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How Clint Capela is anchoring the Hawks’ defense

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Clint Capela was acquired by the Atlanta Hawks by trade on Feb. 5, 2020, but he didn’t make his Hawks debut until Dec. 28 of the same year — a span of 327 days. Still, his presence in the lineup has been immediately felt since his first game of this season.

The addition of Capela has helped the Hawks leap to new heights defensively, and his play has been reminiscent of a player whose number 55 hangs in the rafters in State Farm Arena. Dikembe Mutombo — who manned the center position for Atlanta from 1996 to 2001 — is the franchise’s leader in blocks per game and was named to the All-Star Game in every season while a Hawk (minus the lockout-cancelled festivities in 1998-99).

Like Mutombo punctuating many blocks with his signature finger wag, Capela’s reputation as a shot blocker is becoming more and more evident and has been a headache for opposing scorers. The former Houston Rockets center recently recorded a triple-double that included ten rejections, putting him in rare company with the aforementioned block artist.

By many measures, Atlanta’s defense went from being one of the worst in the league in 2019-20 to currently league-average or better in 2020-21.

Last season, the Hawks stumbled to a 114.4 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) that ranked 28th in the NBA. Their leaky paint defense was a big reason why, and a big impetus behind the desire to move assets for Capela last January. That 2019-20 season, Atlanta gave up the second most makes — 21.6 per game — within five feet in the league and allowed a poor 62.7% on all attempts from that range.

Between players like Alex Len, Damion Jones and Bruno Fernando, seen below arriving late to the event, the Hawks simply didn’t have a center who could routinely diagnose a play and make timely slides off the ball and help without fouling in 2019-20.

Too often, the Hawks looked unorganized and unthreatening defending in transition, without a true leader to set up the positioning and bark ad hoc assignments. Many lineups looked like the one fielded in the below clip, where the Hawks didn’t have an established shot blocker in the game at all.

In the clip below, the tallest player on the floor is the 6’8” Cam Reddish, but he’s matched up on the perimeter. The temporary solution in these situations was switching at every opportunity possible, or at least being aggressive in disrupting ball handlers during offensive actions. Vince Carter looks to be the primary man for center Jarrett Allen, but after he jumps the high screen, there is no help defense available to prevent an easy dunk.

As the Hawks have jumped out to a 10-9 start to begin the 2020-21 season, and look to appear in their first postseason since the 2016-17 season, they have settled in as a legitimately stingy team for the first time since that very campaign.

In the three seasons since 2017, the Hawks have been a bottom-ten unit on that end of the court. This season, however, the Hawks have fielded a top-ten team, even given the caveat that the schedule becomes more difficult than is has been in the first quarter of the 72-game season.

Atlanta is third in the league in allowing effective field goal percentage, at a mark of 50.3%, down from a sky-high mark of 54.4% a season ago and good for 25th in the NBA. The defense at the rim has been a big catalyst for this improvement. The Hawks are still giving up 18.8 made field goals from within five feet, in the lower third of the NBA, but are allowing a solid 59.8% from that area, in the top half of the league.

There were many other personnel moves in the past calendar year since trading for Capela, but the evidence on the court makes it clear to see he’s the number one reason for the improvement.

Certainly, there is more to rim protection than blocks, but Capela’s performance in this are illustrative of the large effect the Swiss national has on the Hawks’ team. His blocks are up this season, at a career high 2.3 per contest and 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes, his highest mark since 2014-15 in sparse usage as a rookie.

Capela’s shot blocking prowess has kept him among the leaderboard of best rim protectors in the game today. His block percentage, a measure of available two point shots he has blocked, currently places him fourth in the league behind only Myles Turner, Chris Boucher and Rudy Gobert per Basketball Reference.

FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR measures impact with an adjusted individual plus-minus, with Capela at second in the league behind Rudy Gobert on the defensive side of the metric.

In half court sets, other teams restructure their entire game plan to avoid meeting Capela at the rim knowing he will contest and alter shots with vigor and effort. There is much less switching to allow Capela to drop towards the rim in pick-and-roll actions in which he’s involved. Additionally, he is able to roam from the weak side with the latitude to help and recover before offenses can take advantage.

Head coach Lloyd Pierce voiced his praise of Capela in the postgame of the Minnesota Timberwolves matchup in late January.

“I think it’s just [Capela] understanding our concepts. And then picking and choosing the spots where he can be a tremendous helper,” Pierce said. “He’s not blocking a lot of shots on his own man. He’s doing it on penetration and he’s doing it as we’re funneling the basketball to him.”

The cascading effect of having Capela patrolling the paint is palpable too. John Collins is having his best defensive performance this year, especially showing out when playing forward next to Capela. Other perimeter players can be aggressive in defending far from the rim, knowing there’s a safety blanket behind them should they be beat off the dribble.

Capela may only be 6’10”, but with a wingspan of 7’5” he can alter shots as opponents attempt to drive to the rim. By funneling smaller guards toward the baseline, it allows Capela to range over and force an outlet from an uncompromising position — below the backboard.

Watch as Capela first redirects the slashing Derrick Rose to the baseline forcing a pass to the opposite corner, and then contests two more approaches to the restricted area on the same possession.

Transition defense is often overlooked, but it remains a very key factor in determining defensive success. Teams are only getting 9.7% of their points against Atlanta this year from the fast break per the NBA’s stats, putting the Hawks are the sixth-best team in that area. In a similar vein, they are near the top in the league in not fouling in transition, preventing opponents from racking up easy points in dangerous situations.

Capela, in particular, has been a superb defender while impressively avoiding fouls, and he is in the middle of his first season of his career logging fewer fouls per game (1.9) than blocks (2.3). Below in semi-transition, Capela provide picture perfect help defense on a slashing Anthony Edwards with a vertical stance to cleanly contest and meet Edwards at the apex of his jump.

Despite a spacing and shooting emphasis in the league that has seen a greater and greater percentage of threes taken in recent years, rim protecting big men remain as valuable as ever in the right environment. With paint area specialists like Rudy Gobert still inking $40 million per year deals, being able to shut the door on some of the most efficient shots in the game is still a major focal point.

For the first time in a long while, the Hawks can rest easy knowing they someone as accomplished as Capela as a last line of defense night in and night out.