Checking in on Houston Rockets center Clint Capela

The Rockets decided last offseason to part ways with Dwight Howard, a decision partly motivated by a belief that his cap figure could be better spent, and partly borne from confidence that third year big man Clint Capela was ready to take over at the position.

I detailed extensively last season how production-wise, Capela was just as good as Howard, and how the team fared better with Capela at center.  This data formed the basis of my argument that Houston would be best served in parting ways with Howard in free agency.

So how is Capela doing thus far?  In games played through Friday night (December 3), Capela is averaging 12.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.9 blocked shots in 26.3 minutes per game.  While he’s shooting a sparkling 63% from the field overall, he’s still shooting an abysmal 45% from the free throw line.  Extrapolated out per 36 minutes, those numbers come out to 16.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks, a stat-line that would have Capela mentioned amongst the top tier big men in the league, except that at this point in time, he’s incapable of playing such heavy minutes.  Unbeknownst to me before this season, stamina is a hurdle Mike D’Antoni and the coaching staff hopes Capela is able to eventually overcome.

Caplela’s total rebounding percentage is at 18.3 this year, slightly down from 18.7 last year.  His defensive rebounding percentage is 25.5, up from last year’s 23.2, and his offensive rebounding percentage of 11.0 is down from last year’s 14.3.  And lastly, his block percentage is up to 6 this year, from 5.2 last year.  Thus, aside from the offensive glass, Capela has roughly maintained his production from last season, despite the heavier workload.  That’s an encouraging sign and one that validates the trust the team held that Capela was ready for more responsibility.  So how has he been getting it done?

By now, you’re familiar with Capela’s ability to finish above the rim.  He’s long and athletic, and can finish in traffic.  It is not by accident that Capela is shooting 63% from the field.  In fact, his pre-draft profile highlighted his ability to finish as his greatest strength, so the Rockets knew what they were getting when they made this pick.

Above, you see Capela finishing in traffic against the defender.  Just lob it up and there’s a chance he’ll get it!

But he’s also been surprisingly good at catching the bounce pass in stride towards the basket off the pick and roll with James Harden.  This is a difficult play to make for a big man and shouldn’t be underestimated – it opens up a lot of options for Harden and the Rockets’ offense.  Dwight Howard couldn’t always catch these passes and while Motiejunas could, he couldn’t finish authoritatively like Capela did above.

There he is again, catching it on the bounce and exploding to the rim.

One thing that has surprised me has been Capela’s ability to finish plays like this one.  Its not a dunk or a layup even, really – he just caught it with one hand and tipped in the lob.

This one is a basic pick and roll, but look how far Capela is able to take off from in finishing.

screenshot-2016-12-03-16-37-20

He’s basically out near the free throw line when he’s beginning his gathering motion to ascend towards the basket.  He’s not needing to dribble through defenders in traffic to get to the rim.  James Harden is able to just zip the pass into Capela’s space, and, with his length, Clint is able to take care of the rest.

As you’d expect from a big man this athletic, he runs the floor too.  Check out the speed.

screenshot-2016-12-03-16-52-23-1

He starts at least even with Faried, if not behind him, before blowing past even the guards for the breakaway.  And Kenneth Faried is one of the most athletic big men in the league.

And with that speed, there’s hints towards even more.  Watch out if Capela ever develops the ability to put the ball on the floor like this and take his man to the basket.  That’s Amare Stoudemire type stuff there.

**

I, and others, first took note of Capela’s abilities on the defensive end during one particular possession in the 2015 Western Conference Finals.  Finding himself alone on an island with Stephen Curry, with the shot clock waning down, Capela artfully moved his feet and stayed in front of the MVP, preventing even a clean look.  Capela’s perimeter agility, routinely on display for the Rockets this season, is in large part why I believed last season that the team was better served parting ways with Howard going forward.  In the modern NBA, it is as, if not more important, for a center to be able to rotate onto guards during pick and roll coverage as it is to be able to defend the post.

But still, post defense is an element of the game, and one of the biggest question marks on Capela entering this season was whether he had the size and strength to defend bigger players.  Capela’s paltry defensive rebounding percentage last season, in comparison to Howard, would lead one to surmise that he was being overpowered inside in the paint.  (He had a better offensive rebounding percentage than Howard, but offensive rebounding is often a function of athleticism and effort; on the defensive glass, you need to be able to box your man out).

Demarcus Cousins is the biggest and most skilled player amongst that aforementioned class, so the Rockets’ November 25th matchup against the Sacramento Kings was a perfect test to determine how far Capela had come.

While Cousins was able to establish position, Capela routinely disrupted him with his length.

Capela then even blocked Cousins twice.

After a garbage-time barrage of four consecutive threes, Cousins finished the night with 32 points and 9 rebounds on 12-22 shooting.  But those who saw more than the box score knew that Capela, 17 and 10, had gotten the better of Cousins when the game was still in the balance, helping Houston to the blowout victory.

Its clear now that the Rockets made the right decision in parting ways with Howard.  They used his cap figure on Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two players who have been instrumental in the Rockets’ early success, while Capela has sufficiently filled the void inside.  But what’s next for the young Houston big man?

I asked on Twitter last week whether you the reader would part with Capela as the centerpiece in a deadline Cousins deal, were that option to become available to the Rockets, expressing my opinion on the matter in a subsequent podcast.  To my surprise, the majority of you replied that you would not.  Perhaps that should not have come as much of a surprise, as Capela essentially is, as demonstrated in the clips above, the perfect center for a James Harden-centric franchise.  He defends the rim, can defend the perimeter, runs the floor, and is a great finisher out of the pick and roll.  And most importantly, as I continuously underscored last season in making my case, he’s content playing this role.  In a twist of modern irony, Capela’s inability to score in the post is actually a virtue because it eliminates the desire for such inefficient possessions.  In essence, you don’t have to keep him happy to get him to deliver.

But if the Rockets are to truly take the next step, they’ll need their young big man to continue growing.  He’ll need to be capable of giving them 35 minutes a game rather than the platoon quantity he is currently providing.  And perhaps just as importantly, he will need to improve upon his dreadful free throw shooting.  The Rockets need Capela’s rim protection late in games, but he’s not playable if he is that severe of a liability at the stripe.

Thus far, however, all indications are positive.  Capela works tirelessly, and has a great attitude.  I would bet on his continued development.

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About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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