck Hayes is an ideal representation of what the Houston Rockets are all about. Yes, he’s tough, resilient, courageous and probably the possessor of dozens of other flattering characteristics which we all love our favorite athletes to demonstrate. But the connection goes so much deeper than that.

When Daryl Morey took over as the Rockets’ General Manager during the summer of 2007, he rightfully received a great deal of attention due to his emphasis and expertise in the area of statistical analysis. But Morey is not and never was simply a “numbers guy.” He said from the start that his goal was simply to marry the objective with the subjective in such a way that the Rockets could make the most of any competitive advantage they could find. The immense amount of data he and his staff collect is part of that. But so, too, is the more traditional scouting process.

Thus, we return to the tale of Hayes, a player who cannot be properly defined by the numbers which inhabit a traditional box score. His career averages of 3.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game don’t exactly leap off the page. Dig deeper, however, and you begin to see why the Rockets hold him in such high regard. A small snapshot such as Hayes’ team-leading plus/minus during Houston’s second-round series against the Lakers offers a glimpse into his value. But the big picture view is just as impressive: last year Hayes saved the Rockets approximately 6 points per game with his defense relative to that of an average player at his position. For reference, that number was good enough to place him in the top-10 of all players, regardless of position, in the NBA.

But toss aside those numbers for a moment and simply watch the 6-6, 238 pound Hayes play. See how he’s so rarely caught out of position. Watch the deft quickness of his feet and the way he uses his strength and low center of gravity to turn the tables on bigger opponents so that suddenly, against all odds, their advantage has somehow become his. Marvel at his uncanny ability to defend the pick-and-roll to near perfection. This, then, is no player who’s simply benefitting and being propped up by a bunch of statistical tricks. Hayes is a player providing your eyes with ample proof of his legitimacy nearly every second he spends on the floor; especially at the defensive end.

What’s more, this season the fifth-year forward from Kentucky figures to play his most prominent role yet with the Rockets. With Yao Ming recovering from offseason surgery on his injured foot and Dikembe Mutombo riding off into the sunset of retirement, Hayes is Houston’s interior defender nonpareil. Aaron Brooks calls him “the key” to the Rockets’ defense. But why stop there? Given the importance of his role and the way he so often flies beneath the radar, perhaps a more appropriate label would be this: Stealth MVP.

“It means I have a responsibility and I’m willing to accept it,” says Hayes matter-of-factly. “If that’s what this team needs me to do, to stabilize or help keep the other team’s best offensive post player under control, I’ll be willing to do it to anybody.

“You have to want it. It has to be a pride thing. It has to be an accountability thing for your teammates that they can count on you to go out there and get the job done."

That challenge begins tonight with the Portland Trailblazers, a team Hayes has enjoyed plenty of success against in the past, especially when matched up with Blazers’ power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (even prompting the dawn of a new nickname, “The Cooler”). But Aldridge won’t be Hayes’ assignment Tuesday night, at least not right off the bat, anyway. The Chuckwagon is slated to begin the game going one-on-one with 7-foot, 285 pound man-child Greg Oden, a player eager to build off a very strong preseason.

“We’ve said all along that Chuck’s our best defender we have inside,” says Rockets’ Head Coach Rick Adelman. “Unfortunately, he’s going to have to do a lot of things that are really unfair. He’s going to be our starting center guarding people who are a lot bigger and stronger than he is but when Chuck’s on the floor we’re a much better defensive team – that’s pretty obvious.”

Competitor that he is, Hayes says bring it on. Duncan, Nowitzki, Garnett, Gasol – he’s gone toe-to-toe with them all and looks forward to doing so again. At this point, he’s not only used to the challenge, he relishes it.

“I’m excited,” says Hayes with a smile. “I know, being undersized, a lot of coaches and players feel they can get an easy bucket going against me and it thrills me to let them know that, ‘Hey, it’s not going to be easy.’ So if they try to go into Oden early or if I’m on Aldridge and they try to go to him for a basket, they’ve got another thing coming.”

And guess what? Whether you trust the numbers or your eyes, the conclusion is still the same: Chuck Hayes is absolutely right.

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