Clint Capela returns for his third season with the Atlanta Hawks as he, at age 28, approaches what some consider to be the later prime years for NBA big men. His numbers fell off last year for a number of reasons and likely due to other factors that aren’t completely knowable.
Offensively, he might be the best partner in the league for a heavy volume pick-and-roll point guard, like Trae Young, if one is not simply looking at box score stats and the individual game numbers of his performance finishing at the rim. He’s extremely nuanced and attentive to detail as a screener. Young easily had his best NBA season last year and has been vocal about the importance of being able to play with Capela.
Onyeka Okongwu is entering his third season and still sits behind Capela on the depth chart despite consistent improvement and flashing the skills and abilities needed to warrant, likely sooner than later, an opportunity to start at the center position. He will be extension eligible at the end of this season and presumably has an eye on getting maximum opportunity to demonstrate what he can do.
As such, some Hawks fans have been vocal about wanting to see Capela traded if a reasonable deal can be found. And it’s understandable. But expectations have been set high once again by the organization ahead of the 2022-2023 season and Capela, at this point, is still a more reliable performer than his younger backup.
Part of the beauty of having a player like Capela is that he doesn’t complain. When Okongwu closes games or gets extended minutes, there is no drama. When Capela doesn’t get touches on offense it’s not an issue. If the Hawks plan to transition in some way toward more playing time and general opportunity for Okongwu, there is no reason to expect any kind of issue in the locker room.
Besides, in order for Atlanta to meet their own expectations this season they will need reliably strong defensive play from the center position for 48 minutes a night. If either Capela or Okongwu are moved it’s going to be next to impossible to make that happen.
As for Capela’s numbers last season, his volume and quality of opportunities as a pick and roll finisher were diminished as opposing teams were stubborn about using more aggressive defensive coverage. There was less of the drop technique and more of aggressive tactics used at the level of the screen.
That’s not to say his finishing wasn’t frustrating at times. But he replicated his conversion percentage on shot at the rim from the previous season. His rebounding numbers were down as he was asked to play a bit further from the rim as the Hawks persistently struggled to defend at the point of attack. The same factor also impacted his rate of blocked shots.
With the Hawks having reworked their roster with an eye on getting stronger defensively at the point of attack, it should be enlightening to see if Capela is positioned to generate the kind of impact he showed down the stretch of the 2020-2021 season.
Having signed a two-year contract extension ahead of last season, Capela now has three years remaining on his deal. Apart from an injury, always a concern for a big man… especially one that has missed time with some consistency, he should be a player that can be moved if needed when the time is right.
In addition to his value as a defender and rebounder, he’s simply a guy that leading scorers at the guard position are eager to play alongside. He works incredibly hard with screening and positioning in the offensive half court. And player like Young will always value and appreciate that.
Still, for the Hawks to be the best version of themselves and to have their best season, Capela will need to be a healthy and reliable contributor across the season. Coming off of a full offseason to rest, recover, and prepare his body he should be well positioned to provide that.