When Yao Ming underwent season-ending foot surgery last summer, the Rockets seemed doomed to the lottery, having lost their most reliable scorer and interior defender. Yet with forwards Luis Scola and Carl Landry producing in the low post, and point guard Aaron Brooks and forward Trevor Ariza firing from the perimeter, Houston was averaging 101.9 points through Sunday, 10th in the league. Then, to replace Yao's defense, the Rockets turned to a center a full foot shorter, who has kept them elevated in the standings (11--9 at week's end) and in the chase for a playoff spot.
At 6'6" and 267 pounds Chuck Hayes has learned to compensate for his shortcomings. When he signed in January 2006, Houston's coaches gave the undrafted free agent a DVD of Anthony Mason defending Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1994 NBA Finals and suggested he model himself after the 6'7", 250-pound Knicks forward. "We thought he could do some of the same things in terms of stripping the ball when it's exposed, poking at it and making guys react to him," says then Rockets assistant Tom Thibodeau, who is now with the Celtics. Hayes eyeballed the DVD for weeks and has since made a habit of film study. Before a Nov. 2 game against the Jazz, Hayes saw that Carlos Boozer preferred to go left when he faced up. All game Hayes forced him right, holding the All-Star to seven points on 1-of-6 shooting.
Hayes, the Rockets' strongest player (including Yao), uses his sturdy base to move taller opponents out of the paint. "If they make a turnaround [on me]," says Hayes, "they deserve it." In two games against the Lakers this season Hayes played 7-foot, 285-pound Andrew Bynum so well that Phil Jackson abandoned post-ups because, as the coach put it, Hayes was "rooted to the ground."
Hayes's muscle is complemented by quickness. His coach at Kentucky, Tubby Smith, notes that for four seasons Hayes led the Wildcats in deflections, a stat usually dominated by guards. It's a reason he's among the best at defending the pick-and-roll, a play Yao struggled with. Says the Lakers' Ron Artest, "You're not going to get around him, you're not going to outquick him and you're definitely not going to outsmart him."
Hayes's offense is a work in progress—he was averaging 5.4 points through Sunday—but he grabs a team-leading 2.8 offensive rebounds per game and sets wall-like screens. And even in small doses he can make a big difference. After sitting for most of the fourth quarter last Thursday at Golden State, Hayes checked in with 2.1 seconds left and Houston clinging to a two-point lead. When the Warriors set a pick for Monta Ellis, Hayes switched out and forced the speedy guard into a game-clinching travel. "With Chuck, we're looking for a defensive impact," says Houston G.M. Daryl Morey. "And he's making it."
Now on SI.com
Follow Chris Mannix's Power Rankings every week at SI.com/nba
Charlotte's recent surge can be attributed entirely to Stephen Jackson(below), who at week's end was averaging 17.0 points since being acquired on Nov. 16 from the Warriors (with Acie Law) for Raja Bell and Vladimir Radmonovic. Through Sunday the Bobcats had won five of their last seven games; with Jackson, their scoring had improved from 82.4 points per game (on 39.9% shooting) to 95.6 (on 46.6%). The swingman's playmaking (3.9 assists) has taken pressure off point guard Raymond Felton, and his ability to defend top wing players has eased the burden on forward Gerald Wallace. "We really needed him," says center Tyson Chandler. "Defenses used to not respect us. His ability to score and create is a big weapon."
BILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HAYES)
UP TO THE TASK Hayes relies on his bulk, brains and unexpected athleticism to hold his own in the paint.
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (JACKSON)