Early in the second quarter of the Houston Rockets’ postseason-opening win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, James Harden wiggled through the defense, drew help, and dropped a pass to Clint Capela for a dunk. It was Capela’s third jam of the game, with Harden assisting on each. TNT announcer Chris Webber—whose own points in the paint, during his playing days, had tended to come by way of maneuvers more self-sufficient and complex-looking than Capela’s catch-and-finish routine—offered tepid praise. “To be a big fella and to play with Harden,” Webber said. “All you got to do is be in shape, keep your track shoes ready, and hopefully have some good hands to catch it when he gives it to you.” Capela finished that game with 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting; his longest successful field goal attempt, per ESPN’s stats, came from three feet away.
Over the course of his two seasons anchoring the NBA’s most efficient system, the simplicity of Capela’s game, and his acceptance of that simplicity, have numbered among the Rockets’ defining characteristics. The 6-foot-10, 23-year-old Geneva, Switzerland, native can put up big numbers, depending on the flow and circumstances of a particular evening—see his six blocks on Sunday—but his play-to-play M.O. is the maintenance work necessary to keeping the court spread and the scoreboard spinning. He defends and rebounds. He runs the floor. He sets screens for Harden and Chris Paul, rolls to the rim, and expresses absolutely no preference for whether he gets the ball or not. He is so soft-spoken, talking with reporters during a shootaround session, nearby dribbling drowns him out. “He’s exactly what we want,” Mike D’Antoni says of his starting center, “and shouldn’t change.”
To understand Capela solely by way of his willingness, though, is to come up short. Sure, a good deal of his value to Houston’s championship aspirations lies in his not being—and this is just to pick a random example, completely at random—Dwight Howard: that is, his lack of quotas for post-ups and field goal attempts and grotesquely cheesy feuds with the franchise player.
But what has made Capela the optimized modern big man on the optimized modern basketball team is not just an absence of vanity. There is also the set of rare, if non-classical, skills that he does possess. He’s a marvel of canny feet, quick hops, and soft hands. Most crucially, he understands as well as anyone how best to deploy these traits on an NBA floor in 2018. It is probably true that not many players would want to do what Capela does every night. It is also true that not many players could.
John Lucas II, Houston’s player development coach for the past two seasons, may be the world’s foremost expert on Capela’s transformation from a typical big-man project to the 14-and-11 backbone of a title contender. The pair run daily drills on the discrete elements of what has become Capela’s stock-in-trade: right- and left-shoulder jump hooks, layups from just off either block, lob finishes, Euro-step pick-and-roll modifications, and (still somewhat maddeningly) free throws. Two seasons into their partnership, Lucas describes his pupil as the manifestation of what the Rockets want in a big man, as purely synchronized with Moreyball as Harden’s poker-faced virtuosity and all those threes. “The way the game is,” Lucas told me before the start of the playoffs, “you have to have great hands around the rim, great verticality, and be able to roll and make those passes as well as finish there ... Clint, he finishes everything.”
That last bit is only barely an exaggeration. Capela made 65 percent of his shots this season, the NBA’s highest mark, and if that number is inflated to some extent by the sweet set-ups he gets from Harden and Paul, it also reflects Capela’s own near-perfect knack for his duties. One of the fastest endline-to-endline centers in the league, he manufactures a layup or two a night simply by beating a winded counterpart down the floor. He hangs on to any pass thrown to him, at whichever odd angle. He has built up a catalog of close-range maneuvers—pump fakes; up-and-unders; reaching, off-balance flip shots—to complement his preferred two-handed dunk. Capela might need to use his drop-step only once in three games, but that one will be clean.
The heart of his approach lies in his genius for basketball’s foundational offensive play. Nobody runs more pick-and-rolls than Houston, and while the credit for their remarkable efficiency out of those sets usually flows to their two future-Hall of Fame point guards, Capela’s role is both integral and imaginative. His screens and cuts take on forms as varied as Harden’s crossovers and Paul’s pocket passes; trying to categorize them as “slips” or “short rolls” only obscures the point. What Capela really does is read the play with the ball-handler, syncing his steps to dribbles, letting bubbles form in a defense and then bursting in to pop them. He’ll sprint or amble down the lane; each has its time and purpose. For every textbook iteration—Capela bug-on-windshields Harden’s defender, Harden rattles the helping big man’s knees, the Houston crowd is loud before the pass is even in the air—there is one where Capela seems to vanish only to materialize, a long moment later, dropping the ball through the rim.
Here’s one such play from Houston’s Game 5 opening-round clincher against the Wolves, in which Capela led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds to cap a series-long disassembly of Karl-Anthony Towns:
The eye wants to follow Harden, but look at Capela work. See him keep Jimmy Butler pinned to his butt—a riff on Paul’s trademark pick-and-roll technique—and wait for Harden to fully engage Towns. See him time up his cut for when Towns turns the other way. See the finish: a right-handed catch and a double-clutched, left-handed layup under the arm of an All-Defense stalwart who has sent plenty of similar shots into courtside popcorn buckets. Capela is no mere beneficiary of an MVP’s brilliance; this is a pas de deux.
When I asked Capela about pick-and-roll particulars, he minimized his function: “[The guard] has the ball, so he makes the decision.” But Lucas was happy to brag on his behalf. “This isn’t just rolling,” he said. “There’s a science and an art to what Clint is doing.” This season’s introduction of Paul to the heretofore Harden-centric offense has added to Capela’s responsibilities. “You do different things for different guys,” Lucas explained. “James is so much bigger, he sees things from the air, and Chris sees things from the floor. So James’ angles are different than what Chris’ angles would be, and that’s very key for a big guy to figure that out.”
The Rockets have played 54 regular season and playoff games, to this point, with a healthy Harden, Paul, and Capela. They have won all but five of them. On some nights, Capela is Houston’s terminal hub on both ends of the floor, blocking shots and slamming lobs in 94-foot loops. On others, he is the backdrop against which everything else works, with his rebounds setting off the transition chances and his rim-runs opening up the threes. After the Rockets sent Minnesota home, Harden tried to bump up his teammate’s leaguewide status: “Playing against guys that we call ‘All-Stars,’ or whatever you want to call them … he just goes out there and does his job every single night,” Harden said. “And that’s why we’re in the position that we are.”
The question, in the breathlessly forward-looking climate that surrounds the NBA, is “what’s next?” Nobody’s allowed to stay the perfect third option forever; the logic of the league and its coverage demand that Capela strive to join the group Harden alluded to. A recent New York Times profile considered a potential three-point stroke, and Lucas daydreams about the skills Capela might flash in a different system. “Clint knows his role,” Lucas said, “but he can do a lot more that is not required.”
What could “more” possibly mean, here, but a reversion to a lesser brand of basketball? What jab-step and 15-footer could matter as much as Capela’s defense-imploding rolls? Until flying through the lane is outlawed, why would he choose to grind away on the block?
Right now, it is hard to imagine Houston wanting another big man—or even a modified Capela—in the place of their current one. He already outdid Towns in every statistical category in Round 1, and he’s more than held his own against DPOY favorite Rudy Gobert through four second-round games. If Houston makes the Finals, Capela will be the first truly meaningful, game-shaping center on the sport’s biggest stage since Tim Duncan was limping into his jump hooks four years ago—the far border of a desert of Tristan Thompsons and Zaza Pachulias. Capela’s will be the film coaches across the league show their young bigs, hoping to replicate what seems like the most replicable aspect of the Rockets’ attack. It will all be much harder than it looks.
Robert O’Connell is a writer in Minneapolis whose work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, the New York Times, VICE Sports, and the Baseball Prospectus annual. He’s on twitter @robertfoconnell.