Clint Capela is one of the Houston Rockets’ most impactful players, and he does everything that an organization would want from their center in 2017.
The Houston Rockets drafted Swiss center Clint Capela 25th overall in the 2014 draft because of his size, length and explosiveness, three things necessary for any big to be successful in this new NBA landscape. At the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit, Capela measured 6-11 in shoes with a tremendous 7-4.5 wingspan. From there, it was easy to see why he was such an effective shot blocker and finisher in Europe. Now, fast forward four years and the 23-year-old is having the best season of his career.
Houston has slowly eased Capela into their rotation, and last year was when he showcased what he could do. He averaged 19.0 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes. In less than one year, we saw Capela thrive as a rim protector, but he also produced on the offensive because of James Harden, a relationship similar to what Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan had with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Capela is still raw on that end, but all the physical attributes make him an excellent roll man, and he averaged 1.14 points per possession in that playtype, good enough for the 73rd percentile. He also finished well above-average on cuts, putting up 1.39 points per possession and landing in the 75th percentile. When you’ve constructed an offense like the Rockets’, an offensive-minded center isn’t necessary. He needs to focus on anchoring the defense and grabbing rebounds. Should the ball find him on the other end, the shots will be high-percentage looks that are near the rim.
In year three, Capela attempted 477 shots inside of the restricted area — that’s 84.7 percent of his looks. He converted on 69.6 percent of them, and NBA.com lists layups (270), dunks (179) and alley-oops (122) as his most attempted shot types. Nothing has changed this year. The restricted area is still home to most of his shots (86.4 percent), and he hammers home dunks and hauls in lob passes with superb ease. Of course, that’s all a benefit of Houston’s’ lethality.
Everyone else is an afterthought when Mike D’Antoni is platooning Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon at the guard spots. Two of those guys are elite ball handlers and crafty scorers who capitalize on any defense that overplays them. On the play below, the only action is a pick-and-roll between Capela and Harden, but the Rockets still get an open look. After the screen, Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic both get stuck on Harden, leaving Darren Collison to guard two people. That’s when the defense has officially broken down. He’s forced to pick between giving up an open dunk to Capela or an open three to Paul, who’s shooting 42.5 percent as of Wednesday. Turner is late on the recovery, and Collison slides out to the corner, leaving Capela’s layup uncontested.
Capela’s on pace to set his career-high scoring average with 13.5 points a night, and he’s converting on 66.1 percent of his field goals. Another impressive feat is the improvement from the free throw line, which has rendered the hack-a-Clint useless. After a miserable 53.1 percent clip from the charity stripe last season, Capela’s eclipsed 65 percent, sitting at 65.6 after 22 games.
Because of how efficient Clint Capela is in a limited role, his offensive rating of 128 is tops in the league, according to Basketball Reference. He’s in a situation where he doesn’t need a diverse offense to be a game-changer, a rarity given the new-school style of play. Of course, whatever Capela doesn’t do on that end he makes for on defense, and that’s going to propel him into stardom.
Defensive-first centers are nothing new; they go way back, starting with Bill Russell and continuing with guys like Ben Wallace and Marcus Camby. Will Capela evolve into those guys? It’s unlikely because one of them is the most exceptional defender ever to play and the other two will eventually find their way into the Hall of Fame. Capela, however, has the chance to be the preeminent defensive superstar of the new age. There are, of course, some deficiencies in his game like getting into foul trouble and things of that nature, but the trend is upward.
In the age of analytics, three metrics help paint the most vivid picture of a defender’s production: defensive rating and defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus. By definition, those three rate impact differently, but being among the league’s best is all that matters. Here’s where Capela ranks:
- Defensive Rating – 97.1, first
- Defensive Win Shares – 1.3, tied-third
- Defensive Box/Plus Minus – 4.2, tied-second with Rudy Gobert
- (Win Shares Per 48 Minutes – .278, fourth behind LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Harden. I wanted to include this stat because it’s fascinating. On a nightly basis, Clint Capela has the fourth-biggest impact in his team’s wins. That’s superstar-level contribution.)
The Rockets, as a team, have been much improved defensively. They’re fifth in efficiency (103.2) and eighth in points allowed (102.7), down from 18th and 26th last year. Chris Paul has helped, but it’s been Clint Capela who’s the centerpiece of a team that built their reputation on not caring about defense.
We already looked at Capela’s size. He checks that box. That alone, though, doesn’t make an elite defender. Nowadays, slow, lumbering bigs don’t excel. It’s too challenging for them. Not only are guards two steps faster, but players at the same position have also developed quickness that they haven’t seen before. Additionally, with guys becoming more and more skilled on offense, a center could go from playing Andre Drummond one night to Draymond Green on the other. Someone like Timofey Mozgov matches up well with the former, but Green would take his lunch money.
If I had to compare, Capela is similar to Steven Adams but is more mobile. And I’d feel more comfortable with him switching onto guards. Most ball handlers are still quick enough to leave Capela in the dust after breaking out the hesitation, but that damn-near 7-5 wingspan is a lifesaver. On the play below, Mike Conley gets the step on Capela in semi-transition but still gets the shot blocked. Capela remembered to move his feet and timed his jump perfectly, getting just enough to bounce the ball off the backboard into Ryan Anderson’s grasp.
As he matures and gets a better understanding of defensive principles, it’s going to be a daunting task for opponents to score on him. Also — Capela hasn’t even hit his prime yet. He’s only going to get stronger and more explosive over the next couple of seasons. Historically, the best shot blockers blend athleticism with timing. The latter trait is something that’s much easier to work on.
At this rate, Clint Capela is on track to become a superstar defender within the next couple of years. He’s got all the intangibles, and the metrics back up the eye test.
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