Three years ago, the Houston Rockets brought in Dwight Howard to be their franchise center and the last piece to the championship puzzle. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time All-Star, Howard was tasked with following in the footsteps of legendary Rockets giants like Yao Ming, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.
While Howard’s tenure was productive (16 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), it also came with its share of pitfalls. He struggled to stay healthy, averaging 61 games during his three-year stint. He couldn’t get on the same page with James Harden and routinely griped about his diminishing role in the team’s offense. He was also a frequent subject of trade rumors and his unhappiness was a big part of Houston’s chemistry issues last season. Inevitably, Howard opted out of the final year of his deal and went home to Atlanta.
This season, the Rockets will try a different approach at the center position.
Third-year man Clint Capela is the successor to Howard’s throne. The 22-year-old continues to make strides in his development and earned enough trust within the organization that management reportedly pushed for Capela to play over Howard last season. He’s best suited to fill the defensive and rebounding void created by Howard’s departure.
He’s faced opposition from Nene, a 14-year veteran who signed a one-year deal with the Rockets over the summer. Both centers made compelling cases for the starting job during the preseason. While neither big man possesses Howard’s all-around talents, each brings a different element to the table that Houston desperately needs.
Capela was a raw prospect when he was drafted as a 20-year-old rookie out of Switzerland in 2014, but quickly became an asset during the team’s 2014-15 playoff run. He contributed just 3.4 points, 2.5 boards and 0.5 blocks in 7.5 minutes per game as Houston mostly rode Howard during their trip to the conference finals. However, Capela’s numbers per-36 minutes (16.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.7 blocks) convinced the team he was worthy of a bigger role going forward.
Last season, Capela paired with Howard to give Houston a formidable defensive duo up front. He logged 19.1 minutes in 77 games (35 starts) and posted a stat line of seven points, 6.4 boards and 1.2 blocks (all career highs). His development was hindered by nagging injuries and the dysfunction created by Houston’s power struggle, but the front office obviously liked what it saw enough to not make a serious offer to bring Howard back.
Now, Capela’s potential starting role in new coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offensive system has the big man poised for a breakout season. He’s already developed a rapport with Harden and found his niche as the beneficiary of The Beard’s pinpoint passing coming off the pick-and-roll.
He’s also impressed his new boss. D’Antoni said this to the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen: “He’s been healthy the last couple games (he played) and I thought he looked really good. I’m excited about Clint. He plays the way we would like a center to play. I’m expecting big things out of him.”
Capela also believes he’ll excel in this new offense, and that the emphasis on spacing the floor will pay dividends for him down low:
“The things I worked on with this new coach, I knew my job will be to run a lot, which is my game; do pick-and-rolls; which is my game,” Capela said. “I think they have me (doing things that) fits my game. Just finish hard, grab rebounds and run. I feel good. Try to get out on defense strong, be active on defense, transition. I feel really good, really involved. We have all shooters, four shooters spread out at the arc. I am the only one who can go and grab the offensive rebounds. It’s been working for me. I have been grabbing a lot of rebounds. I will keep doing that.”
Capela’s involvement on offense will take a back seat to his work on the boards and on the defensive end. With the Rockets’ perimeter defense still needing to be seen before it’s believed, Capela’s presence as a rim-protector is a necessity to Houston’s long-term success.
The increase in offensive possessions combined with the lack of congestion in the paint should also lead to plenty of second-chance opportunities for the Swiss Superman. Despite being hampered by hamstring and Achilles issues, Capela’s 8.8 rebounds per game were tied with Orlando’s Serge Ibaka for 11th-best among preseason participants. He also posted an offensive rating of 112.3 while allowing just 84.1 points per 100 possessions in exhibition play. That led to a net rating of plus-28.2, which was third among qualified players, behind only two-time MVP Stephen Curry and All-Star center Al Horford.
While Nene lacks Capela’s defensive acumen, he’s a more polished scorer and an underrated passer. D’Antoni won’t commit to what the Brazilian bruiser’s role will be this season, but he believes the veteran will be a key cog in Houston’s offensive machine regardless.
“We’ll see that as we go forward, but Nene is going to be valuable no matter wherever he is,” D’Antoni said, per Feigen. “He has that ability to help be the playmaker.”
Nene’s presence gives the Rockets plenty of flexibility. If he starts, he’s another facilitator on the floor with Harden. His ability to create offense for himself beyond pick-and-rolls and looks around the rim increases the scoring potential of the offense.
If he comes off the bench, he gives the second unit a proven go-to option, which comes in handy with Eric Gordon moving into the starting lineup to fill in for the injured Patrick Beverley. No matter what role he assumes, the 34-year-old is just happy to play his part.
“It’s nothing different,” Nene said. “I just try to prepare myself and play either as a starter or off the bench. Nothing has changed. I just tried to read the space, and tried to create easy looks, especially for James. Everybody is going to be looking for him, and we are there to make it easier for him.”
Nene’s positive attitude is a welcomed change from Howard’s “me-centric” ways that drew so many headlines last season. Instead of worrying about keeping one of its superstars happy, the club can focus on team basketball and repair the chemistry that was non-existent during its disappointing 2015-16 campaign.
For the first time in a long time, Houston doesn’t have an established presence at the center position. Instead, the team will employ a committee to get the job done inside. The new approach lacks the star power of past years, but it provides the kind of depth and harmony the team sorely needs.
The Rockets still have a problem at center, but this time it’s a good one.