Rockets offseason roundtable: Capela, Melo

I got back together with old friends Forrest Walker and Richard Li to talk Rockets offseason.

Forrest: This Capela contract is an absolute steal. Not only is it the lowball offer they pitched to him at the start of the summer, it also has zero options, team or player. It’s well below what he would get in any other offseason, and even includes bizarre incentives, making the deal in practice even smaller than the $18 million per year that contract appears to be. In fact, the bizarre nature of those incentives moves this contract from not just team-friendly to outright player-hostile. The idea of making Capela chase after defensive rebounds, free throw percentage and conference finals appearances is honestly a bit beyond the pale, and I understand why he balked at this otherwise tolerable contract.

Be that as it may, the team has locked him up for five years, and any hard feelings will likely fade quite rapidly, especially if they keep giving him those conference finals checks.
My question: Are Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute replaceable? Not just their production, but also their fit and chemistry. How much, if any, will Houston miss them?
Richard: Probably not. Part of me believes that the NBA, miraculously, still undervalues long wings who can defend multiple positions and shoot threes. You could make a legitimate case that, outside of your top-25 players, 3-and-D guys who know their role and play within it are the best value for money in the NBA. I mean you would definitely take Mbah a Moute for $5 million over someone like Reggie Jackson for $15 million, right? Every game in the conference finals, both of them, basically ended with alpha dogs and 3-and-D guys on the floor. Everyone else was relegated to the bench. They are the mold of the modern NBA. The best players are increasingly just bigger, better, longer versions of this mold (AD, Kawhi, KD), or a very select few who have some other worldly skillset that compensates for them not being made from the mold (Curry, Kyrie).This is why seeing Ariza and Mbah a Moute go is difficult to swallow. Last year, Houston needed more of these guys, not fewer. I mean P.J. Tucker averaged like 40 minutes against Golden State in the conference finals. It’s not because he required 12 years to to find the magic protein shake that nearly made him a conference finals hero against one of the best teams ever. It’s because playing against Golden State necessitated that someone like Tucker be on the floor. But of course, P.J. Tucker isn’t actually the best version of this mold. He just happened to be on the roster (and in most cases, Mbah a Moute would be more useful than Tucker). Business eventually got in the way of retaining them, but their replacements are Ennis and… Melo? I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Ennis. I won’t to Melo. This is a definite downgrade.
On the other hand, there are several explanations for why this might be just a flesh wound. Ennis shot better from three last year than either Ariza or Mbah a Moute (Melo didn’t, but whatever, we know he sucks). Ariza and Mbah a Moute were also ageing, so maybe they would not have been that useful anyways. Houston is also in a somewhat peculiar position of having their best players, including two top 10, not really fit the mold. You can’t exactly not play Harden, Paul or Capela, even in crunch time. And that only leaves two slots open for your 3-and-D guys, whereas other teams might have as many as four on the floor. So Houston might have found a wrinkle in the NBA, or just been forced into one and hope that it works because it almost did last year.
My question is, assuming the best case scenario that this is a tolerable downgrade, what exactly is the hoped for outcome? On paper, Houston didn’t improve, and Golden State didn’t become worse. So does everyone just pray that Chris Paul does not injure his hamstring and Golden State’s collective psyche becomes worse? Is that good enough?

Rahat: I actually think yes, it’s good enough. My motto for the past few years has been “just be good enough.” And last season, if you’re of the opinion that Steph Curry was actually not fully healthy, then had Chris Paul not gone down, they would’ve just been good enough to capitalize. (Of course, if you’re of the opinion that Curry was healthy, then the Rockets were more than good enough and just flat out a better team.)

I disagree with Richard’s analysis above because I do think another wing is on the way via a Ryan Anderson trade, and more importantly, Mbah a Moute wasn’t even a factor in the conference finals. With respect to the Warriors matchup, they didn’t necessarily lose depth because they only had Tucker and Ariza which is now becoming Tucker and Ennis. And Melo essentially becomes your Anderson replacement, not your Mbah a Moute replacement.
It’s also no secret as well that I’ve long thought Ariza was one of the most overrated Rockets.
Going back to Capela, what do you guys think is his ceiling?

Forrest: His ceiling is the roof. Wait, I’m not just making a reference, hold on. I think he can and likely will attain the highest reaches possible… within his role. Capela is a perfect fit because of his complete willingness to play his role. In large part, his salary is paying him for things he doesn’t do. He doesn’t post up outside of very specific moments. He doesn’t demand touches. He doesn’t try to handle the ball. He doesn’t shoot outside his range or make flashy passes. Clint Capela is a rim runner, a roll man, a dunker, a garbage man and a rim protector, as well as nimble enough to hold his own on the perimeter if it comes to that. He’s the next iteration of Tyson Chandler, and Tyson Chandler was good enough to be the starting center on a championship team. I don’t know that it’s possible to be a star inside those bounds, though. He might make a couple of All-Star games, and honestly that would be a massive achievement for him in this completely swamped Western Conference.

Capela might be a top-5 center in the game soon if he isn’t now. That’s pretty amazing.
Let me ask, though: Look. Carmelo Anthony. Is this a nightmare? If not, please, please, please convince me that it’s not going to be that bad.

Richard: So the Carmelo question is slightly wrinkled. My initial negative reaction was due to the initial question about replacing Ariza and Mbah a Moute. Melo is most definitely not a replacement for either of these two, in particular on defense. Player tracking pegged Melo as the fourth slowest player on defense in the entire NBA last year. The only ones who were slower were a big center (Boogie), a senior citizen (Dirk) and…. James Harden, but I digress. Long story short, we should not expect Melo to make too many hustle plays or win 50/50 balls.

However, just because he is not a 3-and-D replacement does not mean he comes without value. I mean, he’s super cheap, so even if he becomes a flaming dumpster fire at the least, he did not cost very much. What exactly he would do to become valuable is the key question. In OKC, he essentially became a one trick pony (catch and shoot guy), but wasn’t particularly great at that trick (35% on 3s). One could argue that his limited role was a product of circumstance, but truthfully he was already gravitating towards this role even before he arrived at OKC. His arrival just accelerated the process. His free throw attempts had been decreasing each year in New York, as did his rebounds, while his percentage of catch and shoot uses increased.
What can an average three-point shooter who doesn’t like playing defense do in Houston? If he stays that way, not much. The hope is that maybe a competitive environment and fewer minutes can energize him into doing a little something else, like recapture his innate scoring ability or rebounding prowess. That still wouldn’t put him in the crunch time lineup for most games with the Rockets at full strength, but I could see him having a few hot hand games or being a decent plug-in when someone else is injured. That would more than merit the veteran’s minimum.
Rahat: You guys are really ruining the Melo experience for me. I waited nine years for this.

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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