- Clint Capela's injury means James Harden will have to do just about everything if the Rockets are going to stay in the playoff race.
The basketball gods have turned this Rockets season into a perverse experiment, stripping away James Harden’s support system piece by piece until the reigning MVP is forced to score every last point himself. First Chris Paul was sidelined by a hamstring injury, denying Harden his counterpunching point guard. Eric Gordon then bowed out of the lineup with a right knee contusion, forcing even more of the creative responsibility back on Harden. The latest blow is a killer: Clint Capela, according to a report from ESPN.com, is expected to miss four to six weeks with an injury to his right thumb—striking from the active roster the most common recipient of Harden’s assists.
Even a relatively short recovery could cost Capela 15 games at a time when the Rockets can hardly afford to lose any. Harden averaged 40.2 points, 9.6 assists and 6.9 rebounds per game for the better part of a month just to drag Houston into sixth place in the West, two games ahead of the ninth-place Jazz. It’s not enough, apparently, to make history. Harden will have to do more.
Without Houston’s second, third and fourth-leading scorers, Harden may have to find peace in taking upward of 40 shots from the field. Some of that is a practical necessity for a team without much choice; another part of cold reality that losing Capela will make it more difficult for Harden to get to the free throw line, thus inflating his shot attempts. There is a portion of Harden’s offense—and thus Houston’s—that is literally untouchable. Defenders can’t seem to reach his step-back jumper often enough to affect it, which gives the reigning MVP a weapon he can access in almost any circumstance. Most everything else, however, plays in some way off of the threat of Capela. Even spreading the floor with shooters doesn’t have the same immediacy. It’s the dual interior threat of a driving Harden and a rolling (or cutting) Capela that puts opponents in a bind, calling their schemes into question.
That element is lost—as is the Rockets’ baseline. Houston has actually fared reasonably well in its minutes without Capela this season, in large part because Mike D’Antoni had some say in when they occurred. Nene could be contained to short stints. P.J. Tucker could be deployed at center at just the right moment. You can afford to be choosy when you have a starter as uniformly capable as Capela, the fastball that sets up Nene’s change-up and Tucker’s knuckleball.
Neither, then, is much of a full-time replacement. Tucker might have to try as the best of the options available. Houston can likely get better minutes out of its forwards than its centers, which sets up the Rockets to play as much small ball as Tucker can take. This is not an insignificant stressor, even for a semi-truck like Tucker. There are tradeoffs that come whenever smaller players are asked to defend taller ones, whether on the glass, in contesting shots or in the matchup game. Tucker is an excellent defender and, for the most part, a functional center. That functionality may be strained, however, should it become Houston’s default.
But what alternative do the Rockets really have? The Rockets were managing Nene’s minutes already and occasionally resting him outright. It’s nice to have a skilled, veteran center in the mix under these circumstances, but Nene is a situational choice at best. He has yet to play more than 21 minutes in any game this season, or more than 13 minutes in any game this month. Isaiah Hartenstein could pick up minutes here or there, though his minutes will likely foster an added appreciation for all the nuance Capela brings to his role. It’s one thing to have size and quite another to understand how to use it over the course of a game that is constantly changing. Harden has a way of making opponents desperate, which leads to all sorts of variations in coverage. When the Rockets feel the strategy of the game shifting, Capela and Harden know how to lay a new foundation. Hartenstein is simply doing his best to get by.
This could also be the last best chance for Marquese Chriss to be a relevant NBA player. If that prospect sounds enticing, keep in mind that Chriss has been largely clueless for the better part of his three seasons in the league—at times whiffing on concepts as simple as where to stand on offense. Yet if there will ever be a time for Chriss to better establish himself, it’s now—with his team desperate for rim runners and lob threats.
No matter where they turn, the Rockets will be in relatively new territory. Houston’s most-played lineup without Capela, Paul or Gordon has logged a total of 18 minutes this season, per NBA.com. Eighteen. This is not an arrangement to which anyone involved is accustomed, and yet the Rockets will have to feign chemistry until they can find some. Unfortunately, there is rarely a cakewalk game to be found in the West. The closest thing the Rockets have scheduled during Capela’s projected absence is a Feb. 4 game in Phoenix … that will also be Houston’s third game in four nights and the third stop on a four-game road trip.
Until Capela’s return, the only reasonable goal is survival. Even splitting the schedule would be an achievement for a team this understaffed; it already took the emergence of Danuel House Jr. and the buyout addition of Austin Rivers to get the Rockets this far, and now they’ll be forced to go without another of the cornerstones to their rotation—a Sisyphean twist to Harden’s growing myth.