Kevin Durant didn’t mince his words when he responded to Clint Capela saying the Rockets are better than the Warriors this season.
“You hear it from guys like Capela,” Durant said. “Usually he’s catching the ball and laying it up from [Chris Paul] or James Harden. His job is not as hard … Capela, catch and dunk every night. It’s pretty easy for him.”
There is a lot of truth to that. According to NBA.com, Capela has been assisted on 80.9 percent of his made shots this season. The only starting centers who rely more on their teammates to create scoring opportunities for them are Zaza Pachulia, Dewayne Dedmon, Dirk Nowitzki and Bismack Biyombo. Furthermore, Capela does owe a lot of his success to Paul and Harden. They have combined to set him up for 185 baskets through 52 games, an incredibly high number considering Capela has been assisted on a total of 258 baskets so far this season.
Throw in the fact that Capela currently leads the way in dunks, and Durant is right in saying that his job isn’t as hard as other players around the league. On a roster featuring Paul, Harden and some of the best shooters in the NBA, the Rockets don’t need Capela to do much more than set hard screens, roll to the basket and make himself a target at the rim, which comes naturally to most centers standing at 7′ with a 7’4 wingspan.
Putting it that simply, however, misses the point.
For Paul and Harden to be at their best, they need the right players surrounding them. The likes of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza get a lot of attention because of the spacing they provide as 3-point shooters, but Capela has quietly developed into the perfect complement to them at the center position.
Whereas many of the league’s starting centers still score a large amount of their points in the post, Capela generates a tiny portion of his offense with his back to the basket. He instead does almost all of his damage in pick-and-rolls (34.5 percent frequency), on cuts (24.3 percent frequency) and off of putbacks (13.2 percent frequency) — three play types that make Capela dependent on the playmaking abilities of his teammates to score.
Capela is among the best at scoring in those situations, too. He ranks in the 88.1 percentile with 1.35 points per possession as the roll man, the 61.2 percentile with 1.33 points per possession on cuts and the 66.1 percentile with 1.18 points per possession on putbacks. For two players who score as frequently as Paul and Harden do out of the pick-and-roll and in isolation, pairing them with an athletic center who doesn’t need post touches, finishes 68.9 percent of his shots in the restricted area and creates second chance opportunities for himself and his teammates in volume greatly simplifies the reads they have to make in halfcourt settings.
It basically boils down to shooting when they are open, kicking it out to one of three shooters when the defense collapses on their drive or lobbing the ball to the rim for Capela when they choose to stay home on those shooters. The Rockets complicate matters further for the defense by parking three shooters on one side of the court while Paul or Harden run a pick-and-roll with Capela on the other side of the court, like this:
It might not look like it, but those plays do require Capela to read the defense at a high level, beginning with how he sets the screen and extending to how he rolls to the basket. For example, Capela will slip the screen and sprint to the basket if the defense tries to prevent Paul or Harden from turning the corner by having Capela’s defender meet them on the other side of the screen.
If they’re less aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage, Capela will force his defender to make a tough decision by setting a hard screen and pinning Paul or Harden’s defender on his back before rolling to the hoop. And if they decide to double Paul or Harden at the point of attack, Capela will make the defense choose between collapsing to prevent a layup or hugging the perimeter to prevent a 3-pointer by slowly making his way to the basket.
Either way, whether it leads to a pull-up for Paul or Harden, a dunk for Capela or a wide open 3-pointer for one of Houston’s many shooters, it almost always leads to high percentage looks for the Rockets when he rolls to the basket. (Based on those options, it should come as no surprise that there’s almost a 50-50 split between the amount of 2-pointers and 3-pointers the Rockets attempt when Capela is on the court).
Those same principles apply to the cuts Capela makes when his defender helps off of him.
It’s something that happens often due to the frequency with which Paul and Harden get into the paint and how easily they exploit mismatches in isolation. Those possessions make up 29.6 percent of Paul’s scoring and 32.7 percent of Harden’s scoring this season, and they both rank at the top of the league in isolation efficiency. Whenever one of them gets a favorable matchup in the halfcourt, the Rockets will slow everything down and give them the space they need to go to work in their sweet spots.
Just watch what happens on this possession.
Dwight Powell thinks he’s in the clear because Capela makes it seem as though he’s getting ready to set a down screen on Luc Mbah a Moute in the opposite corner. But as soon as Powell commits to doubling Harden, who is being guarded in the post by Yogi Ferrell, Capela quickly changes course and makes a strong cut to the basket, where he scores over the smaller Harrison Barnes with ease. There are a number of players who have the same physical tools as Capela, and yet very few of them can match his speed, agility and soft touch around the basket.
When Capela doesn’t receive the ball on those rolls and cuts, he uses them as opportunities to position himself as close to the basket as possible in case one of his teammates misses. With an offensive rebounding rate of 13.3 percent this season, Capela ranks ninth in the amount of available offensive rebounds he grabs when he’s on the floor for the Rockets. If his defender leaves him to double the ball handler or chase after a block, Capela knows exactly how to take advantage.
The kicker is Capela can’t space the floor like some of the other centers currently in the league — NBA.com has credited him with attempting only 11 shots from midrange this entire season — but it doesn’t actually limit the Rockets on offense because he’s always surrounded by at least one Hall of Fame point guard and three 3-point shooters. It gives him free reign of the paint and allows him to focus entirely on playing to his strengths while he continues to improve other parts of his game, such as his passing on the short roll and his shooting at the free throw line.
So does that mean Capela’s job isn’t hard? Since we’re only focusing on the contributions he makes offensively — Capela has become a solid rim protector and the type of center who can hold his own against guards on switches — sort of. He is a dunking machine and creates very little offense by himself. In a league loaded with 7-footers and incredible athletes, there are many players who could, in theory, make a similar impact in Capela’s role.
In reality, though, there aren’t many athletic 7-footers who would be as committed to their role as Capela is. Paul recently said Capela is the “backbone of the team” because of how much his rolls and rim protection contribute to their success on both ends of the court.
It makes Capela a perfect fit for the Rockets and the Rockets a perfect fit for Capela. It also makes him a potential X-factor in a playoff series between the Rockets and Warriors. Although he doesn’t carry the same burden Paul and Harden do, their historic offense isn’t quite as dominant when he’s on the bench.