All stats as of Dec. 17.
Most people experience nightmares centered around their worst fears manifesting. For 29 NBA coaches, seeing Chris Paul or James Harden charging toward the paint, with a big anchored inside patiently awaiting a lob, haunts them.
The Houston Rockets have raced out to an NBA-best 24-4 start and their two superstar guards have deservedly received most of the praise from basketball pundits. But there’s a 6-foot-10, lanky, bouncy 23-year-old beginning to emerge from the shadows and assert himself as one of the league’s most valuable big men: Clint Capela.
His surface-level numbers are impressive (career-high averages of 13.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on a league-leading 68.7-percent shooting), but it’s the advanced statistics and fit with Paul and Harden that underscore his importance.
A number of metrics that quantify a player’s impact place Capela among the league’s top 20. He’s seventh in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (26.9), 15th in Estimated Wins Added (5.5) and 16th in Value Added (165.6). Of the 14 players who rank in the top 20 of those three categories, only Capela and Karl-Anthony Towns are yet to make an All-Star team — with Towns likely primed for multiple appearances. Additionally, of anyone in the entire NBA playing at least 25 minutes each game, Capela is seventh in Player Impact Estimate and 17th in Net Rating.
According to Basketball-Reference, per 100 possessions, the Rockets are outscoring opponents by 30 points with Capela on the floor as he sports a 128 Offensive Rating and 98 Defensive Rating — the latter of which is tops in the NBA.
There exists a happy medium between advanced statistics and the eye test in determining a player’s value. Capela backs up his complimentary metrics with stout paint protection, dogged rebounding and bouncy finishes at the rim — all characteristics that harmoniously pair with Paul and Harden, aiding Houston’s materialization as legitimate championship contenders.
Capela is an ideal frontcourt pairing with Harden and Paul. He’s been remarkably efficient in the pick and roll this season, scoring 1.315 points per possession on those sets, placing him in the league’s 85th percentile. His efficiency works wonders for Houston because it allows the team to keep Capela engaged offensively while also harnessing the strengths of its lead guards.
Harden utilizes the pick and roll 39.6 percent of the time, producing 0.826 points per possession and ranking in the 58th percentile. The Rockets’ offseason splash, Paul, employs the pick and roll even more frequently and is considerably more efficient, running one of basketball’s most archaic sets 47.6 percent of the time, eliciting 0.954 points per possession, good enough for the 81st percentile.
The Swiss big man is extremely adept at slipping pick and rolls and gunning to the hoop as either Harden or Paul drives the lane:
He sets the screen just long enough to pin Ian Clark and allow for Harden to gain an advantage, before dashing to the rim. DeMarcus Cousins is tasked with an impossible choice: press up on Harden or lay back to prevent an alley-oop — a paradox that many of the Rockets’ opponent have been trapped in this season. Ultimately, he gets caught in no-man’s land and Capela has an easy dunk.
The scenario above is a recurring one as Harden has assisted on 75 of Capela’s 160 made baskets this season. Through 27 games (Capela missed Saturday’s matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks), the fourth-year center has converted 81 dunks (tied with DeAndre Jordan for tops in the league) and 44 alley-oops. Of the 160 made baskets, only 10 have come from outside the restricted area and only one has occurred outside the paint.
With a bounding, elongated stride, Capela is able to effortlessly glide up and down the court, which serves as a tremendous boon in Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense. And when Harden — who ranks in the 70th percentile in transition points with 1.204 per possession — finds Capela in the open floor, the big man is wonderfully efficient, scoring 1.488 points per possession and ranking in the 95th percentile.
Here, Capela blocks Rudy Gobert’s shot, flips it to Harden to a spur a fast break opportunity and begins what looks like a saunter down the court. Despite starting the offensive possession mere feet from the baseline, he slips past the entire Utah Jazz defense for a dunk in transition, not even appearing to break a sweat in the process.
Another such instance:
I mean, c’mon, this is just silly. Big men aren’t supposed to move at that speed that gracefully. His feet are anchored near the endline when Harden strips Pau Gasol and he still beats everyone down the court for an easy hoop, doing so without shifting into top gear.
Aside from being a skilled pick-and-roll and transition player, Capela has also excelled as a cutter this season, scoring 1.306 points per possession (59th percentile). With six different Rockets shooting 37.1 percent or better from beyond the arc this season, Capela is utilizing the spacing Houston’s offense promotes and exploiting openings in the defenses. As an athletic, nimble and springy big man, once Capela is within reach of the hoop and has the ball, he’s proven difficult to contain. Possessing a sharp basketball IQ, Capela is finding creases inside and applying his gifted physical characteristics for easy scores.
Capela’s screen doesn’t free up Paul for an open shot due to Al-Farouq Aminu’s length, but the two stay at it. They run a simple give-and-go(-and-give) action and Capela recognizes the gravity Paul’s presence in the paint demands and slips to the opening in the defense for a layup.
With four knockdown shooters on the floor, the lane is wide open, which presents the Rockets with droves of opportunities. Capela flashes to the ball against an undersized Joe Harris, receives the ball under control and finishes.
While providing important value on offense, Capela has also proven his worth on the other end of the court, developing into a stingy rim protector and versatile defender. Unlike his predecessor Dwight Howard, Capela’s motor rarely oscillates despite limited offensive touches throughout games.
He’s tenacious on the glass, pulling down boards at close-to-league-leading rates (second in defensive rebounding percentage, third in total rebounding percentage and sixth in offensive rebounding percentage) and is relentless in his pursuit of the basketball:
Above, he snatches it from Joel Embiid’s clutches — who is 10th in defensive rebounding percentage — and wrestles it away from Robert Covington, to give Houston a new 24 and a chance to chip away at the deficit.
Capela doesn’t have position against Larry Nance Jr. but remains steadfast in his pursuit, employing his 7-foot-5 wingspan to secure the board.
And when he snags an offensive rebound and puts it back up, he’s averaging 1.275 points per possessions (75th percentile).
On the defensive glass, he finds his man, boxes out and is aggressive in hunting for the ball:
In today’s NBA, which continues its march toward positionless basketball, Capela provides added value with his defensive versatility. He’s quick enough to be a competent defender (at times) when switched onto guards in the pick and roll while also being strong and long enough to do battle against big men.
Augmenting his defensive capabilities is an increased ability to avoid fouls as he’s averaging just 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes this year, which marks the third consecutive season in which he’s cut down on that rate (5.6 in 2014-15, 4.6 in 2015-16, 4.2 in 2016-17). He goes straight up when contesting shots inside and despite his slender 240-pound frame, his inordinately long reach allows him to remain a factor in the paint even if his counterpart bulldozes him to create separation.
Capela likely won’t ever be good enough to be the lead player on a championship-caliber team. But alongside James Harden and Chris Paul, he’s found a perfect home in Houston, where his unique skillset continues to expand and prove its worth. Still only 23 and playing just a shade over 25 minutes per game, Capela should only improve with the Rockets, who’ve discovered a core that’s tailor-made for D’Antoni’s system and primed to challenge Golden State at the top. Harden and Paul are Houston’s high-powered linchpins, but Capela is the fulcrum who gives this team its championship edge.
All stats and videos via Basketball-Reference, ESPN, NBA.com, Synergy Sports and CBS Sports.