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The Houston Rockets are a well-rounded team, but with one of the game's premier guard tandems in James Harden and Chris Paul, it can be easy to overlook the big guys doing the dirty work down low. As exciting as Harden and Paul have been this season, the Rockets may not be boasting an NBA-best record of 22-4 if not for center Clint Capela.
A developmental first-round draft pick out of Switzerland in 2014, Capela has developed exactly as the Rockets had hoped, seeing spikes in his numbers across the board in each season since his rookie year. On the 2017-18 campaign, the 23-year-old is averaging 13.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, but what has been most impressive about his play is his efficiency—he is posting those numbers in just 25.2 minutes per game and sports a league-best 68.0 field-goal percentage.
It's obviously very early in the season, but if Capela's averages hold, he will become the first player in NBA history to average at least 13 points and 11 rebounds in fewer than 26 minutes per game. In fact, only three NBA players have ever averaged a points/rebounds double-double in fewer than 26 minutes per game, and only one player (Hassan Whiteside) has accomplished the feat since the 1960-61 campaign.
Much of Capela's offensive success has come on the pick-and-roll, where he is the second-most productive scorer in the NBA. Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies has scored three more field goals off the pick-and-roll (his 63 are the most in the league) than Capela has, but Gasol has taken a whopping 38 more pick-and-roll shots. Capela may not be the type to create his own shot and make plays, but he knows where to be and how to efficiently fit into head coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system.
“He gets it,” Harden said of Capela, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “He understands it. He knows what his role is, and he knows how to perfect that role and be the best he can be at that role in order for our team to be great.”
Capela's reliable play has been vital to the Rockets' success. D'Antoni has his team firing up (and making) the most three-point shots in the league, and Capela's presence in the middle of the court prevents opponents from keying in on the perimeter players. The style is somewhat reminiscent of the late-2000s Orlando Magic, who used the paint presence of Dwight Howard to get open perimeter looks, and they led the NBA in three-point field goals for three consecutive seasons. Capela is not the same caliber player as an in-prime Howard, but he impacts the Rockets similarly to what Howard did for the Magic.
Another key aspect of Capela's game is his ability to run the floor. It's no secret that D'Antoni likes his teams to play at a fast pace, and Capela is a rare big man in that he loves to keep his head up and hustle down the court.
“This is my strength, No. 1, against all those big guys,” Capela said, via Feigen. “Every, every single time I get a (chance), I just go. I'm out. Whenever we get a steal, a defensive rebound, I'm out. Whenever I see they put their heads down if they don't get a call, I just go.”
With superstars Harden and Paul running the backcourt and perimeter sharpshooters like Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson hoisting up shots from the outside, the Rockets have a ton of firepower—but what makes it click is the efficiency and inside presence of Capela. Without the fourth-year big man, the Rockets would surely still find their way to plenty of wins and tons of points, but Capela just might be one of the crucial pieces in propelling the Rockets from an entertaining team to a legitimate championship contender.