25-under-25: Clint Capela is a force of nature

Art by Andrew Maahs -- @BasemintDesign
Art by Andrew Maahs -- @BasemintDesign /

The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.

We found the line, didn’t we? Well, not you and I, per se, but we as a society, or what’s left of it, basketball-viewing or otherwise. When Clint Capela and the Houston Rockets agreed to a five-year, $90 million contract in late July, it seemed to signal something, whether it be strictly about the proliferation of athletic and skilled big men who can’t shoot well, about market demand for such players or maybe about the mutual loyalty between team and player for a tier of players directly below the, say, Kevin Durants of the world.

Capela, an instrumental piece of the team with the NBA’s best regular season record last year and exactly the kind of piece any squad sporting James Harden and Chris Paul as its dual leads might concoct in a laboratory given the opportunity, was reportedly seeking over $100 million. To you and me, a difference of $10 million or so dollars, allowing for agent’s fees and the myriad other things we could never consider for lack of personal knowledge, seems miniscule.

Clint Capela
Art by Andrew Maahs — @BasemintDesign /

After all, Capela is a product of Switzerland, and though he hails from the land of Federer and “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” timepieces, he also comes from a single mother and has siblings. It isn’t unreasonable for him to want everything, or at least as much of it as he can get. When the Rockets allowed him to linger on the open market as a restricted free agent for weeks after most other major deals had already come to pass, it reminded everyone that, for all of his corny, musical-enjoying inclinations, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is still a man of odds.

In this case, Houston came out on top in negotiations. To put it frankly, Clint Capela isn’t paid what he’s worth. Ninety divided by five equates to eighteen million dollars a year, which seems like a princely sum in the grand scheme of things.

While, sure, it absolutely is, it still doesn’t measure the impact Capela has for a Houston Rockets team that had the Golden State Warriors — yes, those Golden State Warriors — on the ropes, down 3-2 in the Conference Finals before they woke up and remembered that, hey, yes, we do actually have three of the ten best scorers on the planet in their primes. It was troubling; it had to be done.

Even so: Capela was a large reason, physically and philosophically, why they were there in the first place. In the past three years, Harden, the Rockets’ talisman, had essentially sworn it upon the clouds and Morey to banish Dwight Howard and, when that worked out, bring in Chris Paul, despite having played most of his own minutes at point guard the season prior.

Last season, that worked out, despite Houston’s frustrations and the lack of explosions in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, which, depending on how you look at J.R. Smith’s quintessential J.R. Smith-ery, was the most captivating game of last season’s playoffs. Perhaps the biggest reason that worked out is Capela, an inside presence with a defensive mindset whose offensive prowess was finally starting to come alive in his age-23 season.

Clint Capela enjoyed his finest season yet as the starting center of a team that upended volatile, fiercely uncertain expectations. This had been coming for a little while, at least since roughly midway through the 2015-16 season or so, but last year was nothing short of a debutante ball. For every Jeremy Lin or Hassan Whiteside, there is an equal and opposite Grant Jarrett.

As a former D-League (now G-League) All-Defensive First Team member from 2015, Capela’s bona fides were in place. How that ever translates to the NBA is as crapshoot-y as it gets. As someone who picked up basketball rather late in life, by American standards anyway, Capela obviously needed the time in the NBA’s minor league to figure himself out and is a ready-made case for the forthcoming abolition of the one-and-done rule.

He could even work as the argument for some vague, official agreement involving high school athletes and the league itself. As ever, Clint Capela can be the mud in the plug you need gapped as easily as he can be the artistic centerpiece of your community garden, even if it’s the Harden Garden.

In averaging a double-double, on a league-best 65.2 percent field goal percentage, Capela lived up to the many murmurs and whispers regarding of what he was actually capable. Oh, right: and he was second in the league in blocks per game, at 1.9. His PER was twelfth in the league, ahead of Paul’s as well as those of Victor Oladipo, Jimmy Butler, Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid and pre-Warriors DeMarcus Cousins, which is now a thing we’ll all have to get used to saying.

Having a presence in the middle was once a default; it was the thing you had to have before you decided that, hey, actually, we’re a real life, rock-and-roll NBA franchise. It was why the Oklahoma City Thunder chose Serge Ibaka over Harden in the summer of 2012. It was why the Rockets were in this position in the first place. Conventional wisdom, while a child of externalities and forces beyond all of our collective control, become conventional for a reason, even if that reason quickly goes the way of the dodo.

And yet: being able to get as close to the bucket as possible is a core function of being in the NBA, and being large by default gives you a head start on that road. Skills you pick up along the way become assets unto themselves. Capela’s ability to roll after a pick matches Harden’s record-skipping, stutter-y approach as easily as it does Paul’s uncanny ability to view the court as its own equation. Capela, more often than not, ends up being the x.

Next. Meet the 2018 NBA 25-under-25. dark

After losing Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza in free agency, Capela’s defensive versatility becomes vital for a Rockets team that many view as the only true challenger to the Golden State Warriors’ supremacy, at least this season. That same many likely views Houston as having been weakened, even after trading Ryan Anderson and highly-regarded draft pick De’Anthony Melton to the Phoenix Suns for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

Let’s kid ourselves for a minute while acknowledging an actual emergence of genuine, unique talent: if Houston is to break through against the Warriors at any point during this hegemony, Capela is going to be one of the major reasons why. Though he has his limits, and though those limits remain firm ahead of his 25th birthday, he is too good for the Rockets not to bend to their will. As he progresses, however, he may very well end up bending them to his.