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How Chuck Hayes led to the Rockets’ small ball movement

Houston Rockets Chuck Hayes (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Chuck Hayes (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently spoke about the Rockets’ small ball experiment, including how Chuck Hayes was the early founder of the strategy.

Although it seems like a distant memory due to the length of inactivity in the NBA, the Houston Rockets employ a unique strategy, which became a national story line this season. The Rockets decided to adopt the small ball strategy, which was cemented when they traded Clint Capela for Robert Covington.

As soon as it happened, there were instant jokes from all of the national media outlets, including TNT and ESPN, which was further proof of how the Rockets were defying conventional logic. The decision to move P.J. Tucker, who stands 6-foot-6, to center led many across the league to develop the belief that the Rockets were throwing in the cards and giving up on the season.

What got lost in all the hoopla was the fact that the Rockets went 18-7 without Capela during the 2019-20 season, as Robert Covington became the Rockets’ elite rim protector. RoCo averaged 2.5 blocks per game with the Rockets, which were more than Capela ever had. RoCo has provided versatility on the defensive end as he possesses the size and skillet to defend guards, forwards, and centers. All in all, Covington and Tucker instantly became one of the league’s best defensive duos.

Although Tucker isn’t a 7-footer, he has the strength and physique to contend and battle with big men, which has allowed the Rockets to thrive on the defensive end without a traditional center. Tucker has a build and frame reminiscent of Chuck Hayes, who was the inspiration behind the small ball movement for general manager Daryl Morey.

Morey joined ESPN LA’s Mason and Ireland Show and shared the origins of the small ball movement and how Hayes became the unofficial founder of the Houston Rockets’ unconventional strategy.

“We played [the Lakers] in 2009 and we were trying Chuck Hayes at center, who is like 6’3. He’s like my height. Even Phil Jackson gave him the highest compliment and said ‘give the Rockets credit. Chuck Hayes is solid oak out there.’ And poor Pau Gasol was getting shoved out to the 3-point line with every dribble.”

Morey references the Rockets’ 2009 postseason series against the Los Angeles Lakers in which Yao Ming suffered a broken foot in Game 3, which sidelined him for the rest of the season.  The Rockets still took the Lakers to seven games in spite of Yao’s absence, which made them the only team to take the Lakers to seven games during that postseason.

During this interview, Morey joked that the Rockets received a trophy for being the only team to take the Lakers to seven games during that season. Although the Rockets obviously didn’t get a trophy for taking the Lakers to seven games, it’s no small feat that they were able to extend the series despite being without both of their best players in Yao and Tracy McGrady.

Chuck Hayes was inserted into the starting lineup and the effect was obvious on Pau Gasol, as Morey mentioned. Games 5 and 6 were good examples, as Gasol only scored 16 points, while getting off nine shots in Game 5. In Game 6, Gasol scored 14 points while posting a true shooting percentage of 46.7 percent. Like Tucker, Hayes was a defensive stopper, as he led the league in defensive box plus minus in 2007-08.

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Hayes was one of the better defensive big men in the league and he was 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, which is similar to Tucker, who is 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds. Considering the similarities in their frame, it’s easy to understand how Hayes would have been the early barometer for the small ball experiment.

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