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The Rockets Are Pushing the Center Position to Its Breaking Point

Houston is reportedly shopping Clint Capela ahead of the trade deadline, without a clear replacement. Is Mike D’Antoni ready to go small ball full time? And if so, what does that mean for the value of the 5-man across the league?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Eighteen months ago, the Rockets wanted Clint Capela to stick around badly enough that they shelled out $90 million to make him their man in the middle for the next half-decade. Now, though, it sounds like the powers that be in Houston might be experiencing some buyer’s remorse—or, perhaps, thinking they’ve found a better way of doing things.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday that the Rockets are “actively discussing several trade scenarios” with “multiple Eastern Conference teams” involving the 6-foot-10 Swiss national. Houston, per Woj, is hoping to flip the balance of Capela’s contract—he makes $14.9 million this season, and is owed $51.3 million over the next three—for more movable pieces that might help them “acquire an impact wing player” and a replacement center before Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported last week that the Hawks were interested in Capela; on Monday, he added the Kings as a team with whom the Rockets have discussed trade packages involving the 25-year-old. Woj added the Celtics as a team of interest later Monday, which suggests either that there’s a hot market for Capela’s services … or that Houston really wants us to think there is. (One thing to keep an eye on: Capela has missed three of the Rockets’ last four games with a right heel injury, one that Kelly Iko of The Athletic reports “doesn’t sound like is a day-to-day situation,” and there’s “a growing sense internally [that] he could be out for a while, at least until after the All-Star break.”)

You’d be forgiven for thinking it seems pretty weird that the Rockets would be looking to get rid of their starting center. Houston has won five of its last seven and enters Monday’s play at 31-18, in fifth place in the West and just a game behind Utah for the no. 4 spot. The Rockets rank fourth in points scored per possession and a middling 15th in points allowed per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass. They’re on pace for 52 wins, with some projection systems giving them at least a puncher’s chance of making it out of the West. So why trade one of your most important players?

Part of the answer might come from sheer necessity: The Rockets have been good but not great, and are thus not immune to a shake-up, and since Houston won’t trade Harden or Westbrook, and can’t trade Eric Gordon after signing him to a contract extension last summer, Capela is the one who winds up on the block. (That moving his sizable contract might help owner Tilman Fertitta avoid a luxury tax payment … well, that might just be a bonus.)

Another part, though, might be that Houston isn’t positive that Capela is one of their most important players anymore—or, at least, not one they can’t improve on with a floor-spacing, perimeter-defending wing better equipped to do battle with the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, or Luka Doncic in a playoff series.

It kind of makes sense. A couple of seasons ago, Capela was the screen-setting hub of the Rockets’ spread pick-and-roll attack; more than a quarter of Houston’s offensive possessions were finished by either a pick-and-roll ball handler or roll man. He helped clear driving lanes for James Harden and Chris Paul, kept help defenders honest by rumbling through the paint, and presented a constant threat to rise up above the defense and throw down a lob if left unattended. But then Harden and Paul (but chiefly Harden) started operating in isolation to a level never seen before.

As the Rockets offense became more predicated on floor spacing and one-on-one play, it became less oriented around the two-man game. Twenty-one percent of their possessions were finished by a pick-and-roll participant last season, and that’s down to 15.5 percent this season, with Houston ranking last in the league in percentage of plays finished by pick-and-roll ball handlers and roll men. As the Rockets have moved away from his bread-and-butter play, Capela’s production on it has waned, too: He’s gone from the 91st percentile in points scored per pick-and-roll possession finished two seasons ago, to the 65th percentile last season, to the 50th percentile this season.

If you’re not a pick-and-roll-heavy team anymore, maybe having a nonshooting pick-and-roll center, especially one who’s not a no-doubt-about-it elite finisher in that role, just isn’t as valuable as it used to be. The shift from Paul to Russell Westbrook—from an excellent 3-point shooter whom defenses had to respect at the arc to an awful one whom defenses often sag far off of—has made things a bit cramped in Houston’s offense: The Rockets score 4.5 fewer points-per-100 when Capela and Westbrook share the floor this season than they did when Capela and Paul did last season.

The pieces don’t fit together as neatly as they used to … or, at least, the way they used to. Capela’s counting stat line looks fine: a shade under 14 points in 33 minutes per game on 63 percent shooting. But Houston’s offense on the whole has been merely mediocre in his minutes, scoring 110.3 points-per-100, on pace with the 17th-ranked Pistons. When he’s off the court? The Rockets have absolutely scorched opponents to the tune of 117.3 points-per-100—a mark that would top the league-leading Mavericks for the NBA’s most potent offense.

It’s not just a Capela thing, either. Even during the CP3 era, Houston’s most explosive groups tended to be the so-called “Tuckwagon” lineups, with PJ Tucker as a small-ball 5 flanked by shooters and playmakers. That trend has continued this season: In more than 1,200 possessions of small ball—Tucker at center, without Capela, Tyson Chandler, or Isaiah Hartenstein in the mix—Houston has scored a monstrous 118.6 points-per-100. When in doubt, bet on a Mike D’Antoni team to get smaller as the season and postseason go on, and to try to maximize spacing and offensive firepower at all costs. Maybe getting rid of the center midway through the season instead of midway through a playoff series is just a way for Houston to get ahead of the curve. (And maybe, with Tucker perpetually spreading the floor from the corners, and Westbrook now down to only a couple of 3-point attempts per game during his excellent post-Christmas run, this is the start of Russ finally becoming something more like the super-small-ball Draymond Green of Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks’s dreams.)

The big question is how such a Lilliputian lineup will fare on the defensive end—whether courting matchups like Harden on Derrick Favors, Westbrook on Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber, or Thabo Sefolosha on Rudy Gobert is sustainable over a lot of games and minutes, let alone during a playoff series. Houston has been stingier defensively in Capela’s minutes, allowing 108.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and 111.4 points-per-100 when he sits, which is roughly the difference between having a top-10 defense and a bottom-10 unit. Since Capela went out with a heel injury four games ago, leading D’Antoni to flip the switch on his super-small-ball groupings, Houston has rebounded just 69.1 percent of opponents’ misses, a defensive rebounding rate that would rank dead last in the league over the full season, and has given up 14.5 second-chance points per game, which would rank second worst.

They’ve won three of those four, though—with the only loss coming against Portland, a game Capela started, and in which the Rockets were outscored by 15 points in his 17 minutes. A Houston team that is, as ever, predicated more on scoring baskets than preventing them might prefer to win games this way, anyway. One wonders whether what Iko reported as “a collective coaching decision” to rest Capela “until he fully recovers” is actually something more like, “Let’s keep doing things this way. It seems to be working out OK.”

“They better beat us up inside pretty well before we have to change,” D’Antoni said. “We won’t blink too quick.”

It remains to be seen whether the same is true of general manager Daryl Morey in the hours between now and Thursday’s deadline. Capela’s future, the state of the center market, the way centers are valued overall, and Houston’s chances of making another deep playoff push might hinge on the answer.