Clint Capela Is Anchoring Atlanta’s Defense With Elite-Level Play

Clint Capela likely wasn’t at the top of mind for every NBA observer in advance of the 2020-21 season, and that is defensible. After all, Capela last appeared on the court for the Houston Rockets on Jan. 29, 2020 before suffering a right foot injury. Ahead of the 2020 trade deadline, the veteran center was dealt to the Atlanta Hawks as part of a massive four-team exchange. Capela was still out of commission when he arrived in Atlanta and, with the Hawks not invited to the Orlando bubble for the league’s restart, there was an “out of sight, out of mind” element for Capela. Fast-forward to late April 2021, though, and Capela is an integral piece of an up-and-coming team, and he is enjoying the best season of his seven-year career.

After coming along slowly behind Dwight Howard in Houston, Capela averaged 14.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game in his final four seasons with the Rockets. Noted for his uber-efficient scoring (64.5 percent from the floor in that sample), Capela served as an effective release valve for James Harden and company, filling a vital role but also doing so in relatively understated fashion. He was also viewed as an above-average defensive player, but Capela also wasn’t place in the rarified air that comes with conversation surrounding All-Defense teams at the league-wide level. In Atlanta, though, Capela is operating in a different stratosphere, at least through his first 52 games in a new uniform.

For starters, Capela is leading the NBA in rebounding by a comfortable margin at 14.7 rebounds per game, continuing a steady incline in that he has averaged more rebounds per game in seven consecutive seasons. The 6’10 anchor from Switzerland leads the NBA in defensive rebound percentage (34.8 percent), offensive rebound percentage (17.7 percent) and total rebound percentage (26.4 percent), almost singlehandedly transforming the Hawks from a below-average rebounding team to an above-average one. From there, Capela is tied for No. 3 in the NBA in both total blocked shots (114) and blocked shots per game (2.2), providing highly value rim protection for a group that has operated with sub-optimal defense at the point of attack this season.

Not only does Capela serve as the unquestioned centerpiece of Atlanta’s defense, but he has been a valuable piece on the opposite end of the floor. After an uneven start while he found his sea legs again, Capela lands in the top ten of the NBA in field goal percentage (60.4 percent), and he is a devastating lob threat for Trae Young and Atlanta’s other creators. He is also making small strides as a decision-maker, including a career-best turnover rate of only 8.5 percent. Capela will never be mistaken for a heliocentric offensive piece, even if the Hawks make sure to reward him with the occasional post-up, but his offensive rebounding is invaluable, and Capela attracts consistent defensive attention while scoring efficiently.

Capela’s season-long production has been tremendous but over the last month he’s been stepped up further to play the best basketball of his career in the current moment, as evidenced by some off-the-charts numbers in recent days. The big man is averaging 20.1 points per game, on 67 percent shooting, in the last seven games since April 7, and is also pulling down a robust 18.1 rebounds per contest. In zooming out a bit to the full month of April, Capela is putting up 19.9 points, 16.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, and the Hawks are 9-2 in the last 11 games with Capela on the floor.

It’s difficult to overstate just how important Caplea is to the Hawks, as his value goes well beyond his significant box-score statistics. Perhaps the best example of how dominant he’s been this season is the difference between Atlanta’s performance when he plays compared to when he doesn’t. In 1,586 minutes this season, the Hawks are outscoring their opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor. That is the top on-court net rating on Atlanta’s roster, and Capela’s presence buoys the team’s defense in allowing only 107.9 points per 100 possessions.

On the flip side, the Hawks fall off a cliff when he heads to the bench, either for in-game rest or due to a full-game absence. Atlanta has a -4.2 net rating in the 1,271 minutes with Capela off the court, and that inefficiency can be traced to a defensive rating of 113.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. Some of that on-off disparity can inevitably be tied to Atlanta operating without top-tier backup center play, with rookie Onyeka Okongwu still finding his footing (even with improved play lately) and a mash-up of other options early in the season. Still, it is night and day, both statistically and by way of the eye test, when Capela is in the middle of Atlanta’s attack compared to when he isn’t.

A deeper look at more advanced impact metrics paints a similar picture and, if anything, Capela finds himself in an even more impressive light. Per FiveThirtyEight, Capela is the No. 2 player in defensive RAPTOR, trailing only perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender Rudy Gobert, and Capela is No. 6 in overall WAR (8.1) by the same metric. In addition to his defensive impact, FiveThirtyEight installs Capela as a top-10 offensive center in RAPTOR, underlying his overall effectiveness.

It isn’t simply one catch-all metric telling that story, either. Capela is No. 2, again behind Gobert, in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, and he ranks in the top 10 in both overall RPM and estimated plus-minus (EPM) for the season. Simply put, any evidence-based recounting of Capela’s performance this season yields a tremendous defensive player, and he is also staying on the floor effectively, based in part by a foul rate that ranks in the 85th percentile.

Through 59 games, the Hawks rank only 20th in defensive rating as a team. Given that figure, it is difficult to envision Capela receiving full-fledged Defensive Player of the Year buzz, especially in a world that includes Gobert leading the team with the best record in the NBA. At the same time, Capela suffers from a similar fate that his teammate, Trae Young, faced last season in that the Hawks are simply not good enough without him to make a casual observer understand just how good he has been by examining league-wide numbers.

Capela, who will be 27 in May, seems to be in the absolute prime of his career, and after just three-quarters of one season, it is apparent that the Hawks extracted a trade-deadline steal when they landed him for the price of Evan Turner’s expiring contract and a mid-first round pick. It remains to be seen as to whether this is a new level of dominance for Capela but, with two more years left on a relatively modest contract, the Hawks have to be thrilled with the production he’s providing, and a case could be made that Capela has been their single most valuable player this season, even when acknowledging Young’s individual brilliance.

The Hawks are in a playoff race for the first time since 2016-17, and there are many reasons for that. After all, Young is a dynamic offensive engine, John Collins is a rising standout, and Atlanta spent big on Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari to pair with their evolving young core. Still, Atlanta wouldn’t be where they are without Capela to anchor their defense, and he’s earned a deeper look as one of the five most impactful defensive players in the NBA this season.