Russell Westbrook Changed Clint Capela’s World

Two summers ago, Clint Capela was a restricted free agent.  After blossoming since his rookie year, the Swiss born African was expecting a significant raise. While he wanted the six figure contract given to Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams- his double-doubles increased by 17 from the year before- the market demanded otherwise. There weren’t enough suitors to begin a bidding war.

At the beginning of negotiations the Rockets offered $90 million and despite bluffing and social media pouting, Capela signed a 5 year deal for $90 million. He had just finished a season where he led the NBA in fg percentage, was second in blocked shots. With Chris Paul on the roster, the $90 million seemed well spent.

Fast forward 17 months and Capela’s days with the Rockets franchise is over, similar to Chris Paul.  It’s the numbers, baby. Although he is averaging a career high in rebounds, 13.8 ppg, the pick and roll game that delivered Capela the $90 million has dissolved.

Once Russell Westbrook came aboard things changed in a drastic way for Capela. No longer the second option after James Harden’s jumper, Capela was mostly standing around watching Russ. Because Harden’s step back game shrinks the floor, Westbrook found a lot of maneuvering at the rim. It made Capela, who isn’t a stretch four, irrelevant.

Westbrook’s 2-point attempts are a career high. He’s taken 372 shots at the rim, 34 of which are dunks. That averages to about nine rim attempts per game, nearly half of his shots. Capela, on the other hand, has taken 82 less shots at the rim from last year. His offensive game is predicated on dunks. With Westbrook driving, that is a non-starter. Capela then is reduced to a screener or a spectator. He didn’t fit into the offense anymore.

Last season, Capela attempted 607 shots at the rim,  9 or so per game. This season it has dropped to 7 rim attempts per game. Furthermore, as the game goes on, the shots suffer. He takes the most shots in the 1st quarter and the least amount of shots in the 4th. Westbrook’s 4th quarter shots decrease too, but only by a small margin. Factor in that a large part of Westbrook’s game, rebounding, is also Capela’s game, and you know why he became superfluous and unnecessary.

And yet trading the only talented big on the Rockets, while it seems to fit into the D’Antoni bio, is a huge risk. You build a team around the best team in the conference. The Lakers and Clippers both have talented bigs. Denver has Nikola  Jokic. The Jazz have Rudy Gobert. The Thunder have Steven Adams.

Making it more problematic is that the Rockets defense is apathetic. They are forced to fit this round peg into a square hole. At this point, it’s all about hope. Hope James Harden and Russell Westbrook can outscore their opponent. Hope  their opponents aren’t doing lay up line drills at the rim mid-game.

Sometimes, numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. Or, numbers have to be the scapegoat.

By jettisoning Capela, the Rockets save a lot of money. It may be something to talk about at the local watering hole, how the Rockets are going small. But Tilman Fertitta didn’t get to billionaire status by bleeding money. He is pulling Houston from the brink of taxation hell. Paying for a team that ultimately has no shot at winning is bad business and frankly stupid.

And so maybe this is magic in the bottle. No one knows how it is going to work exactly except for Westbrook getting a lot more rebounds. The Rockets and Lakers will go at it Thursday but that’s not much of a test. Not yet. The Rockets have to work through all of the growing pains.

As for Capela, he learned a lesson. Chemistry isn’t just about players getting along. It’s also about what happens on the court. Do you fit? Capela didn’t, so he’s gone. In Atlanta, he and Trae Young will pick and roll the league to death. It’s what Capela does.

What James Harden does is score. This move puts the kind of pressure on him he’s never had before. Can Harden make a volume three point offense legitimate? Or, are the Rockets over and the Capela trade was nothing more than ripping the band aid off the wound and reflexively hiding behind the truth?