According to multiple reports, Houston Rockets big man Clint Capela is on his way to join the Atlanta Hawks. Though the acquisition centers on bringing a talented player into the fold on a cost-controlled contract, Travis Schlenk and company also address the team’s biggest need, both in the short- and long-term, in landing a full-time starting center.
The center position has been a struggle for Atlanta since Dewayne Dedmon left for a lucrative contract offer from the Sacramento Kings. Alex Len has been their best player at the position by a fairly significant distance but, after recovering from a slow start, the veteran seven-footer has missed some time due to injury. Len has been a solid contributor, but he still projects as a reserve option on a good NBA team.
Damian Jones, brought in via the Omari Spellman trade, is still on the bubble as it relates to him being a reliable rotation player in the league. Bruno Fernando is a rookie and still, appropriately, very much in development mode at this stage.
According to basketball-reference’s play-by-play data, John Collins has played half of his minutes at the center position this season, easily the most in his career to date. The experiment has been a valuable exercise, especially considering the Hawks did not have to take minutes away from other important young players to make it happen.
The deal for Capela, in all likelihood, signals that Atlanta’s decision makers have to come to see Collins as (mostly) a power forward who can play some minutes at the five when small lineups offer an advantage. With the increased playing time at center, Collins has a career high 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes, and there has always been concern about wear and tear when pitting the former first-round pick against centers on a full-time basis.
For the first time this season, the Hawks have a legitimate starting center in Capela. They have a player that can anchor the defense overall and hold down the back line of the unit in a half-court setting. That is good news for the team that currently ranks No. 28 in defensive rating. In addition, the Hawks add an elite rebounder, marking similarly positive news for a team that has ranked near, if not at, the bottom of the league on the defensive glass all season.
There is little doubt that Capela is positioned to fill some of the biggest holes the roster has had from the beginning of the season, especially on the defensive end of the court. On top of that, he offers them a substantially versatile defender in the heart of their defense, opening up schematic lanes.
Under head coach Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks aren’t committed to a single defensive scheme. That factor is, in part at least, why the center position was constructed the way it was entering the season. Len is solid near the rim. Jones, conceptually at least, has the mobility to range further away from the paint and help on ball screens. Fernando projects to offer perhaps equal parts of both. He’s not so big that he has to stay near the lane, but has the raw strength to, with good technique, also hold up on the interior.
Capela can do all of the above, and he’s done it on good teams that have played deep into the postseason.
Last season, Capela logged 33.6 minutes per game on a Rockets team that made it to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. During the previous campaign, he played 27.5 minutes per game on a 65-win team that came ever so close to playing in the NBA Finals.
When Capela is presumably cleared to play with his new team — he is currently working through a heel issue that could be plantar fasciitis — it will be interesting to see what defensive schemes the Hawks look to use with him on the court. As the season has progressed with this roster, Atlanta appears to have developed a preference to use a scheme that calls for switching ball screens at the 1-4 positions (all positions except center), which requires the center to provide a very specific type of support while the switch is in progress. Capela could be an excellent fit in that role. He has the mobility to get involved at the point of attack and still get back to protect the rim when the play dictates.
Offensively, Capela could not be a more ideal fit to play with Trae Young. He is the prototypical pick-and-roll big for the modern league. Capela sets wide, quality screens and moves toward the rim with rare speed and leaping abilities. He’s a great lob target and, perhaps quite importantly, is not high-maintenance when the ball is not finding its way to his hands. He works hard in all areas regardless of the number of touches and shots attempts he is getting.
Statistically, however, his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll has regressed the last two seasons. In the 2017-18 season, he graded in the top ten percent in the league operating as the roll man with very few turnovers. Last year, he was just outside of the top third of the league (65th percentile) with a turnover frequency that almost doubled (4.2% in 2017-18 to 8.0%). This season, he has graded as something approaching league average, and Capela’s turnover frequency has increased further to 11.9% overall.
These numbers may not be of great concern as he transitions to his new team in Atlanta. Houston has been trying, with urgency, to increase the amount of five-out offense they deploy. One result has been Capela operating with the basketball further from the rim. A lot of his turnovers have come in this area of play, and the end result is also fewer pick-and-rolls with him as the dive man.
With Atlanta, Capela’s role could be simplified to resemble what it looked like a few years ago with the Rockets when he was one of the very best pick and roll bigs in the league. Young is at his best, usually, when he can possess the ball as long as it takes for him to make the right play. This should mean fewer dribbles and passes for Capela... and more lobs and dunks.
The fit with John Collins
As rumors about the possibility of Capela being acquired by Atlanta got stronger, so did a bit of buzz about the team, perhaps, looking to move Collins in a deal. The noise was a bit surprising — and could sustain in some form until the trade deadline has officially ended — but the organization does have a financial decision to make regarding his services in the coming months.
Collins and the team will have until opening night of the 2020-2021 NBA season to agree to an extension, or he will become a restricted free agent after the season. In the latter scenario, it would only take a single NBA team to offer him a very lucrative offer sheet (and for him to sign it) to force the Hawks to match the terms if they want to retain him.
There is little reason to think Collins won’t be able to command a rich contract offer on the restricted free agent market. He possesses a valuable skill set and is still adding to his game. With that said, he’s unlikely to be the single best player on either end of the court for the roster Atlanta is developing, and Collins needs to fit into a workable cap sheet in future seasons.
As such, one of the most valuable reasons for the team to have acquired Capela now — as opposed to after the season, for example — is that they can assess the fit of Collins and Capela when asking them to share the floor.
Like Capela, Collins is at his best offensively diving toward the rim in pick-and-roll action, but Collins can also do some things that Capela simply can’t. Collins is shooting a career-best mark from the three-point line on a career high volume. His pick-and-pop game continues to progress. He’s a significantly better free throw shooter. Finally, he has flashed the ability to function in short roll action. That could be very valuable when opposing teams opt to try to trap Young, and it is a skill set that Capela is very unlikely to develop.
The presence of Capela could also force Collins into using his post and face up game a bit more than he has to date. It’s something the Hawks don’t prioritize much if at all in their general scheme, in large part because analytics in the modern NBA encourage teams to steer away from these alternatives. In the playoffs, though, teams are often facing the best defenses in the league, and those teams work hard to prevent desirable shots at the rim and from the three point line. Having a player that can generate points from these actions has increased value, and that could be important down the line for the Hawks.
Defensively, Collins will be able to do more of what he does best, creating havoc defending off the ball jumping passing lanes and helping at the rim from the weak side of the play. He has made great strides as a help-side defender and playmaker, with some of the pressure alleviated when playing next to an anchor at the center spot.
Perhaps the most profound impact Capela could have on the play of Collins is based upon his ability to rebound the basketball.
One of Collins’ most unique strengths, especially when considering position, is his straight-line speed. Frankly, it is special. When Collins has been playing at center on defense, for example, he has had to focus on helping secure rebounds. The presence of Capela could free him up just enough to let him get out in transition and outrun teams to the rim for easy scoring opportunities. This fit might be the key to allowing Collins’ offensive value to be optimized.
Even in the halfcourt, having two big men who excel as pick-and-roll partners with Young is not likely to be wasted. The depth in skill set just makes it that much more likely for the team to be able to consistently deploy such a threat any time Young is on the court.
Should Pierce decide to stagger the minutes of the two big men for this purpose, it might make sense for Collins head to the bench first. That would allow him, as the better free throw shooter, to spend more time on the court when the Hawks are more likely to be in the bonus later in the quarter. That can be an important consideration given the type of pressure Young applies to opponents, even if Pierce has leeway to experiment with rotations in the coming months.
The presence of Capela will help the team this season, assuming he will be able to play for a decent portion of the remainder of the journey. For example, the defensive development of De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter could pick up, as they have increased confidence in the help that is available at the rim behind their effort to defend at the point of attack.
Still, there might not be a more important short-term implication for the organization than bringing clarity to the possible future fit of Collins in the context of roster construction.
That means that, even if the deal doesn’t end up moving the needle for the team in the win column this season, it is still critically important in terms of completing a number of timely evaluations needed to determine the best next steps to take. If the Hawks intend to be competitive in 2020-21 (however one defines that), there is a lot of important work to do during the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign, and the Capela acquisition could be setting the table for just that.