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How Valuable is Clint Capela to the Rockets?

Troy Taormina - USA TODAY Sports

Despite Clint Capela inking a five-year deal worth $90 million in the summer of 2018 to stay with the Houston Rockets, there have been constant trade rumors swirling around his name. To add to the speculation, the former first-round pick was a liability on both ends of the court against the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals. General manager Daryl Morey has made it known time and time again that Houston’s main goal was to dethrone the vaunted Warriors.

The Rockets were never able to get over the hump, but the departures of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala (along with the injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry) have taken the Warriors out of contention this season. There is parity once again in the NBA, and the door is wide open for the Houston Rockets to make their first NBA Finals appearance since 1995.

It won’t be easy; the Los Angeles Lakers were able to bring in Anthony Davis to play along with LeBron James, and the Los Angeles Clippers made a seismic splash in free agency signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George. This all goes without even mentioning the fact that Denver, Utah, and Dallas all look like teams that can make things interesting come playoff time.

However, there is not a perennial juggernaut in the Western Conference like years past.

Critics will piggyback off of Russell Westbrook’s lackluster shooting numbers, but the statistics do not tell the full story. The Beard/Brodie marriage is working a lot quicker than even I expected, and although it may not be a perfect fit, the two have shown that they can play together at a very high level.

The problem with Houston is not necessarily with their stars, but instead their supporting cast. The team relies on quality performances from the likes of Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Danuel House Jr, Austin Rivers, and Ben McLemore. But none of those role players are more important than Clint Capela.

The 25-year-old big man is averaging 14.5 PPG on 63.8% field-goal shooting (fifth best in the league); despite those numbers being down from last season, Capela has shown a willingness to retool his offensive skillset. Instead of being just a rim-runner who specializes in the pick-and-roll, he has displayed some valuable unpredictability around the basket, busting out post moves with visibly improved footwork and touch.

The league’s style of play may not be too kind to big men, but Capela has shown that he is an outlier. Whether it be on pick-and-rolls or feeding off of drives, the Swiss native’s chemistry on the court with Westbrook and James Harden cannot be underestimated in the grand scheme of head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. Even when he gets called upon to score the ball down low on the block, Capela rarely stops the flow of the ball.

Switchability will almost always be a problem for big men in today’s NBA, but Capela is serviceable in that regard. Golden State exposed that weakness and his lack of aggression as a rim protector and rebounder in last year’s playoffs. Thus far in the 2019-20 campaign, Capela ranks second in offensive (4.16) and total rebounds per game (14.4), and 10th in blocks per game (1.8). With Houston’s approach heavily dominated by offense, Capela is relied upon to be a defensive anchor down low.

Increased urgency and aggression does not show up in the box score, but it has directly correlated to overall improvement for Capela. Against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 3rd, he emphatically outdueled Joel Embiid, posting a stat line of 30 points and 14 rebounds. One game samples do not generally matter a whole lot, but this performance epitomizes the sharper, dynamic mindsight Capela has embodied this season.

Is Capela untouchable in terms of the trade market? I don’t think so; the right return could persuade Houston to pull the trigger. However, he is instrumental to the Rockets’ success; his improvement arc (when paired with his tantalizing ceiling) is extremely encouraging for a young centre in the modern NBA.

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