The Houston Rockets have been the best team during the 2017-18 NBA regular season. Deservedly, Chris Paul and James Harden get most of the credit. It’s natural to ascribe that success to the artistry of Harden, who seems destined to finally claim his first MVP this summer, and the tact of Paul, forever underappreciated, perennially dominant.
Overlooked, then, are the contributions of Clint Capela. This is not to say that Capela is even remotely as important to Houston as the team’s duo of Hall-of-Fame point guards, but Capela is a two-way force. Yes, a two-way force.
By Basketball-Reference’s offensive rating (calculations differ slightly from site to site), the Houston Rockets currently have the greatest offense of all time, edging out the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers by a hair.
The Rockets’ shot-blocking, rebound-eating, rim-pounding center has been central to that historic success.
Houston relies heavily on the pick-and-roll, and in Capela, it has one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the league. Capela scores 1.36 points per possession as a roll man, which in and of itself is ludicrous. But consider Capela’s efficiency within the context of his volume, and you’re dumbfounded.
Capela’s finished the sixth-most possessions in the NBA as a roll man with 234. Of the five players who’ve finished more possessions as a roll man than Capela, Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns has produced the most points per possession at 1.12. The intersection of efficiency and volume at which Capela operates is unparalleled.
What’s truly staggering, though, is that he might be even more useful as a roll man when he’s not finishing the possession. This is where our favorite NBA buzzword comes into play: gravity.
Capela has it in spades:
Capela sets a screen for Paul, who darts toward the baseline with his defender, Kyrie Irving, in pursuit. Aron Baynes, Capela’s defender, must drop back to contain Paul. As Capela rolls to the rim, Al Horford must help off his assignment, PJ Tucker, to prevent Capela and his 1.36 points per possession as a roll man from victimizing the Celtics.
Paul is one of the best passers the game has ever seen; he can be counted upon to find the open man. A sharp bounce pass to Tucker results in an open look from three. All thanks to Capela pulling Horford into the paint.
Now, you might be thinking, even if he’s open, the Celtics will live with Tucker, a 36 percent shooter from deep, launching from above the break. I’ll concede that with Capela, Harden, Paul, and Trevor Ariza on the floor, that’s not the worst possible outcome, but consider this: the Celtics defended that relatively well. Sure, Tucker was open, but Horford provided some semblance of a contest and the Rockets’ more intimidating firepower remained checked.
When the Celtics failed to execute quite as well, the Rockets ate:
The Celtics ICE the Paul-Capela side pick-and-roll with Greg Monroe and Terry Rozier, so Marcus Morris must leave Tucker in the weak side corner to help on Capela. As Monroe and Rozier start to trap Paul, Monroe neglects to cut off the passing lane along the baseline. Paul delivers a strike to Tucker, who, with the benefit of the shorter distance from the corner and miles of space, cans the triple. Tucker isn’t spoon-fed three points without Capela pulling Morris away.
Harden, of course, gets in on the fun, too:
When Horford and Rozier trap Harden, Jayson Tatum helps off Tucker (again) in the weak side corner. The Celtics force Harden to throw a difficult skip pass over the defense to Tucker, who quickly whips it to Eric Gordon. Had Gordon not bobbled the pass, he would have had a clean look, a scary proposition given that he shot 7-for-11 on threes during that game. Once again, Capela’s gravity is instrumental in creating (what should’ve been) an open look.
Certainly, playing alongside two of the seven or eight best basketball players on the planet, who happen to be two of the five (or so) best passers on the planet, benefits Clint Capela immensely. Very few lead guards have the requisite vision and skill to always find the open man, and the Rockets have two of those guys. I don’t want to downplay how important that is.
With that said, Capela gets his teammates open. Yes, Paul and Harden find the open man, but he isn’t open in the first place without Capela. We shouldn’t downplay how important that is.
Capela is a fascinating player, a dominant role player, doing his best work in the shadows. His blocks, his rebounds, his dunks are easy to see, but his greatest contributions to the Rockets, to the best offense in NBA history, are largely invisible.