Clint Capela: The Dawn of A New Era

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With Dwight Howard's departure, the Rockets immediately have a huge void to fill at the center position.

While Howard's tenure with the Rockets may not be remembered fondly, he still managed to put up 16.0 PPG, 11.7 RPG, and 1.6 BPG during his time in Houston. Like him or not, those are big shoes to fill.

However, with big shoes comes big opportunity for young Switzerland-born big man Clint Capela.

Many casual fans are unfamiliar with who Clint Capela is, let alone his story. Capela was drafted to the NBA in 2014 as a 1st round pick (number 25). He spent the majority of his rookie season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers where he averaged an impressive 16.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG, and 3.0 BPG in 38 games (out of 50 game D-League schedule).

HIs performance in the D-League earned him NBA D-League Showcase First Team and All Defensive First Team honors. Capela really turned a lot of heads as he quickly made his way back to the main roster towards the end of the season and even earned quality minutes into the postseason.

2014-15 Playoffs (Per 36 minutes):


12.8 PPG / 14.4 RPG / 3.6 BPG / 48.3 FG%


This is where it really became apparent how great of a pick and roll defender Capela was. The 6'10" big man could switch on to guards in PnR situations better than most NBA big men at the age of 20. In the modern NBA, where teams are relying on switch-heavy defensive schemes more and more due to the increase in 3-PT shooting, this is an incredibly useful skill for any big man to have.

Here's a clip of Clint Capela effectively switching on to Steph Curry (Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals) in a pick-and-roll situation with Draymond Green.



You can see as Green sets the screen, Capela is mobile enough to stay with Curry throughout the entire length of the possession. This is a very rare skill for a big man to possess. To be able to move your feet quickly enough to defend the greatest off-the-dribble shooter on the planet and be able to get back in time to contest his shot is extremely difficult. It's something only Tristian Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and a select few (Capela included) have been able to do successfully on Curry the past few years.

This is what the new age of big men are going to be asked to do and Capela already possesses that skill right off the bat. As the league continues to evolve, the modern day center will be asked to be able to do two things on defense: protect the rim (what they've been doing for ages) and switch on pick-and-rolls.

This is a completely different what it was like in the 90s or even just the 2000s. At the time, the primary focus on defense for centers was to protect the rim and defend the post. The pick-and-roll was obviously used, but not as much and switching was never considered the best way to defend it effectively because it takes a very specific skillset to do so  and it never produced results. The Warriors completely changed basketball in the way that switching, when paired with athletic, lengthy, and mobile defenders, can absolutely be a viable and often times, best way to defend the pick-and-roll.

Few centers are able to do this at such an early age and the ones that are able to do so greatly impact the team's overall defense. Rudy Gobert, Nerlens Noel, Karl-Anthony Towns are just some of the centers that had this skill down at an early age so Capela's in good company.

Capela has also shown the potential to being a good to great rim-protector when given the opportunity. At first, Capela would often roam out of the paint (often from trying to do too much/over-help) and get beat on back-doors cuts as a rookie. As a sophomore, Capela became more disciplined at making rim-protection a priority and it became apparent on the court and in the advanced metrics.

Here are Clint Capela and Dwight Howard's rim-protection stats laid out side-by-side:


Rim Protection (per Nylon Calculus):


Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 6.31.22 PM

As you can see, Capela held his own and was par for par with Howard in several of the categories. The real story, however, is the categories Capela managed to best Dwight in. Capela contested a greater percentage of shots at the rim compared to Dwight, he saved the team more than a point more per 36 minutes than Howard, and even blocked slightly more shots per 100 possessions.

The overall rim-protection drop off from Dwight to Capela should be minimal, if any.

If you factor in that Capela is on the favorable side of the age curve and still picking up on NBA defensive concepts, it weighs heavily in Capela's favor as there's still plenty of room to grow. Also, Capela is more mobile than Dwight is at this stage of his career which should not be ignored. He's also taller and more athletic which leads one to believe he'll be a much better shot blocker than Dwight from here on out.



An aspect that Clint Capela really excels in is the pick and roll.

Capela has shown during his brief time with Houston that he's a willing screen setter, a hard roller, and strong finisher with great hands for different angled passes. He's in the 83rd percentile as a roll man in the pick and roll scoring 1.17 points per possession which is extremely efficient. It's better than Tyson Chandler, Al Horford, Chris Bosh, and surprisingly enough, Dwight Howard.



This is as basic of a pick and roll as you can find and the way it's executed with Harden and Capela is just textbook. Notice how Capela starts the play off by setting the screen on the left side of Harden for two reasons:

  1. Harden's left handed so it makes sense to make him go where he can do the most damage.

  2. In this particular play, there is much more open area towards the left side of the court as the play starts off on the far right of the arc.


Capela wisely opens up right as the his man (Jonas Valanciunas) shifts his focus towards protecting the left side of the basket with a driving Harden. This leaves Capela open for the easy dunk. Obviously, this isn't really anything too complicated, but it's the simple things that makes plays like this so effective against NBA defenses. DeAndre Jordan made a career limiting his offense to just this and Capela has shown he understands his role and is willing to play to his strengths.

Something as simple as being a willing, good screener is difficult to find in the NBA. This was a big part in the reason the Howard-Harden pairing never reached it's full potential. Capela understands his limitations offensively, plays to them, and seldom demands for post possessions or even a larger role in the offense in general.

Capela's also just a tremendous leaper with long arms which makes for incredibly difficult dunks.



Above is an example of his great leaping ability. This play screams athleticism as Capela's able to catch the ball from Prigioni at the free throw line and finish outside of the restricted area without a running head start.

Capela's also shown the ability to run the floor like a gazelle which makes him not only a great half-court pick and roll option, but a nice transition option as he's able to run alongside the guards on the break.



In comparison to Dwight, Capela will be more readily available for transition opportunities because of the speed discrepancy. Dwight would often be far behind plays as they finished and often preferred (and even admitted publicly) a slowed down pace. This should provide a plethora of exciting highlight plays in a MIke D'Antoni/James Harden run offense. Clint Capela basically serves as James Harden's de facto Amar'e (while understanding Capela isn't half the offensive force Stoudemire was).



And finally, we get to what has been Clint Capela's bread and butter up until this point - offensive rebounding.

Clint Capela averages 2.5 offensive rebounds per game last season (25th in the league). This is extremely impressive considering every player above him on that last averaged at least 21 minutes a game and 21/24 of them averaged at least 25 minutes a game. The Rockets offensive rebound roughly 6% more when he's off the floor then when he's off the floor which is a significant boost. These offensive rebounds lead to multiple second chance opportunities in the form of put-back dunks (which Capela is very good at), pass outs to open shooters, or resetting the play.

Someone who's made a career out of this is Tristan Thompson and the reason for this is in the modern NBA there's two things that can keep you in a playoff series. The most common one is 3-PT shooting and this showed itself when the Rockets came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Clippers. The other is offensive rebounding and this really reared it's head in the Thunder/Warrior series this year when Enes Kanter and Steven Adams made for an offensive rebounding combination that drove the Warriors nuts and nearly won them the series. It also kept the Cavaliers alive in the 2015 Finals when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love went down with injuries.

Offensive rebounding is very much a luxury in today's NBA. Clint Capela has an offensive rebounding rate of 14.1% which is just ridiculous (15th in the league - 7th among those averaging at least 15 minutes a game).



Capela, of course, also has his weaknesses. Free throw shooting is a glaring hole in his game that he needs to improve upon (37.9% from the FT line last year). He could stand to put on some weight to box out beefier opponents and defend them in the post and he still needs to get better at communicating. However, he's young and he has plenty of time to build upon these skills. In fact, he was even rumored to have put on 8-10 pounds to his thin frame back in July.



He could stand to add a jump shot, but an overall game of catching lob passes, playing pick and roll, and put-back dunks can be plenty for a solid overall offensive game for Capela if he continues to commit to it.

Here are how Capela's stats stacked up against Dwight last year (per 36 mins):


 

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 5.02.10 AM

Now obviously, Dwight is still a much better player than Clint Capela, but the difference in actual production last year wasn't noticeable. In fact, with Capela being more willing to play pick and roll with Dwight and letting Harden run the show, the chemistry and fit was much cleaner.

Clint Capela is still a very raw player, but his physical tools and the skills he's already good at (pick and roll defense, dunking, running the floor, etc..) combined with how much more he'll be playing in a starting role, makes Capela very much a candidate for the Most Improved Player Award this season.

Here are Capela's regular stats last year compared to his per 36 minute stats:

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 5.09.13 AM

Looking at strictly 2015-16, the jump in stats with an increased minute load is massive. If you also factor in the amount of more looks he'll get as a legitimate pick and roll option with Harden combined with player development, Clint Capela could be in line for a quite the season next year.

Don't get me wrong - Capela's probably won't be in the upper echelon of NBA centers immediately next year. However, with a couple years under his belt, building chemistry with Harden, and growing in Mike D'Antoni's system (who was instrumental in the development and success of Amar'e Stoudemire), the makings of a very special player are present in Clint Capela.

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