Buried amongst the endless Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard free agent rumours was this little nugget yesterday; that the Toronto Raptors could be one of the potential suitors for free agent forward Chuck Hayes.
If you're unfamiliar with Hayes, he's a six-year NBA vet who's spent his entire career as a forward for the Houston Rockets, and who had his best season last year, finally getting consistent minutes under coach Rick Adelman.
He's hardly a scoring threat considering he's averaged 4.4 points over his NBA career, but he's a solid rebounder (10.3 boards per 36 minutes) despite his diminutive six-foot, six-inch stature.
So why the interest from the Raptors?
It's a good question so let's take an in-depth look.
For starters, as we know, Toronto appears to be keen on moving Andrea Bargnani to the power forward position this season, leaving a gaping hole at center. (Although some would argue that considering his contributions last season at that spot, the hole is simply, still there.) Currently on the team's roster, Solomon Alabi is the only center under contract, and barring an explosion of skill advancement this off-season, Mr. Alabi doesn't appear to even be ready to back-up the 5 spot yet.
So the Raps are definitely in the market for a center.
The problem is, as Tim Chisholm pointed out so well in his recent piece for TSN.ca, the team likely has their franchise center via last year's draft, Jonas Valanciunas, and are simply biding time until he comes across the pond next season.
One potential fix then for the coming season is to go the band-aid route, and instead of going hogwild and trying for a Nene or Tyson Chandler, targeting a less-expensive option on a short-term deal.
An option like, say, Chuck Hayes.
Hayes may only be 6-6, but he spent the bulk of his time playing the 5 for Houston last season, and posted an excellent defensive win share while doing so. His PER playing the 4 was an underwhelming 14.2 (league average remember is 15), but at the 5, he sported a much more respectable 17.9, a nice feat considering his offensive woes (he's a career 60 per cent free throw shooter.) He's traditionally been one of the league's best defenders considering his size and playing time, and is one of the those players NBA stat-heads love to praise.
Considering Toronto's historic defensive woes then, on paper, this interest from TO makes a lot of sense.
Add in the fact that Hayes, like new coach Dwane Casey, is a University of Kentucky product, and that Casey pays attention to advanced NBA metrics, and it seems more and more reasonable that the Dinos would look to make an offer come December 9, especially considering Hayes' price tag.
He's made just under $2M his last few seasons with Houston so it's not hard to imagine that Toronto could get him for a very reasonable price, something that's key considering the Raps have only about $7M to play with this off-season, and more than one empty roster spot to fill.
In fact back in July when we looked at potential free agent center targets for Toronto, we wrote the following about Hayes as an option:
Undersized yes, but a beast of a rebounder and hustler who has the length to play the 5 at times. For $2 to $3M, you could do a lot worse, especially as a stop-gap.
And I still believe this to be the case.
The ideal scenario in my books this year is for the team to give its youngsters as much run as possible, improve defensively, but still fall well short of the playoffs, ensuring a top five pick in next year's draft.
To me, adding someone like Hayes plays right into this "best case."
He'll help, along with Casey, on the defensive end, but not enough individually to drastically alter the team's win projection, even in a shortened season. However he'll be a nice first step in changing the club's defensive culture, and yet likely be available at a very reasonable cost, thus keeping Toronto's cap space for next off-season intact.
At 28, he's still got a number of good years left so a three-year deal to me wouldn't be an absurd notion, especially since there will likely be a steep learning curve for Valanciunas once he comes on-board. We see this with NBA centers quite frequently so a three year contract for Hayes would provide some safety in terms of allowing Val to develop.
It also gives some safety to Bryan Colangelo should he decide to deal one of his three power forwards to shore up other areas. Amir Johnson and Ed Davis duplicate each other to a large extent and if this "Bargs at the 4" experiment doesn't work, he could be out the door too. So if one of those three gets moved, Hayes could easily slide over to the 4 in a pinch.
Above all else though, Hayes is the type of player that ends up on winning teams. Like Reggie Evans, he doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective, is incredibly efficient in areas that result in wins (defence, rebounding etc), and for a team desperately looking to shed its soft image, the incredibly tough Hayes would be a very solid building block. Wages of wins actually ranked him second to Kris Humphries in terms of free agent power forwards, ahead of the much pricier, David West.
My one concern would be his fit with Andrea Bargnani. The argument could be made that the duo would be fine considering Hayes' play with a similar defensive sieve in Luis Scola while still in Houston, however Scola is a better help-side defender and rebounder, and a potential Hayes'/Bargnani combo would mirror the Evans/Bargnani combo of last year, one that saw mixed results. Evans and Hayes are very similar in terms of offensive limitations, yet with Reggie being a superior rebounder, it's hard to say that a Hayes/Bargs combo would be an upgrade.
But again, if you're looking to secure a top five draft pick in 2012, this probably isn't a concern.
For the right price, I'd be all for seeing Hayes in a Raptors' uniform in the weeks to come and here's to hoping that the rumours swirling around his potential acquisition are not just indicative of Toronto's interest in him individually, but in players like Hayes who are often overlooked and undervalued, just the opposite of the team's recent free-agent philosophy.