Chuck Hayes signed a four-year, $21 million deal with the Sacramento Kings this offseason, and then it was gone. Hayes reportedly failed his physical due to a potentially life-threatening heart abnormality, and Kings’ staff were forced to void his contract. Today, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo!Sports is reporting that a Cleveland doctor has cleared Hayes to play again and the Chuckwagon is starting his free agency search at “square one” with a post-Christmas estimate at when he will sign with a team. It is a bit strange that Hayes went from debilitating condition to completely healthy heart in the span of a week, but all signs point to a quick return. The Kings are still in contention, and may be his primary suitor now that they lost Samuel Dalembert to the Houston Rockets, but the Rockets and Spurs are also considered potential destinations.
The notoriously undersized center, a 6 ft. 6 defensive stalwart, developed his reputation as a hustle player and stout rebounder with tree trunk limbs and immovable base. The four-year player at the University of Kentucky played for Houston for six seasons and often filled in for the perpetually injured Yao Ming, moonlighting as the NBA’s shortest center. His best statistical year came in 2009-10, when he averaged eight points, eight assists, and three assists per game, and he recorded a triple-double last season with 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists in a 131-112 victory over the Golden State Warriors. His value in the locker room was also notable. Hayes succeeded at the “little things” on the court and was a vital cog in Houston’s scrappy, blue-collar identity the past few seasons. The team rarely had a superstar with Ming and Tracy McGrady facing constant nicks, so Hayes’ leadership and versatile, effort-based on-court play were crucial elements to Houston’s ability to maintain success through adversity. His propensity to thrive despite physical limitations, including a low vertical leap by NBA standards and one of the ugliest free throw hitches in recent memory, also made him a fan favorite.
These reasons are why Houston needs to make a strong effort to re-sign Hayes. Unfortunately, with the recent $13.7 million deal handed out to Dalembert, the Rockets won’t have the cap space to give Hayes anything close to the deal he originally signed with the Kings. Sacramento has the money and a more pressing need in the paint, one of the few holes on a young team that includes perimeter scorers Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette. But Houston is the team that gave a generously-listed 6 ft. 6 center a chance and the team that has been his home for six years. He is beloved by the fans and by his Rockets teammates. Terrence Williams even tried to start a “We Want Chuck” rally on Twitter at the onset of free agency. That is why Houston needs to dump the recently acquired Dalembert in a sign-and-trade with the Kings, or whichever team signs Hayes. It’s the only way they can afford him. With the apparent preseason improvement of both Jordan Hill and Hasheem Thabeet under Kevin McHale’s tutelage, experienced leadership in the post is more valuable than another big body. Chuck Hayes provides that.