Whether you want to believe it was due to the circumstances around him or his own personal improvement, one thing is for certain: Clint Capela had a monstrous 2017-18 campaign, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Swiss big man put up career marks in nightly points (13.9), rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.9) this past year, as well as in field-goal percentage (65.2 percent, which led the league), while being a pivotal part of the Houston Rockets winning a franchise-record 65 regular-season games.
Some believe the main reason Capela was able better his numbers across the board was that along with playing next to James Harden for the fourth season in a row, he also had Chris Paul, arguably the best passer in the game, to feed him easy finishes near the rim.
Nevertheless, Capela deserves loads of credit for greatly improving his hands, once a pretty big weakness of his, and his conditioning, which allowed him to cross the 2,000-minute threshold for the first time in his career.
Because Capela is one of the best young players coming off their rookie-scale deals (along with Julius Randle, who should draw heavy interest this offseason, and Jabari Parker, who will draw less-than-heavy interest after multiple ACL injuries hampered his development), he will have a strong market amongst the teams who actually have cap space to use this summer: the ones undergoing rebuilds.
But will an offer rich enough to make Houston pass on matching for the restricted-free-agent’s rights come along? Only time will tell.
We break down Capela’s likeliest landing spots.
A team who has been connected through reports to various impending free-agent big men, the Dallas Mavericks, could make a lot of sense as a Capela suitor this offseason.
On May 21, the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor stated that Dallas could use their cap space to pursue three bigs in particular: Randle, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. Though he didn’t mention Capela in his report, his name wouldn’t have been out of place with the aforementioned trio.
Capela, one of the best finishers in the game, would form an imposing pick-and-roll partnership with young floor general Dennis Smith Jr, and on the other end, help mask the defensive deficiencies of a certain future Hall-of-Fame big man, Dirk Nowitzki.
If team owner Mark Cuban wants to make one more run at the playoffs before Nowitzki calls it a career, landing a player like Capela, who is both already a double-double machine yet still possesses impressive upside, would be a perfect acquisition; the center wouldn’t dampen Dallas’ future-oriented timeline and his production would translate to immediate wins, too.
What’s more, the fact the Mavs would be negatively affecting an in-state conference rival certainly couldn’t hurt their motivation to make such a move. Either they land Capela and make the Rockets scamper to find an adequate replacement, or they force Houston to match a huge offer sheet, thus harming the Rockets’ future cap flexibility, something general manager Daryl Morey values almost above all else.
To get a deal done, something along the lines of a four-year, $80 million contract could satisfy both parties. Capela gets long-term security at a price approaching the max while the Mavs get a promising 24-year-old center to add to their young core. At that price point, Houston would be far from a lock to match.
Of course, Dallas’ approach to free agency could be affected by who they land with the No. 5 pick in the 2018 draft. If they acquire someone they believe could be be their center of the future, they may not be as willing to shell out cash on another big man. But if they land a wing or a guard, the Capela option could be quite appealing.
Los Angeles Lakers
The team with the most cap space to use this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers, could look to add to their already-excellent young core by chasing Capela this offseason.
Although it’s well-documented L.A.’s two top targets in free agency will be Paul George and LeBron James, going after Capela as a secondary option would be an excellent fallback plan – or an even more interesting complementary signing. Especially if Los Angeles is only able to land one of the two forwards.
For how much Randle improved this year in his fourth season with the Lakers, averaging a career-high 16.1 points to go with 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists nightly, his skill set requires he dominate possession of the ball to really shine. And his defense, despite having three full seasons under his belt (his first campaign ended in less than a minute after a leg injury), is still a work in progress.
A better fit to play alongside a George or a James might be Capela, who excels as a role player on offense and protects the paint at an elite level on the other end, while not being a turnstile when forced to defend on the perimeter.
By waiving Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant, and renouncing Randle’s free-agent rights, L.A. would open up $66.4 million in cap space, enough to sign James at his max ($35.4 million) or George at his ($30.3 million), with still enough room to tender Capela an offer sheet of $20 million for 2018-19.
Again, on a four-year, $80 million offer sheet, the Rockets would have to think long and hard about matching to keep Capela around, since theoretically, his skill set (finishing and rim protection) could be cheaply replaced.
With Capela, James (or George) and Los Angeles’ young core in the fold, the Lakers could field a starting five of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, James (or George), Brandon Ingram and Capela, with Kyle Kuzma as first man off the bench. That nucleus would have Los Angeles back in the postseason, and after some more maturation from their young pieces, could even have them eventually contending for titles.
On May 9, the Rockets Wire’s Kelly Iko reported that the Phoenix Suns would be one of the teams interested in adding Capela’s services this summer. In his own words:
“According to a league source, one such team is the Phoenix Suns. They have kept tabs on him throughout the season, and have reportedly become “enamored” with [Capela]. They have plans to offer Capela a max or near-max contract once free agency begins. The source requested anonymity because he isn’t authorized to comment on the Suns’ plans.”
If Iko’s report proves accurate, that would mean Phoenix is planning on tendering Capela on a four-year, $109.1 million offer sheet, a contract figure that one has to imagine the Rockets wouldn’t match.
Like the Mavericks, whether Phoenix goes through with a Capela recruitment will largely depend on what they do in the 2018 draft. However, unlike Dallas, the Suns own the first overall pick, not the fifth. So really, it’ll depend on whether the Suns go with Arizona big man Deandre Ayton at the No. 1 spot, or Slovenian guard Luka Doncic.
If Phoenix goes with the big man, they wouldn’t have any reason to sign Capela to such an offer sheet. But if the Suns go with the young ball-handling wizard Doncic, who Phoenix’s new head coach Igor Kokoskov already has a relationship with from their time together with the Slovenian National Team, the avenue is still there for them to go after Houston’s center.
Provided the Suns go the latter route, they could find themselves boasting a starting unit of Elfrid Payton, Devin Booker, Doncic, Josh Jackson and Capela – a quintuplet that probably won’t contend for a playoff spot next season, but one that will be exciting to watch blossom over the coming years.
Because he’s a young player coming off his rookie-scale contract, Houston holds all the cards when it comes to Capela’s free agency. No matter the size of the offer sheet Capela winds up signing, the Rockets can match it and keep him around for the long haul.
Nevertheless, knowing how Morey operates, one can’t just assume they’ll behave like other teams would in the same situation.
Houston has huge plans for the future, with the potential league MVP in Harden locked up through 2022-23, and a historically elite point guard in Chris Paul sharing the backcourt with him (though they’ll have to agree to terms with Paul on a new contract this offseason).
There’s already some smoke regarding the Rockets going after a George or a James this offseason despite lacking any sort of cap space…
…so anchoring themselves down to Capela, despite how much he’s improved, doesn’t make much sense for Morey’s team.
Regardless, the young center did acquit himself wonderfully in the 2018 playoffs, averaging 12.7 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest, and proving that not every traditional big man is unplayable in the modern NBA.
At the very least, Capela has given the Rockets something to think about regarding their future together.
Unfortunately for Houston, he also gave every rebuilding team with cap space to use this summer a lot to think about, too.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.