As Clint Capela trudges forward on his quest for an NBA Championship, the knapsack slung over his shoulder holds the horn of a unicorn and remnants of the Steiffel Tower tucked inside. Through two rounds, Capela has battled against two All-NBA-caliber centers, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, and been the best big man on the court each time, emerging as a necessary third star behind James Harden and Chris Paul.
But Houston’s next opponent is a different beast whose success isn’t driven by a traditional big man. To continue his breakout postseason, Capela will need to hold his own on switches against Stephen Curry, who’s made a living embarrassing big men on the perimeter, and Kevin Durant, both of whom are potent isolation scorers.
Capela is the fulcrum of Houston’s switch-heavy defensive scheme. He’s proven himself quick enough to hang with guards on the perimeter with enough length to challenge shots. During the regular season, the springy Swiss center held opponents to just 0.83 points per possession on 184 isolation sets, which ranked in the 64th percentile — and he’s been even better in the postseason. On 35 isolation possessions, Capela has allowed just 0.69 PPP (76th percentile). He boasts elite lateral quickness for a 7-foot center and he swallows up guards and wings who bulldoze into his orbit:
When Golden State shifts into warp speed, it trots out the “Hamptons 5” lineup composed of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant and Draymond Green. It’s a versatile, position-less unit with the potential to neutralize Capela during the Western Conference Finals. Take a look at their numbers since Durant signed on with the Warriors:
Since KD became a Warrior, the Hamptons 5 (or Death) lineup has played 470 minutes together.
The offensive numbers are jarring pic.twitter.com/a6Y0tz3GxE
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) May 13, 2018
The Hamptons 5 didn’t register a single minute in any of the three regular-season matchups between Golden State and Houston, making it challenging to glean too much from those games. However, Capela still posted the worst on-off split for the Rockets in such contests. While on the floor, Capela amassed -27.5 net rating in 76 minutes and during his time on the bench, Houston had a plus-22.8 net rating.
During the 61 minutes Green, the small-ball center in Golden State’s jet-powered quintet, was on the court with Capela in those three matchups, the fourth-year big had a net rating of -30.4. That represents a stark contrast to Capela’s numbers in the first two rounds of the postseason when he dominated the on-off splits against Gobert and Towns, who had net ratings of -17.4 and -11.0, respectively, with Capela on the floor.
With Gobert and Towns both serving as interior-oriented bigs, Capela’s rim-protecting acumen was on full display as he was stationed near the hoop, altering and terrorizing shots when opponents slashed inside. But with Green often initiating the offense from the top of the key and assuming the role as a playmaking point-forward, some of that impact may be diminished against the Warriors.
Furthermore, Capela may struggle to contain Green in transition after he snares rebounds and pushes down the floor, looking to pounce on any defensive miscommunications. While adept around the perimeter against guards and wings, Capela has the security blanket of the rim nearby, knowing that even if his man gets a step on him, his inordinately long 7-foot-5 wingspan can guarantee he remains a factor in the play. That won’t always be the case in the open floor when he’s forced onto his heels, retreating as he attempts to stymie the action Green intends to catalyze for teammates.
Offensively, the issue is Capela can’t punish the Warriors for going small. While he’s a dynamo in the pick-and-roll game, he lacks the polished moves of someone like Towns or LaMarcus Aldridge. Such a drawback is evidenced by his offensive numbers and usage on isolation and post-up possessions during the regular season when he averaged just 0.50 PPP (20 possessions, third percentile) and 0.63 PPP (32 possessions, 10th percentile), respectively.
That dearth of shot creation and post game shouldn’t matter too much for Capela, who’s adept at slipping screens when team switch — a strategy Golden State consistently employs. He’ll be an unmatched vertical threat against most of the Warriors’ rotation players, bouncing to catch lobs in his own personal domain.
When Harden and Paul work in isolation, Capela, who often resides in the dunker’s spot on the baseline, will be reliant on their ability to beat their men off the dribble and force help defenders to slide up:
Many words have been poured over Capela’s projected role and impact in this imminent series for the ages between Houston and Golden State. The truth, though, is if the Warriors are able to solve their Capela dilemma and render him ineffective, Houston’s counter won’t mean much because the series will already be over, unable to replicate the vitally important production Capela offers with another player.
The Rockets need Capela to sustain his All-Star-stratum play to slay the dragon that is Golden State as he brings a championship dynamic to the club with his switchability, skilled pick-and-roll game and rim protection. In order to help lead Chris Paul and James Harden to their first NBA Finals appearance, Clint Capela must add a dragon’s head to his increasingly heavy knapsack stuffed with souvenirs from the triumphs of the first two rounds.
All stats and videos via NBA.com and are accurate as of May 13.