Clint Capela is Key to the Rockets' Success

While James Harden dazzles fans and analysts, Clint Capela is doing the dirty work that makes the Houston Rockets run smoothly.

When it comes to the Houston Rockets, all eyes are on James Harden. Even if his spectacular season isn’t rewarded with a second straight MVP, his divisive playstyle and eye-popping numbers demand attention. With Houston finally healthy and sitting in the Western Conference’s third seed, Harden looks poised to dominate headlines for a while longer.

While the Beard and his step-back threes get most of the attention, there’s plenty going on outside of him that makes Mike D’Antoni’s system run smoothly. Of course, there’s the point god Chris Paul and one of the league’s best sixth men in Eric Gordon. But perhaps no player outside of Harden is more important to the Rockets’ success than their 24-year-old Swiss center.

A late first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Clint Capela established himself as a solid two-way center before signing a big extension last summer. This season, despite a thumb injury that kept him out about a month, he’s continued his solid play and has been a vital piece of one of the league’s most dangerous teams. Capela has become something of an anchor for the team on both ends of the floor as well as on the boards, raising the level of a Houston team that, despite its successes, has struggled to find consistency.

Offense 

On offense, Capela is in many ways a perfect match for this team. He’s not the lumbering, back-to-the-basket center of years past; instead, he’s an athletic young big man, and an elite finisher at the rim. He doesn’t create his own shots – 81 percent of his baskets are assisted, per Cleaning the Glass, but with a dynamic shot creator like Harden and a Hall of Famer in Paul as the second option, Capela serves his role perfectly.

While Houston’s perimeter players continue to stretch the floor and launch three-pointers in record quantities, Capela dominates the paint and finishes just about everything that comes his way – he’s third in field goal percentage among qualified players at about 64 percent, and only two players (Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo) have dunked the ball more often than him, despite his injury.

Plays like this perfectly illustrate his role in the Rockets’ offense. Gordon, Paul, and PJ Tucker are hanging out around the perimeter, keeping their defenders out of the paint. The danger Harden presents on the wing after a screen demands the attention of both Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon, allowing him to slip a pass to a now-open Capela for an easy finish. Harden's offense is so dangerous that defenders are almost forced to leave Capela open as the lesser of two evils. Plenty of players could serve the same role in this system as Capela, but he does it exceptionally well. 

Defense 

Capela’s 1.6 blocks per game are an eye-catching number, but they don’t tell the whole story. In reality, he’s not quite the dominant rim protector that his averages might suggest. His block percentage of 2.4% ranks in the 74th percentile among big men, per Cleaning the Glass – not bad, but certainly outside of the league’s elite (Myles Turner leads the league at 8.6 percent). Most advanced numbers tell that same story – Capela is an above-average defender, but nothing quite worth specifically game-planning for.

Still, having a capable defender at the rim is valuable. That’s especially true when Kenneth Faried is the backup center. An undersized center even in the modern era, Faried is not a particularly strong defensive player – the team’s defensive rating is virtually the same whether or not Capela plays, but it’s drastically worse with Faried on the floor:

Player On Court Def. Rtg. Off Court Def. Rtg.
Clint Capela 108.9 108.5
Kenneth Faried 110.8 104.9

The defense looks great when Faried slides to the four to play alongside Capela, but the Rockets rarely use that combination. Without any other consistent backups at center (apologies to Nenê Hilario), Capela's importance as a rim protector is even greater.

If Houston wants to challenge Golden State again, they’ll need Capela and company to be at their best defensively. After being one of the league’s best on that end a season ago, the Rockets got off to a miserable start this season and still rank in the bottom 10 defensively. That said, they’ve flipped a switch down the stretch: since the All-Star Break, their defensive rating has been right at the same level it was last season. If they keep that up, they pose a threat to the Warriors and the league as a whole – at least with Capela on the floor.

Rebounding

As valuable as Capela has been on both offense and defense, his biggest asset might be his ability on the boards. The 24-year-old is one of the league’s better rebounders, ranking just outside the top-5 in rebounds per game and just outside the top-10 in rebound percentage among qualified players. Cleaning the Glass has him in the 94th and 85th percentile among big men in offensive and defensive rebound rate on field goal attempts. Those numbers aren’t exactly otherworldly, but they show an ability to get after it on the boards, especially considering Harden’s tendency to snag rebounds.

And though it may not be as glamorous as his thunderous dunks or challenges at the rim, Capela’s rebounding ability is vital to keep Houston competitive. On the defensive end, pulling down boards means less chance for opponents to pray on Harden and company’s inconsistent perimeter defense; on offense, it means more chances to rain threes down on opponents. 

Domination on the boards is another reason a Faried/Capela combination might be interesting – Faried is dominant on the offensive glass (in the 96th percentile among big men during his time in Houston, according to Cleaning the Glass). The two together would severely limit possessions by the opposition. An ultra-big lineup like that would go against Houston’s ethos and limit their spacing, but it might be worth trying out in the postseason, especially if Harden is cooking. Letting Harden do his work on offense while the two bigs control the boards and Faried chases around forwards while Capela protects the paint might be enough to create trouble for teams that think they have the Rockets all figured out. Even if the two never share the floor again, though, both have proven to be capable rebounders that will fight hard on the boards and earn extra possessions.

The bottom line is this: while Capela isn’t an All-Star-caliber player, he is a vital component to the way Houston plays basketball. While Harden and CP3 grab the headlines and make highlight plays, Capela is in the background, acting as the grease that keeps the gears turning for D’Antoni’s system. With the postseason looming, the Rockets need their center now more than ever.

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