It's a sign of how bleak the Rockets' season was that many Rockets fans were clamoring to see more of Clint Capela instead of Dwight Howard down the stretch, and Capela wasn't exactly a world-beater. But he proved that he is going to be a key piece of this team going forward.
Last year, Capela's star turn in the playoffs and killer per-minute numbers prompted us to declare him as the Rockets' preseason breakout player. It was an easy call, really. The kid looked fantastic, was capable of dominating above the rim on both ends and had a great work ethic.
And he did improve this year, but not by the lengths we hoped. He blocked fewer shots (down from 3.6 per 36 minutes to 2.3) shot worse than 40% from the free throw line and rebounded much less (from 10.4 rebounds per 36 to 7.3). He scored better, turned it over less (somehow) and passed the ball much better. More importantly, his playing time jumped from 90 total regular season minutes to more than 1,400, and continued to be a helpful NBA player (4.4 win shares).
Capela has tons of talent. He's a great leaper and second leaper. He has awesome timing for blocking shots, and he has quick hands on defense (1.4 steals per 36 minutes). There's so much raw material there. And it was buried behind Dwight Howard for much of the season. Although J.B. Bickerstaff abandoned it after early in the season, lineups with Clint Capela and Dwight Howard outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions.
That one stat may be an example of the great tragedy of Capela's season: Bickerstaff had no idea how to use him. Capela was a positive force for the Rockets. In 39 wins, he played 800 minutes. In 38 losses, he played 672 minutes. Pre-All-Star break, he played 20.8 minutes a game, and looked good doing it.
Down the stretch, as Bickerstaff fiddled constantly with lineups, alternating minutes among Michael Beasley, Josh Smith, Donatas Motiejunas and the Swiss Roll, the Rockets found no rhythm. After the All-Star break, he played in just 24 games at 15 minutes per. Every time he came in the game, it seemed the team played with more energy and vigor. He didn't come into the game nearly enough.
But he's just not perfect. He's not close. When teams started to intentionally foul Dwight, Bickerstaff couldn't put in his backup center. Capela is way, way worse than Howard at the line.
Free agency will be fascinating for the Swiss Roll. The Rockets will be going after big men, and all of Donuts, Terrence Jones, Josh Smith and Michael Beasley might not be back.
My guess is Beasley is back, as is D-Mo (but some close to the team don't think Motiejunas will return). But the Rockets will likely go after some free agent big men. They also could strike out, and you could be looking at the starting center for the 2016-2017 Rockets. I don't think that would be such a bad thing, but Capela has a lot to learn.