Clint Capela: Houston Rockets’ X – Factor

— December 3rd 2017

As the Houston Rockets continue to lead the Western Conference Clint Capela is emerging as the teams X-Factor

By Preston Dubey

In his third season as a full-time starter after replacing Dwight Howard, Clint Capela is having a breakout year. The 23 year-old Swiss big man is in his fourth year in the league, all with the Rockets, and has improved in virtually every statistic possible each season. His emergence this season as one of the top defensive centers in the NBA has been a huge reason for Houston’s early success. Don’t just take my word for it, the numbers speak for themselves.

A Rare Breed of Big in the Modern NBA

Capela is averaging career highs across the board, in both traditional and advanced statistics. He’s averaging 13.7 points per game, on league-leading 67 percent from the field. Capela attempts about nine field goals a game. As a team, Houston averages 84 field goal attempts per game, over half of which are three point shotss. Capela has never made a three pointer in his NBA career. Of Houston’s field goal attempts from inside the arc, roughly 20-25 percent of them go to Capela.

As a rookie, Capela shot historically poor from the free throw line, an abysmal 17.4 percent. He only attempted 23 free throws in 12 games; and he made four of those free throws. His first year as a starter he more-than-doubled this to 38 percent, and last year he shot 53 percent. This season Capela is on pace to attempt more free throws and is shooting 64.5 percent at the stripe, which is just on the low end of “acceptable” for NBA bigs. But, he has shown consistent improvement, who’s to say what his ceiling in this area might be.

In the era of unicorns, Capela is proving that an old-school big can still be successful in today’s NBA. He runs the floor. He screens, and slips and scores. He sets the tone defensively, with rebounds and blocks, but can also switch onto guards and contest shots. He does so many of the little things that Houston’s uniquely skilled team needs to win. He is the perfect big man for both James Harden and Mike D’Antoni to execute this system.

Keeping Up With The Rockets’ Pace

Capela does, however, need to continue to improve his conditioning to be able to play longer in games. He’s averaging 26 minutes per game this season, up from 23 last year, and 19 the season before that. This may be more of a minutes management tactic by Mike D’Antoni than just an issue of fatigue for Capela.

Houston’s offense is incredibly fast paced, up and down the floor. Capela’s role is designed for him to be going rim to rim every change of possession, and then working out from there. This would be tiring for any big man. The Rockets also have a reliable back-up with Nene, who is more than capable of handling his own for 20 or so minutes a night off the bench. Perhaps by keeping Capela’s minutes low, they are saving him for a longer and more successful season.

There might be some logic to this, and there are some stats to suggest benefits of this. Houston has played three sets of back-to-back games so far this season. On the second night of these, Capela has had two of his best games. On October 18th, the day after knocking off Golden State on opening night, Capela put up 22 points and 17 rebounds on 10 of 12 from the field.

In a November 12th game at Indiana, coming off a 15 point revenge win over a Memphis team that had beaten them twice, Houston trounced the Pacers by 23 points. Buoyed by Harden’s 26 points, 15 assists and Capela’s 20 points, 17 rebounds – 16 of which were defensive. Capela is averaging 15.3 rebounds per game on the second night of back-to-backs. In those three games he’s grabbed an impressive 46 percent of all defensive rebounds while on the floor. He’s also played 28, 31, and 34 minutes in those three games.

A Perfect Fit

Being in his second season playing in Mike D’Antoni’s system, Capela has looked very comfortable in his role. As highlighted above, there aren’t a lot of designed situations for Capela to get shots. But he knows how to get them, and how to make them when he does.

Whether it’s by running the floor in transition:

Or within one of the limitless screening situations built into Houston’s offense:

He also knows how to position himself to be the beneficiary of Harden’s iso drives:

Notice how in that play, Steph Curry thought about diving to take away the pass to Capela. But knew that in doing so he would be giving a wide open three to Chris Paul. With Harden’s skill set and Houston’s offensive actions, this team is nearly impossible to guard.

Capela has also fit right in alongside Chris Paul, who is quite used to throwing lobs and dropping dimes for dunks:

Why Capela Can Be Houston’s X-Factor

The Rockets have not been coy about their strategy in assembling this team. They want to beat the Warriors. I mean, everybody in the league wants to beat the Warriors; but in reality, very few even have a chance. LeBron has shown us what he can do, single-handedly, in 2016. But even in the loaded Western Conference, Golden State has faced little resistance since they began this run.

Houston’s M.O. is to outshoot the other team, every night. They have made 20+ three point shots, four times this season. No other team has done that once, yet. But while the Rockets might be able to score enough to compete with Golden State, they still need to be able to execute defensively to have a chance. Capela’s ability to protect the rim, switch on screens, and rebound is vital to their improved defense.

Capela also presents somewhat of a matchup problem for the Warriors. His athleticism allows him to easily outrun Zaza Pachulia, both in transition and in the halfcourt. And his ability to defend on the perimeter allows him to remain on the floor when Golden State goes small. The Houston Rockets are legitimate contenders to the Warriors this year, and Clint Capela is a big reason why.

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