Clint Capela and the Houston Rockets agreed to an extension on Friday afternoon, a team source confirmed, bringing his restricted free agent saga to a close. Capela will make $90 million over five years after enjoying a breakout season as the interior fulcrum of the team’s high-powered offense. The 24-year-old Swiss big man will stay in Houston for the long-term in a role perfectly suited to his skills, and the Rockets, despite a prolonged wait, keep him on at a relatively solid price.
With James Harden, Chris Paul and now Capela under contract long-term, we now know what the Rockets are fundamentally going to look like for a while. We also know that it can work. Houston pulled together for a franchise-record and league-best 65 regular-season wins and ended up one game (and one pesky injury for Paul) away from dislodging Golden State in the conference finals.
Capela, who averaged a double-double and nearly two blocks per game last season, thrived doing clean-up work for his guards and improved as a pick-and-roll target. The Rockets’ system enables Harden and Paul to initiate nearly every action with the ball, and Capela not only filled, but grew to embody the third-most important role on the team.
“I’m happy for [Capela],” Harden told reporters on Friday at USA Basketball training camp in Las Vegas. “Obviously we love the game of basketball, but to be able to provide for your family for generations, that’s what we do it for. I’ve seen him work his butt off these last few years. He listens. He learns. He goes out there and competes. I’m happy for him.”
After being selected 25th in the 2014 draft, after luminaries like Adreian Payne, James Young, Bruno Caboclo and Mitch McGary, Capela’s evolution from raw talent to key cog in Houston’s spread pick-and-roll attack (and now a big-dollar center) has quietly been one of the league’s better success stories. As the Rockets’ efficient, three-point heavy style has progressed into à la mode territory, young, athletic centers have frequently earned ‘next Capela’ plaudits from talking heads and draft analysts. He rarely posts up, cleans up mistakes, catches lobs and sets screens. The simplified two-way dive man role might be where the center position is headed.
Those things considered, Capela’s case raises an interesting conversation about what a player in his mold is truly worth. Given the theoretical number of rim-running, bouncy bigs to go around (and the lack of requisite high-end ball skills to do the job), it stands to reason that his position is on some level as replaceable as that of the forwards Houston pays to play defense, then stand in the corner and wait for an open shot. Capela’s actual worth is thus a tricky thing to gauge, and the fact that other teams weren’t champing at the bit to make fat offers points to the fact that he may be more valuable in Houston than anywhere else at this point. In a vacuum, it’s inarguably his best on-court fit. None of that discussion should sell Capela’s individual talent short: he works hard on the glass, can outrun and outjump the majority of his peers, and has gotten better in each of his four seasons.
On the contractual totem pole for centers, Capela’s price tag slots in between Hassan Whiteside’s four years, $98 million (signed in 2016) and the five years, $82 million Tristan Thompson got from Cleveland in 2015. You could make a similar point about the decreasing worth of the position, and argue that both those players are overpaid. Though on some level, finding some replacement value to fill Capela’s role long-term wouldn’t have been a massive undertaking, the Rockets’ urgency to contend (Paul turned 33 earlier this season) created plenty of incentive to pay for the security. Doing the deal now mitigates any risk of an unsuccessful search for a replacement next summer, or Capela heading elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. From Houston’s perspective, while not a bargain, the deal is certainly fair. The Rockets know what his situational worth is to them, in a perfect role within their system. When you’re contending, continuity tends to come at cost.