How Clint Capela and the Hawks Can Help Each Other on Offense

The Rockets' offensive evolution left their big man behind, but the Hawks can put their new center to better use in 2021.
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While the general trajectory of the 20-47 Hawks had been clear for months before the NBA shut down, the season’s finer points were anything but conclusive. Chief among Atlanta’s unresolved subplots was how Clint Capela, whom the Hawks acquired from Houston in February, would mesh with a developing young core that badly needed his presence. The Hawks likely won’t have full clarity on the matter until the start of the 2020-21 campaign, but they can still be fairly certain of what they have in the 25-year-old. 

Some players are chameleons who tailor their style to the context around them. Capela is portable for the opposite reason. If a team has the proper infrastructure to suit him, he should plug in as cleanly as nearly any center in the league. Capela won’t stop rolling to the basket, crashing the defensive glass, and protecting the rim just because he’s now in a different setting, nor will the Hawks need to reorient their offense to accommodate him.

“Clint’s game’s not gonna change,” Lloyd Pierce said earlier this month. “He’s a rim-runner, he’s behind the defense in the dunker area, he’s an offensive rebounder, he’s a lob-catcher. He’s not gonna be one of those guys that’s just gonna automatically transform their game and become different.”

That kind of player could have more utility in Atlanta than it did in Capela’s final year in Houston. Capela doesn’t need the ball to be effective, but he does need to be included. His ability to free James Harden with screens, finish at the rim, and draw help defenders was integral to the Rockets’ pick-and-roll attack in 2017 and 2018, but as they shifted to an isolation-centric offense, his inability to space the floor became increasingly problematic. Capela’s pick-and-roll volume and efficiency as a pick-and-roll finisher declined in each of the last two seasons, and Russell Westbrook’s shooting limitations only compounded Capela’s after the Rockets dealt the more versatile Chris Paul. Houston evolved to the point of making its big man disposable.

In 2017, 2018, and 2019, Houston scored more than 114 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor; this year, it produced only 110.3 (compared to 117.5 without him!) as defenders could more freely send help to Harden when they started possessions standing inside the 3-point line. Shifting to a more conventional pick-and-roll system should help restore Capela’s offensive value. Trae Young is every bit as capable a passer as Harden, but doesn’t share Harden’s preference or ability to work solo. That will make Capela more involved in the offense, which will put more pressure on opposing defenses.

Over the last four seasons, Capela scored 1.21 points per possession as a roll man -- including a staggering 1.34 points in 2018. That kind of efficiency can provide a major lift for a team that scored fewer than 108 points per 100 possessions this season. Capela dives hard, even when he doesn’t receive the ball, which forces defense into a tricky conundrum: crash down to take away a dunk, or leave shooters open for corner 3s. 

"What I really like most about Clint offensively is just how hard he runs," Travis Schlenk said. "By him running hard to the rim every single time, obviously he’s a threat to score, but that opens up the floor for shooters as well. It takes a special person to run a hundred percent down the floor every time knowing that you might only get the ball 30 or 40 percent of the time, and that speaks a lot to the kind of player he is."

He isn’t Draymond Green, but Capela improved his vision as a roll man over his final few years in Houston, and can spot the open shooter when defenses collapse on him:

Just as Capela once helped unlock the Rockets’ offense with his roll gravity, Houston’s ability to place four shooting threats around him helped augment his presence around the rim. Atlanta doesn’t have the same kind of firepower. The Hawks ranked last in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season, and the symptoms of playing two or three non-shooters together were on full display. The Hawks ranked 12th in 3-point attempt rate and 11th in shot quality this year, according to Cleaning the Glass, but simply didn’t have the weapons to capitalize on some of its best opportunities. Opponents could send an extra defender at Young and take away the rim without worrying about the cost from beyond the arc.

Atlanta will likely address those shooting concerns in free agency and have reason to expect an uptick in 3-point percentage if their young core stays healthy. Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and De’Andre Hunter finished the season above 35 percent from deep, and Cam Reddish could even out around that range after hitting 40 percent from deep over his final 36 games. Young uses his quick trigger and unlimited range as a devastating weapon, which gives him even more gravity than a deadly catch-and-shoot player might have, and Huerter drilled 42 percent of his triples directly off the catch.

Concerns over Capela and Collins’ offensive fit are valid to a certain extent, but Pierce will likely stagger them fairly heavily not only to mitigate overlap between the two, but to keep an elite roll man on the floor. For as much as Atlanta has to figure out about how Collins and Capela coexist, it will have the luxury of playing a terrorizing lob threat at all times. Dewayne Dedmon can theoretically play with either player (if he rediscovers his jumpshot), and, crucially, provides back-line defense that should take some strain off of Collins. Pierce will have to decide who logs more time in starter-heavy units with Young and who helps anchor second units, but he’ll have far greater flexibility in the frontcourt than he did this season. Most importantly, the Hawks will have another pillar that allows them to construct a system and move forward.