Hey, remember Clint Capela? The big man entered free agency this summer, and received a qualifying offer from the Houston Rockets, keeping him a restricted free agent. Capela then received a five-year contract offer from the Rockets on July 1. And that’s it. An offer was made, and it’s been about three weeks, and Capela is now stuck in restricted free agency hell.
$85 million over five years is life-changing money, even for a player who’s made a few million bucks over his three-year career. But it’s also well shy of the max Capela could receive—almost $150 million over five seasons—and counts as a significant discount in an NBA landscape where Ian Mahinmi is getting $65 million over the life of his current four-year contract, and Mason Plumlee is getting $41 million over the life of his three-year contract. For that matter, in an NBA where Zach LaVine pulled in a four-year, $78 million contract in restricted free agency this very summer, a contract that pays Clint Capela $17 million a season is an enormous bargain.
It remains startling just how much penny-pinching the Rockets appear to be doing this summer. They let Trevor Ariza, their best and most dependable two-way small forward, walk away to the Phoenix Suns; they lost a somewhat less capable but still useful Luc Mbah a Moute to an unimpressive one-year deal with the Clippers; and now they’re holding firm on a bargain offer to Capela, their best defensive player and an enormously useful pick-and-roll center who provides the kind of vertical spacing the Clippers long enjoyed from a rolling DeAndre Jordan. The Rockets can probably stay excellent giving more of Ariza’s minutes to Eric Gordon, but that’s a defensive alignment that simply will not work without a defender of Capela’s excellence in the middle to clean up mistakes and protect the rim.
But the center market absolutely blows, and cap space—the only way for someone other than the Rockets to sign Capela—is concentrated among teams who’ve already made their own relatively poor investments in non-dynamic big men. And while Capela is the very exemplar of a modern rim protecting pick-and-roll big, the Rockets are probably right to wonder if they could get something like 70 percent of what he does from someone like, well, Dewayne Dedmon, or Deyonta Davis, or Nerlens Noel. No, those guys aren’t technically available, but they’ll also be making a combined $9.7 million in 2018-19, far shy of the $17 million a season the Rockets offered Capela, less than half of what he’d likely get as an unrestricted free agent, and something like a third of what he’d expect to get in an NBA that had figured out years ago that it actually has no use for various Jahlil Okafors and Marcin Gortats and Miles Plumlees.
Clint Capela is really good, but his position is bloated with stiffs, and the NBA is bloated with bad contracts, and restricted free agency is depressing his value, and the Rockets are driving a hard bargain, and the whole thing is just totally unfair. No one should be surprised if Capela winds up signing his qualifying offer and betting on himself for a season, before looking to cash in on the buyer’s market of next summer. But, hey, the Rockets are the favorites to land Carmelo Anthony, so clearly they’re all set.