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With Clint Capela’s Injury, James Harden Has Officially Become Atlas

Houston’s center is out for at least a month, joining costar Chris Paul on the sideline. The Beard is carrying the entire franchise on his shoulders in this playoff push. Can he hold up?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

James Harden’s already tremendous burden just got heavier. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday that Rockets center Clint Capela will miss four to six weeks with a thumb injury sustained in the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the Orlando Magic. An MRI showed ligament damage in Capela’s thumb.

This is a monumental blow for Houston, which is already depleted by injuries and devoid of the depth they showcased last season. The leap Capela has taken and carried through this season has been rightfully overshadowed by Harden’s Herculean efforts, but there’s little doubt that he has been the second-best player on a largely Chris Paul–less Rockets team.

The spry, 6-foot-10 center is averaging seven more minutes per game this season, and he’s made the most of the uptick. He’s averaging 17.6 points (about four more than last season) and 12.6 rebounds (about two more than last season), with a 64.2 true-shooting percentage. Capela’s absence will most clearly be felt on defense, where the team is down their one and only true rim protector, but he added an underrated element to their offense. Capela is no dead-eye shooter, but he is the perfect frontcourt partner to counter Harden’s dalliances on the perimeter, the archetypal rim-running complement to the Beard’s gravitational pull. How many times have we seen them combine for an almost comically easy drive and alley-oop? Because of Harden’s frequent solo freestyling, the Rockets have one of the league’s worst assist rates, but with Capela on the floor, their percentage rises closer to league average. He is an elite lob target, with great hands and an almost unlimited catch radius.

Paul may be the Rockets’ biggest star next to Harden, but with him out, Capela has been key in helping Harden get Houston wins in 13 of their last 17 games after starting the season 11-14. He’s been that important as the team’s leading rebounder and best non-Harden scorer. Paul, meanwhile, is still sidelined with a hamstring injury, and best-case estimates put him roughly two weeks away from returning. Eric Gordon is day-to-day with a knee contusion and has been since December 29. Now Capela will likely be out through the All-Star break. How will Houston stay afloat?

It’s hard to overstate how thin the Rockets’ depth is. With Capela healthy, they still were having to divert minutes to a rookie (Gary Clark), a former G Leaguer (Danuel House), and a cluster of other fringe role players like Gerald Green, James Ennis, and Marquese Chriss. Austin Rivers has been a godsend for this team, which speaks volumes. Daryl Morey and the Rockets are going to have to dig even deeper now. They have already recalled Isaiah Hartenstein from their G League affiliate, but he was less than inspiring in the spot minutes he played earlier this season. Regardless, the Rockets will need him, a 36-year-old Nene (!), and the ever-disappointing Chriss to eat up minutes in the frontcourt. This is less than ideal for a team with title aspirations.

Morey has already broadcasted to the league that the Rockets will be buyers at the trade deadline, but they might not be able to wait that long. The Capela injury news increases the pressure. Houston, though, really only has the contracts they landed in the Ryan Anderson trade and future picks to work with—and they have already shown they are willing to part with as many as four picks for an upgrade. But that kind of haul requires a worthy star on the market, and the pickings appear to be slim for buyers. Most teams are still within striking distance of a playoff spot, which makes them either buyers themselves or sellers blinded by their first-half record. Time is of the essence for Houston. This upcoming stretch without Capela and Paul may determine their season. Could they get involved with the Hawks and try to deal for Dewayne Dedmon and Kent Bazemore to shore up their depth? Atlanta is one of the few teams self-aware enough to know they’re going nowhere this season, but they might want to get back another young player in a deal, not just picks.

So this all comes back to Harden; hope hinges on him. On Sunday, he scored 38 points despite missing 16 of his 17 3s. It was his 16th straight game with at least 30 points. But Houston lost to Orlando and is now tied for the 5-seed with the Clippers, and just two games from being out of the top eight. That’s a razor-thin margin, and a dangerous one for a team without the firepower to stay above the line.

This is one of the perils of going all in as the Rockets have done. Injuries are unlucky, but they happen. If there is any saving grace it’s that Harden himself has remained healthy—just ask the Lakers how losing a superstar is going. Now, the Rockets have no choice but to scramble, to try to plug the leaks on the boat as well as they can, to hope that Harden doesn’t crack under the weight. Should he keep them level under these circumstances, it will be impossible to deny him his second straight MVP.