The Toronto Raptors went into this off season looking for a big wing and a rim protector and now that the draft is over, trades have been made and free agency is substantially used up, why is the 31-year-old 6’ 5.5” (without shoes) Chuck Hayes the veteran backup center?
Hayes came over from the Kings as part of the seven player deal that saved the Raptors season last December and like John Salmons, he didn’t have an obvious role on the team. However, like Salmons, Head Coach Dwane Casey found a role for his freshly acquired veterans and they both had a positive impact on and off the court for Toronto.
Putting aside Hayes contract which at $6 million wouldn’t be the easiest to move, Hayes provides value in Toronto beyond his skills on the court, skills that, by-the-way, haven’t diminished. So what does Hayes bring?
A Kentucky connection with his head coach and Patrick Patterson shouldn’t be underestimated with the collegiate sports crazy Americans. University sports does not have the same pull in Canada, so it gets easy to overlook up North, but that pull is real and strong in the South even if it might not be completely rational.
Casey likes Hayes ‘old man strength’ and while Hayes is firmly anchored below the rim at both ends of the court, he is virtually unmovable and shows a surprising level of quickness when showing out to the top of the key and getting back to disrupt passes into the post. Hayes’s non-stop motion is beyond annoying and he grabbed an improbable 23.2 percent of available defensive rebounds last year. For a player that is shorter than most of the forwards on the court, he is a surprisingly effective defensive center.
“I have to do whatever a team needs me to do. Whatever Coach asks of me, that is what I am going to do,” Hayes told Pro Bball Report. “We have been on the bad side in Sacramento. Things wasn’t the greatest as far as racking up wins, so when you are on a team that is winning, you are willing to sacrifice anything.”
Sacrifice is perhaps the best reason for keeping Hayes around. A starter for much of his career, Hayes played the fewest minutes per game of his nine years in the NBA, even fewer than he played as a rookie and Hayes didn’t pout or complain. He played his role and helped out his younger teammates.
“That’s my job, to be a mentor to these guys, to be a veteran to the young players,” Hayes said. “This is a great locker room. It reminds me a lot of my Houston days, being with a great bunch of guys, workers, everybody’s ego is left at the door. It makes the working environment a whole lot better.”
Being shorter than every center he went up against made Hayes work harder and prepare better than anyone he faced. It was that or get badly embarrassed and that is the example Casey wants players like Jonas Valanciunas, Patterson, Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira to follow. Hayes sends out the right message to developing players.
“It’s just knowing your opponent and being prepared,” Hayes said. “Do your homework early and put yourself in a position to come out on the better end.”
Most importantly, Hayes wants to win and get back to the playoffs and he’ll do whatever is asked of him to get there. He’ll give Casey a change of pace defensive center when asked or he’ll encourage and teach Caboclo and Nogueira how to play the NBA game so their skills develop and team wins more games that way.
“You love to play basketball, but towards the end of your career, as many times as you can, you try to be on a winning team,” Hayes said. “It’s the opportunity to make the playoffs, every game is magnified, every possession is cherished, it’s a great feeling.”
The Raptors big man rotation is full. Valanciunas, Johnson and Patterson are going to be playing the bulk of the minutes allocated to the four and five spots. Tyler Hansbrough and James Johnson can both step in when needed and eventually there will be some emphasis placed on the development of Caboclo and Nogueira on the court – something that could happen sooner rather than later if they can earn it. So, if the Raptors were going to add another backup center, it would have to be a player that could accept their role and still contribute like Hayes did last season.
While there are still some kind-of-interesting big men available in free agency, it is pretty hard to see them providing what the Raptors need for next season. This team still isn’t a finished product. The Raptors have young players who are developing and will be playing big minutes. Any addition to the roster at this stage has to fit the culture and accept a role and that is what has made Hayes the Raptors ideal veteran backup for next season.