Building on Hardwood Knocks: Evaluating Clint Capela’s Worth to the Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets went through a massive roster overhaul this summer. Gone are the likes of Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker, Kyle Wiltjer, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard and a 2018 first-round pick, but in their place stands Chris Paul (added via sign and trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for the preceding players), while P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute and Tarik Black were signed in free agency.

It may seem like a lot—and the core is admittedly slightly different—but when the dust settles, the team is essentially losing a less-talented point guard and complementary role players for one of the best point guards of all time, a couple versatile defensive wings and security in the frontcourt. I call that coming out on top.

But that’s not what we’re here for. In a recent episode of NBA Maths’ flagship podcast Hardwood Knocks, Dan Favale and Eric Spyropoulos examined the new-look Rockets, including their standing out West, the many perks of staggering Paul and James Harden’s minutes and the possibility of still adding Carmelo Anthony via trade. The full podcast can be listened to here:

The most compelling topic in the entire conversation was something else entirely. Thanks to the new additions, much has been made in regards to the team’s versatility with so many capable wings on both ends. And while that’s true, the team’s big man in waiting has been slightly forgotten. Leaping out from the shadows is Clint Capela, Houston’s 23-year-old starting center.

What follows are segments of Favale and Spyropoulous’ commentary, with my own analysis mixed in.

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Before getting to Capela, we must introduce the other big men in the Rockets’ rotation. Which was one of the first things the Hardwood Knocks guys discussed:

“They just have these bigs who can set some screens and then just sprint down the lane toward the basket and finish there off lobs or maybe in traffic” -Favale

The first player in this category is Nenê, the nearly 35-year-old center. The 15-season veteran was solid for the Rockets a year ago, providing 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds on 61.7(!) percent shooting. He is a solid option on defense, capable of stopping stronger, bruising bigs. On offense, Nenê mixes a nifty post game—complete with touch and adjustments in traffic—with a powerful below-the-rim attack.

He should be imposing in the pick-and-roll with Harden and new-teammate Paul. Nenê has good hands, which helped him finish in the 90.3 percentile as a roll man, scoring 1.25 points per possession (PPP) and shooting 65.2 percent from the field.

The 6’11” big man had a strong postseason, playing eight games, but was ruled out with a groin injury early on in Game 4 against the Spurs. Before missing those two games, he averaged 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds on 70.8 percent shooting and 19.9 minutes per game.

He’s a dependable option but is coming off an injury and will inevitably sit out most back-to-backs, while also missing a few games with nagging injuries. And that makes the offseason signing of Tarik Black all the more important:

“Black won’t have a consistent role of 20 minutes a night for 70 games, but he’ll probably play 50 games here and there depending on injuries…He’s just a solid guy to set screens; he’s comfortable with Harden and Ariza having been on the Rockets in the 2014-15 season and actually played a big role when Dwight Howard missed half that year as well. So picking him up I think was underrated as well since they lost Harrell in the Chris Paul deal” – Spyropoulos

Altogether, the Rockets’ trio of bigs are useful for multiple types of defensive situations:

“You have Capela who’s a pretty good rim protector; he can switch a little bit more than Nene can. But Nene can help you in the post. And Tarik Black should be able to help you in the post, and he’s kind of this physical guy. They seem to have that big man, that bruising big man [Nene] or that lean big man in Capela, just good for all these different kinds of [defensive] situations. And one of the things we say about the Warriors the most is that they’re just built to play any sort of style…They will beat you at your own game, then they will master theirs and destroy you. And we of course are not going to say that about the Rockets just yet, but just looking at the cosmetic makeup of this roster, it looks like ‘Hey, maybe they’re close to on that same plane.’” – Favale

But this post is going to focus on Capela: his proficiency in the pick-and-roll, his chances of taking a leap and having a breakout season and even a little salary discussion.

To start things off, let’s cover the basics. Since being drafted 25th overall in the 2014 NBA draft, he has improved his game, as well as his numbers, each season. In 2016-17, Capela’s third campaign in the league, the 6’10” Swiss center put up career bests across the board with marks of 12.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 assists over the course of 65 games and 23.9 minutes per contest while shooting an absurd 64.3 percent from the field.

Lob City → H-Town

When the Paul trade went through, Capela chimed in with his thoughts the next day, replacing the classic 100-point picture of Wilt Chamberlain with himself by way of photoshop:

Goofy social-media antics aside, he has a point. In his third season in the NBA, 31.8 percent of Capela’s field goal attempts were dunks, and 83.3 percent of his made field goals were assisted on. In addition to shooting 64.3 percent from the floor, he shot 67.9 percent on shots from fewer than five feet, and his average shot distance was 2.0 feet. He made 163 dunks in all:

Favale inferred: “You look at Capela playing next to Harden and Paul. How does he not lead the league in field-goal percentage next year?”

To which Spyropoulos responded: “One of my predictions I made in that same Hoops Habit article was that Capela would shoot 70 percent from the floor or greater. I think last year him and Harden were the No. 1 alley-oop combination, and Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan was like third or fourth, so now Capela’s just going to get so many lobs at the rim.”

They’re right. Where Capela should make the most noise is as the roller in PnR situations.

Pick-and-Roll Potential

In his third season in the NBA, Capela scored 1.14 PPP as a roller, which landed him in the 72.9 percentile. He shot 60.1 percent in the play type and scored on 59.3 percent of his relevant possessions. Those are great numbers, but the addition of Paul should take Capela’s efficiency to another level.

A year after adding the fifth-most value as a PnR ball handler (via NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles), Paul ranked 14th in 2016-17, adding 49.9 more points than the average player would on similar volume.

As I wrote in a recent examination of the top point guards:

‘The Point God’ was born to run the pick-and-roll, where he is adept at stopping and popping for threes and mid-range jumpers or fighting his way all the way to the cup. Paul’s 10.3 points on pull-up jumpers ranked second in the league, and his 46.1 percent shooting was second among players with at least three points on pull-ups…But his first option off the screen is to the roller, where a bulk of his assists are accrued. After six seasons playing the alley to DeAndre Jordan’s oops, he should have new teammate Clint Capela chomping at the bit for more of the same.

While in L.A., Paul gained strong chemistry in the pick-and-roll with DeAndre Jordan, something his new team is now hoping he builds with Capela:

Capela sets strong screens and is incredibly effective rolling towards the rim. But the cherry on top is Harden’s immense proficiency running the pick-and-roll, as well. In 2016-17, “The Beard” was tops in value added as PnR handler, tallying 148.4 more points than league average with his possessions.

Constantly drawing plenty of attention coming off the pick, Harden already has experience running the PnR with Capela:

Can Paul and Capela build similar chemistry on these plays?

“[Capela] already has the chemistry with Harden. But there are stretches where it’s gonna be Capela and Paul on the floor, and they have to develop a good enough chemistry like [Paul did with] DeAndre Jordan,” Spyropoulos pointed out.

And the response:

“The Capela-Paul chemistry is going to be interesting… Paul makes these reads, especially when he’s passing through air, like there’s a lot of anticipation involved and that might need to be just a point of issue in training camp and through the preseason is getting that timing down. Because you have it with James Harden, and you know what he’s going to do when he’s hesitating or when he’s attacking the basket; you kind of understand and can feel for the situations when he probably will pass, when he’s actually going to pass, or when he will look for his own shot. With Paul it might be a little more complicated, because his first instincts aren’t necessarily to score at all, so that’s going to be an adjustment for Capela, as well. [Paul and Harden] are fantastic off drives and equally dangerous, but they have these two contrasting mindsets so to speak, even though Harden just spent the year as Houston’s point guard and averaged one billion assists per game (well actually 11.2)… I just honestly wonder if it’ll be difficult to kind of shimmy between those two different types of play-makers when you’re Capela and you’re trying to learn how to roll to the rim or when to roll off screens or how physical are you on screens? Are you going to fake those screens when you go with Paul to get an early start towards the rim? So that’s going to be intriguing to watch as well.” -Favale

Favale’s right; Harden ranked seventh in drives per game (10.7) and finished with a pass percentage (PASS%) of 30.3 and a 13.4 assist percentage (AST%), while Paul tied for 63rd in drives per game (5.0), but had an incredible 50.2 PASS% and 18.6 AST%. It may take a month or so to get used to jumping between the styles, but since the team should always have an elite pick-and-roll guard in the game at all times, it’s an adjustment that will pay off for both Capela and the Rockets’ overall success.

Capela played most of his minutes last season with top-level talent. Of his 1837 minutes, 1386 came with Harden, 1371 with Ariza, 1209 with Beverley, 1197 with Ryan Anderson and 983 with Eric Gordon. After that Dekker was his most-frequent teammate at 397 minutes shared. But he would often get placed in the second unit with Beverley and Gordon—both capable playmakers but nowhere near the level of Paul. With another point guard in tow, the role players, including Capela, should benefit immensely from easy, open shots.

Defense

Capela also has potential on the other side of the ball. First and foremost, despite being too lean to cut off post position against the league’s stronger bigs, he’s immensely underrated protecting the rim. He has averaged 1.2 blocks for his career, and that number should only keep increasing:

“I think one of the understated parts of his game is, again, he’s not necessarily really that physical big that’s going to help you against more traditional towers. But one, traditional towers are kind of…they’re still around, but they’re not a huge part of the way the game is played today. And two, if you look at just last season, the relative or expected value of a shot at the rim last year on average, Capela saved 38 points at the rim for the Rockets. Which sandwiches him right between DeAndre Jordan and Anthony Davis, and those are both guys that played a ton more minutes than him.” -Favale

Yes, Capela isn’t as strong or explosive as either of those players, but he’s certainly a helpful player protecting the rim:

He possesses decent foot speed and the overall quickness necessary to switch guard-big pick-and-rolls. With defensive-minded wings now on the roster, going up against the defensive potential of a Paul-Ariza-Mbah a Moute-Tucker-Capela lineup is frightening for the opposition to think about, and that’s before you consider the equally exciting offensive look when Harden is in the game, or if D’Antoni plugs in shooters Gordon or Ryan Anderson for one of the defensive specialists.

With stout defenders at their disposal, the Rockets could be among the most adaptable, “switchy” teams around. And if the play breaks down, Capela will be waiting at the rim for a five-finger dismissal.

An Expanded Role

The crux of the argument for Capela having a breakout season is the likelihood of an expanded role. He averaged fewer than 24 minutes per game last year, and that number is sure to rise substantially this time around.

But stamina is a slight concern for the Swiss center:

“[Head coach Mike] D’Antoni has publicly kind of said that Capela’s stamina is not where it should be and this offseason Capela has been kind of trying to add strength, improve his stamina and durability so he can play upwards of 28, 29 minutes a night, which they probably will want and need since he is overall probably their best big man and best-suited big man for Chris Paul and James Harden pick-and-rolls.” -Spyropoulos

Perhaps the best move is just to throw Capela to the wolves:

“Maybe it needs to be one of those situations where DeAndre Jordan went through with Doc Rivers: trial by fire. Like you need to all of a sudden…I think Doc Rivers’ first season with the Clippers… he just played DeAndre Jordan 35 minutes a game after he had played under 25 minutes the season before. And it was just like, ‘Hey, we’re just going to throw him out there, and he just needs to figure it out.’ And again, maybe the way lineups are run and the way Mike D’Antoni plays he won’t do that with Clint Capela, but if you’re trying to build up his stamina, of if you wanna see if he can last that long, it might need to be a thing where it’s, ‘Hey, just go out and do it, and we need to get you used to playing above 30 minutes per game,’ because they might need him to play that much. We don’t know. Nene’s coming off his injury, and he’s not young. You don’t necessarily know what you have in Tarik Black. And these super-small-ball combinations, they are something that coaches generally seem like they don’t want to go to too often. So I think that kind of makes,when you look at the non-stars on this team, maybe Clint Capela is the most important non-star on this squad. And I think you could easily make a case for that.” –Favale

Spyropoulos reckoned Capela could average somewhere around 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game, and it’s easy to envision this possibility, especially as he starts to get more minutes.

In his own words: “In the first round against the Thunder, he only played 22 minutes per game, and that was actually less than he did during the regular season. Against the Spurs he played 29 minutes per game, but again, that series he was just dominating for most of the games.”

And there’s more:

In that Thunder series he really struggled, and Nene was kind of that perfect big man off the bench. He’s physical, better hands, more able to handle guys like Steven Adams and Enes Kanter…Nene’s always gonna be there for insurance, but as you said, he’s coming off an injury; he is 34 or 35. You really can’t rely on him that much…And you don’t want to rely on Tarik Black for significant, heavy minutes of your rotation if you’re going to be as good as the Rockets hope to be. So Capela has to take that next step. He’s got to stay healthy. He’s got to play more minutes. He’s gotta get more physical, able to handle these bigger big men like Steven Adams, the Pelicans duo of Cousins and Davis.” -Spyropoulos

Contract Situation

Finally, Capela’s contract makes the situation all the more interesting. He is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie deal and will be paid approximately $2.3 million for his services. But the Rockets are currently able to sign him to an extension (until October 31st anyway), so they have a couple of options.

They can pay him now and hope he agrees to a relatively cheap contract. Or they can wait a year and let him enter restricted free agency. That would be risky, but as the crew mentioned, the market could be in the Rockets’ favor:

“We just saw Nerlens Noel sign his qualifying offer. Bigs were not getting a ton of money in the open market this year; I don’t think they’ll get a ton next year. For one—I’ve cited this report I think like a thousand times on this podcast by now—but from ESPN.com’s Tim McMahon and Bobby Marks, they said that this market correction is going to leak into next summer, which is going to hurt some of these bigs. And then just the fact that if you look at NBA depth charts right now, there are—you can count them on one hand if you can count them at all—not a lot of teams that need starting centers. So now all of a sudden the Rockets are looking at this situation, whether they sign him to an extension or let him get out into restricted free agency, they’re probably going to get him at a pretty good price. How will the Rockets value him? And what’s the big-man market going to look like? So his future with the team, in addition to what we’re going to see from him this season beside Chris Paul and James Harden is absolutely fascinating to me.” -Favale

Spyropoulos, for one, hopes the team goes the extension route:

“I’d like for them to lock him up, but of course they could also evaluate the market and say: ‘If we let him go to restricted free agency, there’s not really many teams that could throw him [an offer] out there, and we’ll match anyways.’ Unless they start negotiating and his camp says that they’ll take a discount and his camp also recognizes that the market value has significantly decreased for centers in today’s NBA, hopefully he can kind of stick around in Houston as a really big piece of their core at only 23 years old” -Spyropoulos

Either way, the Hardwood Knocks guys think the Rockets should lock Capela up long-term on a relatively cheap deal, which will be paramount for both this season and beyond.

The most likely scenario has the big man seeing an expanded role and taking yet another step up in his game and overall numbers. Contract aside, I’m expecting Capela to have a breakout fourth NBA campaign, which will only help the Rockets’ chances of true championship contention.

With a revamped roster and a rotation of Paul, Harden, Ariza, Anderson, Capela, Gordon, Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Nenê, these Rockets are one of the only teams that could even challenge the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. And while I’m nowhere near ready to say they’ll overtake the Dubs, no team is better equipped to do so.

Follow Michael on Twitter @mbrock03

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Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics via NBA MathBasketball-Reference and NBA.com

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