The Golden State Warriors are finding a way to ground Clint Capela

Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz - Game Four

Throughout the regular season, Clint Capela was widely regarded as an up-and-coming player, a potential All-Star selection and a deserving candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award. That continued early in the playoffs as the Houston Rockets center fared well against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. But against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a soaring Capela has been sent crashing back to earth.

In the four games thus far of the 2018 NBA Western Conference Finals versus the Warriors, Capela has averaged just 9.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest, well below his season averages of 13.9 and 10.8 respectively. After playing 30 minutes in a game one loss, he has seen less and less of the hardwood, his impact negated by a Golden State team that does not conform to historical precedents of positionality and role.

This was not the way it was supposed to be for the 24-year-old native of Switzerland. Houston’s roster was built to challenge the Warriors, and Capela’s size and athleticism was considered one of their greatest advantages. Some had even predicted it would be Capela who could singularly unseat the Warriors from their Western Conference throne. Instead, the Rockets have managed to keep the series versus Golden State a close one despite Capela’s negligible production.

The blame for Capela’s mitigated impact is a shared one. There are obvious limitations to what he can do offensively, even under ideal circumstances. Capela can’t be relied upon to create his own shot, with 82.5% of his made field goals this season assisted by his teammates. His range is glaringly limited, with just over 96% of his made attempts taking place within nine feet of the rim. In effect, Capela’s presence limits Houston’s potent offense, a big body that needs the ball fed to him in a very specific manner and can’t stretch the floor with perimeter shooting.

Still, those traits were present during the regular season and the Rockets managed to win more games than any other team while finding ways to maximise what Capela can do. The problem is that Golden State’s versatile defenders have smothered the specific instances in which Houston’s center is utilized, like a wet blanket over a smouldering fire.

Capela does most of his damage in pick-and-roll situations, where he provides a momentary screen for a ballhandler (almost always James Harden or Chris Paul) and then quickly dives toward the rim. Capela’s makes the play effective by maneuvering his big body with such speed that a defender has to make a split-second decision to either stay with Capela or allow the ballhandler an easier path towards the basket. Against the Timberwolves or Jazz, both teams that featured a more traditional (and slower) center, Capela’s production was more inline with what was seen during the regular season.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Four

But the Warriors, perhaps best known for their incredible shooting, are just as masterful on defence, and Capela has struggled to adjust. The catalyst is All-Star Draymond Green, generously listed at 6-foot-7 but playing the center position versus Houston and matching up directly with Capela to start the game. Green has the speed to keep up with smaller players and the strength to hold his own against bigger ones, and disrupts pick-and-roll plays by effortlessly switching on to a ball-handler. While Harden or Paul were able to find open lanes against Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns or Utah’s Rudy Gobert, it has not been as easy versus Green.

Of course, no defender is infallible and Green is no different. But Golden State’s defence is defined by its interchangeability, a rotating puzzle where every piece manages to fit. Should a Houston ball-handler manage to slip by Green, another long, rangy defender often swoops in to block access to the hoop. If Harden or Paul find a seam to deliver a precise pass to Capela, the big man will likely find himself defended by either Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala or Kevon Looney, or perhaps a combination of players. The result will likely lead to a turnover, a missed shot attempt, or a flustered Capela holding onto the ball, as teammates helplessly watch as the shot clock expires.

The NBA postseason is a race driven by superstars, but it is the impact of role players that usually propels a team to the finish line. In the case of the Houston Rockets, the bulk of the team’s scoring is carried by the probable Most Valuable Player, Harden, with perennial All-Star Paul helping share the load. But players like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and P.J. Tucker have made the difference that Capela was expected to contribute. The question for Capela and the Rockets is what happens next.

Capela, in his fourth year in the league, enters restricted free agency this summer. While all indications are that Houston would like to keep their young center, there are a number of teams that could offer a significant contract to Capela and potentially lure him away from the Rockets.

Moreover, Houston might look at other ways to continue challenging the Warriors for a title. Paul is also a free agent but likely to re-sign with the Rockets and, in tandem with Harden, provides the team’s core for years to come. But if a roster built to unseat Golden State crumbles in the attempt, a new foundation might be needed and Capela could be rendered obsolete. LeBron James, himself a free agent this summer and a close friend of Paul’s, has long been rumored as a potential addition to the Rockets.

There is room for growth from Capela, of course, which makes him a potential value for any team, either Houston or elsewhere. Rockets assistant coach and longtime NBA veteran John Lucas II serves as Capela’s mentor and believes Capela’s ceiling is far from being reached.

“What he does, in his role for us, is to seal the deal for the rest of the team. It’s just more team-oriented. I think if he was a guy who got straight looks and plays called for him, he could do more. He’s doing what he does without anything like that. He can do a lot more than what he’s required to do for us to win.”

Still, given Harden’s excellence and Paul’s commanding presence, it seems unlikely that Capela will be given the chance to bloom in Houston.

Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets - Game Two

There is also a larger issue at stake here.

The Warriors’ offensive prowess, unlocked by Steph Curry’s seemingly limitless range and Green’s versatility and playmaking ability, has led to league-wide changes. As teams sought to duplicate those strengths, an emphasis on three-point shooting and “small-ball” lineups, while far from new concepts, were made concrete - even essential - by Golden State’s dominance. The center position has had to evolve more dramatically than any other, with a de-emphasis on the inefficient low-post play of the past, and a perimeter shooting at a higher premium than ever. Players like Towns, Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Boston’s Al Horford and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid have shown an ability to contribute offensively because of their long-range shooting and passing.

Capela and others like him, while not completely rendered ineffective, have been exposed as potential liabilities.

There’s a chance that Houston escapes Golden State in the playoffs. The Rockets could possibly go on to win a championship this year. But it will be line-ups that feature more of what Capela cannot provide that gives them their best chance of doing so.

Capela has shown significant growth over his brief career and the accolades from earlier this year are still well-deserved. But If he has a higher ceiling to reach, then he sill have to do it soon. The Warriors have forced the NBA to evolve so quickly that Capela, and possibly the Rockets’ chances at a title, may have run out of time.

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