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Swiss, Swiss, Bish: Clint Capela Has Arrived

James Harden and Chris Paul are the engines for Houston’s success this season, but the team’s young dunk machine in the middle has quietly emerged as one of its—and maybe the league’s—most important players

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Clint Capela is breaking the algorithm for Basketball-Reference’s NBA MVP Award Tracker. The model, which intends to pinpoint who MVP voters are most likely to pick based on past results, has James Harden as the runaway favorite, with a 64.8 percent chance of winning. LeBron James is second at 21.8 percent, and Stephen Curry (6 percent), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2.8 percent), and Kevin Durant (1.9 percent) round out the top five. No surprises, really. But in seventh place, with less than a 1 percent chance of winning the award, you’ll find Capela … even though he averages a modest 14 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 25.5 minutes per game.

In an email, Mike Lynch from Basketball-Reference pointed out that Capela ranks first in defensive rating and second in offensive rating. Both factor heavily in the win shares metric, which plays a big role in the site’s MVP tracker. Team success is also a huge component of the model. Lynch also said the tracker considers a maximum of two players per team, so Chris Paul, who has played only 16 games this season, may eventually run Capela off the list. “The reality is probably that he has a zero percent chance,” Lynch said.

Indeed, but it does give some deserved recognition to the unsung hero of the league’s most high-powered offense and one of its stellar defenses. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told me last season that, other than point guard, center is “the most important piece” on his teams because of the position’s direct impact in pick-and-rolls, transition offense, and defense. Daryl Morey, Houston’s GM, also called Capela the prototypical center for their system.

While Capela may be Houston’s dream center, Houston has been an ideal environment for the fourth-year player to grow up in. Paul has basically imported Lob City to the Lone Star State. Harden assists Capela 2.7 times per game, while Paul does 1.1 times per game, per NBA.com. While DeAndre Jordan’s field goal percentage has dropped without the Point God’s presence, Capela’s has skyrocketed to a career-best (and league-high) 69.4 percent. After a big offseason that brought Paul and P.J. Tucker to Houston, there is not a moment that the 23-year-old Swiss-born center is on the floor without four 3-point shooters and at least one Hall of Fame–caliber point guard.

The Rockets run a heavy dose of pick-and-roll, so the paint is open for finishers to feast. Capela, with his bounce and length, is best suited to take advantage of it; he has 37 lob dunks so far this season, a league high. If this continues, Capela could become only the third qualifying player to shoot 70 percent over a full season. (The others? Wilt Chamberlain did it once. DeAndre Jordan did it three times, all with Paul as his point guard.) Capela scores 1.4 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy, which ranks in the same ballpark as Jordan and Rudy Gobert. Capela being such a threat on the roll opens driving lanes for Harden or Paul to attack the basket, and creates open passing windows for Harden or Paul to spot open shooters.

D’Antoni, believe it or not, also runs more than pick-and-roll, and some of the actions he’s installed create openings at the rim for Capela. Here’s a play the Rockets run frequently for Capela lobs:

It looks like the Rockets are running a double-stagger screen for the guard (usually Paul or Eric Gordon), but then the guard ends up setting a back screen to pave a runway for Capela to take off. Capela also does a good job of making himself available on the baseline for dump-off passes. Capela has been an ambidextrous finisher going back to his time as a youngster playing for Elan Chalon in France, and he uses that ability to finish creatively, which is an essential trait for bigs.

As Capela has developed in Houston, he’s also added to his natural skills by improving his body control and decision-making.

Since Capela is so capable of scoring on the drive, with one or two dribbles, or even a Euro-step, defenses are often forced to overhelp in the paint, which opens up 3-point shooters. “When I get hit with the pocket pass, I need to make the right decision,” Capela said at practice this week. “Hopefully I can finish at the rim, or find weakside shooters.”

Capela had just a 0.5 assist-to-turnover ratio as a rookie (Rockets and Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston’s G-League affiliate, combined) and has since improved to 0.8 over the past three seasons. As Jordan did with the Clippers, Capela has minimized avoidable mistakes while learning how to make reads on the roll. Capela won’t be confused with Nikola Jokic or Draymond Green as a playmaker, but he now does a good job of locating shooters while making pinpoint passes.

It’s not abnormal for über-athletes to roll and finish dunks, but Capela has filled in the rest of the puzzle. He elevated his finishing to a higher level. He made progress at passing and screening. He even has made strides as a free throw shooter — though at 59.6 percent, there’s still room for improvement. Capela is also learning how to maximize his elite physical tools on the defensive end with his communication, an integral part of any connected unit. If you listen closely to games, you might hear Capela yelling for his guards to “ice” pick-and-rolls, or to switch late in the clock. The vocal factor, in addition to his drastically improved body and understanding of angles, has taken his defense to a new level. Capela rarely commits careless fouls, or misses rotations — the latter of which was common when he was a teenager playing in France, and early on with the Rockets after Dwight Howard left.

The next step is to improve his availability. Capela missed 15 games last season with a small left fibula fracture, and has been absent for three games this season with a left heel contusion. Conditioning is also a work in progress. D’Antoni has said repeatedly the Rockets need Capela to play more than just half the game. “Somebody his age should be able to play 34 or 35 minutes,” D’Antoni said Monday after Capela had 24 points and 19 rebounds. D’Antoni is hard on Capela, but it’s only because, as he told ESPN, he thinks his 23-year-old big man could become one of the NBA’s best centers.

It’s incredible how far Capela has come in just under four years since he bombed at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland in 2014. Capela looked less NBA-ready than most, if not all, of his American high school counterparts, including Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner, and Cliff Alexander. Capela is arguably the best big man in the bunch, and has a big payday coming his way.

The Rockets and Capela had “very introductory” rookie contract extension talks prior to the season, according to multiple league sources. No deal was struck, which means he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer. The value of any contract that Capela ends up signing has been a talking point among league executives. I’ve heard salaries as low as $10 million (like Kelly Olynyk signed for during the 2017 offseason) or as high as $20 million (Capela’s agent, Darren Matsubara, helped Steven Adams sign a rookie-scale extension prior to the 2016–17 season for about $25 million a year). It’s a difficult market to get a read on since so few teams will have cap space, and any team that does need a big man might instead opt to invest in the draft, considering big men might make up half the lottery. But all it takes is one team to jack up the price. One thing seems clear, though: Capela won’t get screwed like Nerlens Noel did this past offseason; he’s simply too good to ignore.

Capela won’t receive MVP votes (unless /r/Rockets is allowed to participate), but he’s having a strong enough season to garner consideration on an All-NBA or All-Defensive team. Harden and Paul make the Rockets go, but Capela has quickly become their third-most important player.

This piece was updated with new information after publication.