How Clint Capela Became the Hawks’ Defensive Anchor

An offensive firepower thanks to Trae Young and John Collins, Atlanta has found its defensive force in Capela.
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Last February, when Atlanta acquired Clint Capela, most of the focus surrounding the four-team transaction had little to do with him or his new team. Instead, the Rockets’ radical full-time turn toward small ball gobbled up just about every headline. Their calculus accelerated an idea several teams have flirted with over the past few years: “Traditional” centers are disposable.

After Houston’s plan imploded, Capela came to symbolize his position’s ongoing transformation in the face of a sudden leaguewide preference for skill over size. To clarify the predicament: If you can’t shoot, you can’t play. At the highest level, this is basically true. But by excelling in other areas that also matter, players like Capela modulate the conversation into one that seems reductive.

On the Hawks, the 26-year-old’s individual strengths and weaknesses create a fascinating trade-off. When Capela plays, the Hawks sacrifice space on one end to significantly raise their floor on the other; he’s one of three starters with an offensive rating below 108 and a defensive rating as low as 104.

So far, what Capela can do has outweighed what he can’t, primarily because he’s a legitimate early-season candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, ranking first in rebounds, third in blocks (averaging one more per game than his career average), first in defensive real plus-minus and second in Defensive RAPTOR.

The Hawks finished 28th in defensive rating last season, a punching bag personified by Trae Young’s exceptional offense and inescapable futility on the other end. Right now they’re 12th, a few tenths of a point from cracking the top 10. With Capela on the court, they allow fewer points per possession than the Lakers, owners of the NBA’s top defense. But Atlanta is a damp Kleenex trying to catch a bowling ball when Capela sits, yielding as many points per 100 possessions as the third-worst defense in the league. In other words, exactly where they were last season.

Such a dramatic turnaround is rarely thanks to one player. Cam Reddish and John Collins have taken strides, as did De’Andre Hunter before his recent knee surgery. Atlanta’s two most expensive free agent signings—Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, a pair brought in to elevate offense at the defense’s probable cost—have combined to miss 26 games with various injuries of their own.

But if there’s any one person who the Hawks can look at if asked to describe why they’re now good at something they were awful at last season, it’s Capela. When I relay most of the stats seen above to him over the phone, he chuckles.

“I didn’t know about all of that. The numbers. But when I’m on the floor I have a huge impact defensively, being able to block shots, being able to challenge shots at the rim, being active, and definitely by rebounding the ball,” he says. “I really feel that my teammates believe in me in the sense that they’re aggressive guarding their guys, sending them to the rim and forcing them to take shots over me.”

Even with some luck on long twos, non-corner threes, and wide-open threes, Capela’s effort is palpable. His wingspan, quick jump and swift feet are ideal qualities for an anchor. A few weeks ago, he had a 10-block triple double one game after he corralled 26 boards. And when he shares the floor with Young, Atlanta allows just 106.3 points per 100 possessions, aka only the Lakers are better. For a franchise that knows concealing Young’s deficiencies are a prerequisite to achieving the short and long-term goals they aspire to, this development is critical. Watch below as he forces Kyle Lowry to pass out of a post-up, then stuffs Aron Baynes a split second later.

A key reason for Capela’s success can be attributed to how he’s used; one of his main claims to fame in Houston was his ability to function in a switch-happy scheme. He could scamper out on the perimeter and hold his own against ballhandlers who’d usually have no issue driving by someone that tall. With the Hawks, things are different. Capela can still hold his own when the situation calls for it, as seen below, where Luka Dončić accidentally dribbles the ball off his foot:

But the Hawks would rather he hang out around the basket as much as possible. In 2018–19 and 2019–20, the Rockets were one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, partially because Capela was forced to dance 28 feet from the rim more than he preferred.

“[Atlanta] really wants to keep me more in the paint and I think this is where I’m more valuable. This is where I feel more comfortable,” he says. “In Houston it was more switching because for years in the playoffs it was really successful for us, so we kinda tried to do it also in the regular season and it was just not the same.”

Opponents are shooting just 58.7% at the rim with Capela on the court. That number is six digits higher when he’s not out there, the difference between the second-best and eighth-worst units in the league. There aren’t many bigs who can take away a slipping roller and then recover back to reject the ball as emphatically as Capela does here.

On the other end, Capela’s primary job in Houston was to set screens for James Harden and either dive into the paint or force a switch and then amble down toward the dunker’s spot. His 65.2 effective field goal percentage led the league in 2018, and from 2017 to 2019 no teammate assisted another at the rim more than Harden did Capela.

(A quick aside for his thoughts on the trade: “I mean, I respect their choice ... but I felt like it was their last chance,” Capela says. “I feel it was the emergency choice and the only one. It was like O.K., they’re gonna make that choice but if it’s not working, the team is over. And that’s what happened.”)

It’s a similar role with the Hawks, except he no longer has the luxury of playing with one of the greatest table-setters in basketball history. Capela wants to shed the idea that for him to have a beneficial impact a ballhandler needs to help him out; he’s responded by leading the NBA in offensive rebound rate and putbacks, taking more shots that are contested around the basket than he ever has.

“This is how I get going in the games, by getting offensive rebounds and scoring and putting it back in the basket,” Capela says. “This is why I am who I am. It’s not James Harden or Trae that helps me get an offensive rebound. It’s just me.”

Where he used to pass the ball back out and let Houston’s playmakers attack off the second chance Capela created, this season he’s putting the onus to score on his own shoulders. Sometimes this is gravy.

But tip-ins are less clean than uncontested dump off finishes, even when they end with a power dunk, which helps explain why his field goal percentage is down to 55%, the lowest it’s been since his rookie season.

In the pick-and-roll, Young is an exceptional set-up man in his own right; Capela is nearly 20% more accurate in the restricted area when both share the court. He’s one of basketball’s most potent lob threats, and nobody has assisted any teammate more at the rim than Young has Capela this season. But in addition to an increased aggression on putbacks, he also has to score more through a resistance Harden and Chris Paul once sheared away. “I’m trying to be more aggressive by myself,” he says. “It’s not just all dunks by myself under the rim.”

Zooming out to assess Capela’s broader place in the league and on a team that sees him as a vital building block, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk says the following when asked about last year’s Eastern Conference finals: “You have to have versatile guys on the floor. You’re seeing a lot of small ball. ... Having guys that are all dribble, pass and shoot. If you have a guy on the floor that doesn’t have one of those skills, you’re playing four-on-five.”

Schlenk isn’t wrong, but that doesn’t make Capela an anachronism, or even someone who needs to step too far outside his comfort zone. The things Capela thrives at still impact winning, and before this season is over he hopes to receive more recognition for the pros he provides than the cons that come with them.

“Defensive wise, I feel like people don’t really talk about me,” he says. “Maybe it’s too early. I know it’s a long season anyways and I’m just gonna do my best and keep going because I really want to be on one of the all-defensive teams at the end of the year. It’s really my goal.”

I ask who he thinks is ahead of him: “Nobody. It’s just who people like to talk about. There’s Draymond Green or guys like Anthony Davis. It’s just because they are names so people like to talk about them. But they’re not necessarily better.”