Capela’s rebounding is covering a lot of cracks for the Rockets

If there’s one thing the league has taught us in recent years, it’s that board man gets paid.

In the history of the NBA and the ABA, only two players have won the Most Valuable Player award averaging fewer than 4 rebounds per game: Allen Iverson in 2001, who averaged 3.8 boards per game, and the first Steve Nash MVP year in 2003-04 (though he managed 4.4 in his repeat conquest a season later).

More recently, two of the best guards to earn the accolade – Russell Westbrook and James Harden – were great rebounders for their position, and when they joined forces this summer, many began to wonder how the two would co-exist. Would Westbrook be stealing boards from players like he did during his time in Oklahoma City? Could Harden be as successful offensively without bringing the ball up after getting the rebound each time?

Despite concerns from some (including this writer), their Houston Rockets are 15-7, and while each player is still grabbing their fair share of missed shots – perhaps due to the amount of time Harden and Westbrook spend on the court, at 37.6 and 34.4 minutes per game, respectively – their rebounding numbers are down from last season. 

The man who is picking up the loose ends is Clint Capela. His career high 14.7 rebounds are leading the Rockets by a wide margin, while the team is sitting second in pace, and fourth in field goals attempted and allowed. There are plenty of shots to go after, especially long-range bombs, but you have to have the personnel to get them. 

Take the New Orleans Pelicans as an example. The team is currently sitting fifth in three-point attempts, but there are few good rebounders on the roster. Derrick Favors is grabbing 22.9 percent of missed shots on his team – a career high by a wide margin – but is still only managing 8.9 per game.

You could argue that the Rockets have shorter players, all designed to sit on the three-point line ready for a kickout from Harden. But that never stopped Westbrook averaging more than ten rebounds for three seasons straight, while playing alongside one of the best rebounders in the league on his Thunder team in Steven Adams. You also have P.J. Tucker, who is excellent at boxing out and has the ball falling to him thanks to the early work he puts in against his defensive assignment. 

And yet, Capela is second in the league in rebounds per game – behind Andre Drummond, who looks like he is playing to be traded. But his value isn’t just coming from being dominant on the glass. 

Everybody knows the ball will be in the hands of two players on the Rockets – Harden and Westbrook feature in the four, most-used line-ups – and two players on the court who can shoot from beyond the arc – Danuel House and Tucker hit at a rate of 44 percent, while Ben McLemore shoots 35 percent from distance. 

The Houston system is built on four of those five players spread along the perimeter, while Capela starts low to begin most possessions. However, without Chris Paul playing the secondary ball handler role this season, the shooting threat from distance is lessened and many teams are sending the Westbrook defender to double Harden when he has the ball. The defensive rotation often finds Capela rolling through the lane relatively unchallenged for an easy dunk or lob from Westbrook or Harden.

The big man is averaging 14.4 points per game this season, which is nothing to write home about, but he finishes some of the easiest looks in the league with improved positioning on offense, obliterating the rotating help, or simply out-running his opponents.

These examples are from a game against the Phoenix Suns last week. They were playing without Aron Baynes, who could have limited Capela somewhat, but the Houston center didn’t need to even hit his averages in that game. He managed 12 points and 10 rebounds, and admittedly the game was closer than it should have been, but Capela was open so often thanks to strong positioning. If the team’s perimeter players weren’t so trigger happy to shoot bad threes – we see you, Austin Rivers – the Swiss big man could average 6 more points per game easily. Though, without all those missed threes, would Capela’s rebounding numbers dip?

He doesn’t have the skill of Joel Embiid, the passing of Nikola Jokic, or the multi-tool artillery of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but when you have scorers like Harden and Westbrook on the same team, you will be paid to do one thing. Capela will earn $72 million in the next four seasons, and if he never scored another point for the Rockets, the team would still be happy with what he is doing on the glass. Ending an opponent’s possession, gaining another shot attempt for his own team, and providing that threat in the middle of the floor – but only when he is needed – has been a mainstay for the constantly tinkering Rockets, on and off since 2014, and it’s difficult to see them moving Capela from Harden’s side any time soon.