Back in 2013, the Houston Rockets signed free agent center Dwight Howard to a huge contract, and he was immediately dubbed the next great big man to dominate the Houston hardwood.
He was set to join Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming, and Dikembe Mutombo in the long and storied history of Rockets centers.
And though he came out of the gates strong for the Rockets, we quickly found out that he was no longer the player he was with the Orlando Magic. Not only that, he was a poor fit alongside James Harden both personality-wise and by his unwillingness to run the pick and roll.
His Houston career ended with a whimper after an underwhelming 2015-2016 season for all involved, and he left for the Atlanta Hawks during free agency in the offseason.
But right before Howard’s second year with the Rockets, in 2014, Houston GM Daryl Morey took a late first-round flyer on a tall, skinny kid out of Geneva, Switzerland, named Clint N’Dumba Capela. Though he was a raw 19-year-old upon initial arrival in H-Town, just four short years later, he’s now poised to do what the more experienced Howard failed to do in his time with the Rockets, and that’s take a rightful place alongside Houston’s brilliant and famed “Legacy of Bigs.”
Capela just showed off how far he’s come as player in Sunday’s thrashing of the Utah Jazz in the opening game of the Western Conference Semifinals. He thoroughly outplayed leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, holding him without a field goal until halfway through the fourth quarter and just 11 total points and 9 rebounds on the day.
Meanwhile, Capela took it to Gobert offensively, racking up 16 points and 12 boards, and he set the tone of the game early with his athleticism and physicality. He got out on the break and beat Gobert down the court for an easy bucket, and not long after that, posterized the Utah big man in one of my new all-time favorite Rockets playoff dunks.
But it wasn’t just the opening game of the Jazz series. He was equally as dominant against Karl-Anthony Towns in the first-round series against the Minnesota Timberolves. Capela held the Wolves’ young star to 15.2 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, well below KAT’s regular season averages of 21.3 points on 54.5 percent shooting. And just like with Gobert, he set the tone with KAT early, holding him to 13 combined points on 5-18 shooting in the first two games of the series.
Meanwhile, Capela himself has been playing above his regular season levels. In fact, he’s leading all playoff players in rebounds per game (13.8) and field goal percentage (64.6) and is scoring 15.8 points per game (his regular season average was 13.9). His blocks are roughly the same (1.8 playoff versus 1.9 regular season), but he’s been fantastic at protecting the rim, and just might be the playing the best overall ball of any center in the NBA this postseason.
This all comes after Capela just finished up the best regular season campaign of his career. In fact, the 23-year-old Capela’s improvements in just a few season’s time have been striking. He’s gone from scoring 2.7 points per game his rookie season, up to 7.0 the following year, then to 12.6 and finished this year with his career-high. His rebounding and shot blocking have also gone up every year, along with his field goal percentage.
But it’s not just the box score that’s improved, all facets of his game have. He’s added a nifty euro-step move to the bucket this season, something he’s been practicing with hundreds of repetition on his off days.
And he’s also vastly improved his free throw shooting, getting in hundreds of repetitions of those daily with former Rocket John Lucas. He shot 56 percent this season, and though he’s down to around 50 percent from the line in the postseason, he’s no longer a complete embarrassment from the charity stripe. Remember, he shot just 17 and 38 percent in his first two seasons from the line.
By all accounts, Capela is a hard worker, and his importance to what the Rockets do both offensively and defensively cannot be overstated. His willingness to sprint the floor and run multiple pick-and-rolls per possession to complement Chris Paul and James Harden is in stark contrast to the Dwight Howard years.
Capela ran as the roll man in Houston’s offense 288 times in 74 games this season, scoring 1.34 points per possession off the play. In Howard’s final season in Rockets red, he ran as the roll man just 92 times in 71 games. He scored 1.1 points per possession. It was an effective play for both, but only one of them was willing to do it for long.
Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni certainly recognizes the young big man’s worth, telling ESPN in November 2017:
“To me, it’s just a matter of time. I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t become, if not the best center in the league, one of the best. I’ll be shocked ... When you say what the modern center should look like, it’ll have his picture there.”
Houston’s top superstar James Harden agrees with D’Antoni’s assessment, and told ESPN earlier this season:
“He was just kind of thrown into the fire once Dwight left, but he took it and he ran with it. He’s listened, he’s worked hard every single day in the weight room, and he just got better. Defensively, he got better. Offensively, he’s so mobile and skilled. His touch around the rim has got better. He continues to work. He’s over there working on his free throws as we speak. He won’t stop.”
It’s that type of work ethic that’s made him invaluable to the Rockets this season, which brings us to the elephant in the room. Capela is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and his play has earned him a massive bump from the $2.3 million he’s currently making. With his youth and his rapidly improving play, there’s certain to be a market for his services, even with the Rockets’ ability to match any offers he receives.
What’s working in Houston’s favor is that most team’s have more precarious cap situations than just a year or two ago, when he could have earned a max offer with the type of play he’s exhibiting now. But there are still a few teams out there who could go hunting for a young stud center in the offseason.
Brook Lopez and his $22 million salary will be coming off of the books for the Los Angeles Lakers this summer, and the Los Angeles Clippers will have some room if DeAndre Jordan decides to not exercise his player option, which will free up $22 million for them as well.
Enes Kanter also has a player option for the New York Knicks, but should he not return, $18 million will be coming off of their books also. The Dallas Mavericks have shown a willingness to spend in the past and to also put their cross-state rival in a bad spot, so they can’t be discounted either.
But the good news is that the Rockets seem willing and able to spend on Capela, even if it means paying the luxury tax. New Houston owner Tillman Fretitta has said on multiple occasions that he’s willing to pay extra for a winner, and Rockets GM Daryl Morey has made it well-known that they want Capela in H-Town as long as possible, telling ESPN:
“We’ll have him here as long as he’ll have us. He couldn’t price himself out.”
After the opening game of the Minnesota series, in which Capela went for 24 points and 12 boards, while holding Towns to just 8 points on 3-9 shooting, D’Antoni said this in his post-game press conference:
“He’s definitely undervalued. He won’t be this summer when he gets paid, but right now he is. People kind of sleep on him a bit. He’s one of the better centers in the league.”
So it seems that just about everyone that matters know just how important Capela is to the Rockets’ success, and they also know he’s about to get paid large somewhere. For the sake of the team, all of us fans, and to continue the famed Houston “Legacy of Bigs,” let’s hope that somewhere is Houston.