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Clint Capela has mostly struggled against traditional centers, should Houston be worried?

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Capela played well last night against Nikola Jokic, but since returning from injury, he’s struggled mightily overall defending top centers.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

In recent weeks, there’s been some apprehension amongst Rockets faithful over Clint Capela’s capability to defend traditional bigs. In particular, Jonas Valanciunas’ dominant 33-point, 15-rebound performance on March 20 and DeMarcus Cousins’ uber-efficient 27-point, 8-rebound outing on March 13 were especially disconcerting.

For many, these concerns continue a larger trend for Capela, as many key defensive metrics (DBPM, block rate, defensive rebound rate, etc.) indicate that his defensive impact has dropped off significantly from his exceptional 2017-18 campaign.

In truth, Capela has regressed slightly on the defensive end of the floor this year, due in large part to a preseason hand injury that complicated his start to the season and a mid-season thumb injury that stunted any progress he had made to that point. However, the extent of any possible regression is being overblown by these metrics, as Capela’s impact has largely been mitigated because opposing teams are scheming to intentionally pull him away from the rim to open driving lanes (something I touched on back in October).

Still, even if these metrics are inflating any regression, Capela’s issues defending traditional bigs are legitimately concerning. For the second straight season, Capela ranks in the bottom third of the league in points per possession (PPP) when defending post-ups (per Synergy Sports), and he’s performed even worse lately.

In the 17 games since Capela returned from his aforementioned thumb injury, he has matched up with a semi-traditional big on six occasions not including last night’s game (LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeAndre Ayton, Valanciunas, & Cousins 2x) and has struggled mightily. Averaged across those six outings, those centers scored a troubling 1.111 points per possession (PPP) when Capela was their primary defender inside the arc— far worse than his already-subpar season average.

Certainly, post-ups are by no means the end-all-be-all to a center’s defensive ability. Especially in this current era, where switching onto guards is arguably as important— which Capela is one of the best in the league at. But with the Rockets possibly needing to face up to four of Aldridge, Nikola Jokic, Cousins, Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic (stop snickering!) in a hypothetical title run, this simply can’t be brushed under the rug.

Now, the Rockets have other options to stifle these behemoths in Nene and some P.J. Tucker spot minutes (Kenneth Faried is in the 1st percentile for post-up defense, so playing him for defensive purposes is a non-starter). But using either of the two veterans for extended stretches is a band-aid solution more than anything.

So unfortunately, there is no clear-cut solution as of now. One answer is for Capela to give it right back on the offensive end, much like in last night’s win over the Denver Nuggets. Jokic went for 16 points, 8 boards, and 6 assists on 7-14 shooting, while Capela’s play was a key to the Houston victory, as he went for 17 points and 15 boards on 8-13 from the field, and he troubled Jokic enough that he kept the Joker from dominating. Though it is important to note that Jokic is one elite center Capela has had a lot of success matching up against, historically.

Regardless, it’s reasonable to expect Capela to continue work himself into form as the playoffs approach, and for a three point-heavy team like the Rockets, facing post-ups repeatedly puts the math in their favor over the course of an entire game anyway, so the situation is far from completely dire.

So what do you think, TDS? Are the Rockets going to have an issue matching up with traditional bigs when the postseason hits?