Rockets Prepare for Altered Center Rotation After Clint Capela Concussion

Michael Shapiro

The injury bug has hit the Rockets early in 2019-20.

Eric Gordon is out for the next six weeks after undergoing knee surgery, and Danuel House is expected to miss his second straight game on Friday with a hurt back. But Houston was dealt its greatest blow on Wednesday night, when center Clint Capela was concussed in the second half against the Clippers. Mike D'Antoni will have to stretch his rotation just 11 games into the season. 

The Gordon and House injuries mandate adjustments from D'Antoni, though they're ultimately manageable given Houston's roster construction. Austin Rivers can fill-in as the first guard off the bench in lieu of Gordon, and Ben McLemore filled House's 3-and-D role well in his first start of the season on Wednesday. Replacing Capela is a more delicate task. 

Tyson Chandler and 21-year-old Isaiah Hartenstein will comprise Houston's center rotation in Capela's absence. Chandler is expected to start against Indiana on Friday, per D'Antoni. And while it's doubtful Chandler reaches the 25 minutes per game he logged in his last season as a starter in 2017-18, the 19-year veteran said he feels fresh and ready for an increased workload.

"When one guy goes out it's never about an individual taking his place, it's a team effort." Chandler said at the Toyota Center on Wednesday. "Clint brings a lot to our team, and if he's out for significant time, I can to step up and fill that role. I feel ready to go."

Chandler's foray into the starting lineup solves one problem for D'Antoni. Finding backup minutes at the five could prove more challenging. Hartenstein logged just 221 minutes as a rookie last season, tallying 1.9 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. The outline of a productive player is in place. Hartenstein is an agile defender for a 7-footer, and he's spent much of the offseason attempting to extend his range beyond the three-point arc. But the second-round pick in 2017 remains more of a project thn a reliable contributor. D'Antoni noted that while Hartenstein will likely make his first appearance of the season on Friday, Houston may ultimately go small, relying on P.J. Tucker (and perhaps Thabo Sefolosha) at the five.

"We'll see how it goes," D'Antoni told the media on Thursday. "Gary [Clark] and [Hartenstein] will play, but it depends how the other team plays and the matchups. We have options." 

Capela's injury comes at an inopportune time for the Rockets. Indiana sports one of the league's best big-man duos with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, and Houston faces Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic before Thanksgiving. Capela was also in the midst of terrific stretch of play before his concussion. 

The 25-year-old center averaged 13.6 points and 17.8 rebounds per game in his last five contests, anchoring Houston's defense during their five-game winning streak. Capela became the first Rockets center since Moses Malone to have three straight 20-rebound games in Wednesday's win over Los Angeles. After being the brunt of D'Antoni's criticism through the first week, Capela reversed course, looking more like an All-Star than an albatross as Houston sprinted to an 8–3 start. Capela's concussion came just as he was finding his groove.

The Rockets are 5–0 since their blowout loss in Miami on Nov. 3, and D'Antoni's squad sports the NBA's best defensive rating (98.5) in the last five games. Capela was a key catalyst in Houston's streak. He cleaned the glass with abandon and rotated with a vigor unseen to start the season. The Rockets can be a top-10 defense with Capela on the floor. His absence will bring a host of challenges. Houston is now vulnerable on the glass. Both of its available centers are replacement-level players. Tucker will be relied on heavily despite being 6'5" and 34-years-old. There are no easy answers in Capela's absence.