Suddenly, the NBA is back, meaning Chuck Hayes is officially a free agent very, very soon. The Rockets will have a decision to make starting December 9, likely the first day of Free Agensanity 2011. The question: do they keep a popular teammate and productive defender, or do they look elsewhere for a legitimate, taller center?
Hayes had a team option in 2010. The Rockets picked it up, a move I endorsed from the start. We've repeated it many times here before, but to reiterate again: Hayes is worth his contract. He ranks among the league's best individual post defenders every year (he improved his "% score" again this past season, decreasing it to 38%; See the previous link for an explanation) and does his work for far less money than the majority of the people on that list.
Don't forget, Hayes found some offense this past season. He upped his APER to a respectable 16.07 (a big jump from 12.21 and 8.55 in the respective years prior), fixed his free throw stroke and hit the glass far more often, pulling down over eight rebounds per game. He's a good player, a nice player.
Now, the Rockets must ask themselves if the cost-effective Chuckwagon is worth a roster spot. He may be a good player, but is he the right player for this team?
Keep in mind: this isn't your older brother's roster of last year. The Rockets have stacked themselves with youth, an odd distribution of depth and far too many power forwards that can't play center. Hayes worked well with Rick Adelman's free-flowing, perimeter-oriented offense, but can he be as effective on offense under Kevin McHale?
The players have had their say, and it's what most anyone would expect: Don't hassle Chuck, he's local. From Jonathan Feigen:
Rockets players spoke of their desire to have their lone free agent, Chuck Hayes, back...
... [Kevin Martin:] "We know our position of need. Chuck is a free agent, and I'd love to have my little big man back. He's a big piece of the puzzle also."
Unfortunately, while Hayes may be an important piece, in his way stands a crowd of players all competing for a spot on the 12-man roster. They include: 1) Kyle Lowry, 2) Kevin Martin, 3) Chase Budinger, 4) Luis Scola, 5) Patrick Patterson, 6) Goran Dragic, 7) Courtney Lee, 8) Terrence Williams, 9) Hasheem Thabeet, 10) Marcus Morris, 11) Donatas Motiejunas, 12) Jonny Flynn, and 13) Jordan Hill.
This list doesn't include Marqus Blakely or Marcus Cousin, both of whom are currently under contract. And then, of course, is Free Agent Center X, who if signed could replace Hayes right away.
I don't believe this roster to be complete in the slightest, if only due to the dearth of power forwards and lack of depth at small forward or center. Houston could look to re-sign Hayes and then hit the trade market hoping to send two or three players away for a single commodity, but at the same time, they haven't been successful in that regard in a while.
Basically, in the end, someone deserving of a spot is going to get screwed, and I doubt it will be the two rookies or anyone in the regular rotation last year outside of perhaps Jordan Hill. The Rockets need to go young, sure, but do they sacrifice a key cog to do so? And while we're at it, how much of Hayes' worth lies in sentimentality? Can Houston afford to be sentimental with its decision-making at this point?
Counterpoint: say the team wants to rebuild. Should it be sentimental and take back a guy who may not guarantee as many wins? Questions. Lots of questions.
I'll say this: If the Rockets want to win soon, Hayes can't be the starting center again. He's a niche player, and despite the improvements on offense, he remains valuable for his one-on-one defense alone. If Houston can make it work and find a spot for him, great. This team could use some veteran leadership, and there's nobody better to take on that role than Hayes. I suppose if Daryl Morey can't snag Nene, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler or anyone else, Hayes -- as a starter -- is a decent fallback option at best. But if the crowd becomes too large and upside wins the day, so be it.
As Hayes' future hangs in the air, Houston remains caught in the middle between rebuilding and reloading, and at the risk of proposing hyperbole, the Hayes Decision may tip that scale in one direction or the other.