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2023-24 Atlanta Hawks player preview: Clint Capela

Capela is entering his fourth season with the Hawks, and the big man has been a frequent topic in trade conversations.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Chicago Bulls Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

2023-24 will be the fourth season for Clint Capela in Atlanta. Since he arrived from Houston, the Swiss big man has captured a rebounding title while thriving off the pick-and-roll with Trae Young.

Last season wasn’t the best for Capela in terms of rebounding and point production, but he set a new career-high in field goal percentage (65.3%) and shot over 60% from the free-throw line for the first time since the 2018-19 season. Overall, Capela has been a consistent presence for the Hawks.

That said, the upcoming season can go in several directions for Capela, most of which are out of his control. Capela’s blessing (or curse, depending on how you look at it) is everyone knows exactly what he provides: a high-energy big that can finish well around the basket, can’t shoot at all and protects the rim effectively. Nothing more, nothing less. If he’s in a system that benefits his skillset, like playing with James Harden in Houston or Young in Atlanta, you’ll see him flourish.

But Capela’s limitations can be hard to work around. It ultimately proved to be John Collins’ downfall because Collins was forced out to the perimeter for offensive balance. The former Hawk made his name doing what Capela does now, but two interior players can’t work in the modern NBA. Collins has now been shipped to Utah for other reasons, but that’s been a significant factor in his decline.

Head coach Quin Snyder, who found success in Utah with a similar roster structure thanks to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, has another version of the duo with Young and Capela. As perimeter-oriented as Snyder is, it’s doubtful he’ll be the catalyst for Capela’s future either way.

Two situations will determine his short-term and long-term future. First is the organization’s immediate direction. The first is whether or not Atlanta stays committed to winning now or aiming for the future.

If the organization is focused on winning now, which is the most likely option, Capela will probably be a Hawk at least through his contract. As great as Onyeka Okongwu has progressed in three years, he’s not quite ready to be a full-time starter (but he is close). Capela is a known commodity who’s on an upward trend statistically, and he’s more ready now to help the team make a playoff run.

This case is supported because the front office wants to show its franchise player that the team is committed to winning to avoid a Luka or Giannis situation that may end in his departure. Let’s also remember that Dejounte Murray (27) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (31) aren’t getting any younger, and the former just signed a long-term deal. Those factors incentivize Landry Fields and Co. to win now, which favors Capela staying for the foreseeable future.

That said, it is possible that the front office will evaluate the landscape, especially after the Damian Lillard trade, and decide to rebuild for a brighter - and more competitive - future. The Murray trade has depleted the Hawks’ draft stock, meaning the only option is to engage in more transactions. Capela and De’Andre Hunter were the main trade pieces after Collins, but Hunter is young enough to have time to turn it around.

Capela isn’t as young as Hunter, but he’s in the middle of his prime at 29 years old. Several teams in the contender category could pursue the big man, namely Dallas, Phoenix, Miami and Golden State. His contract is also manageable, so if the right deal comes and the Hawks back out of win-now mode, Capela will be the first to go.

The second reason, which is more intriguing, is the progression of Okongwu. Some of the Hawks contingent calls for the 22-year-old to assume the starting role. The thought isn’t wholly wild - Okongwu has shown flashes of being another energizer big man with the potential to shoot from the perimeter.

We can go back and forth for hours about Capela vs. Okongwu, but here’s the question people need to ask to determine the proper path forward: can Atlanta rely on Okongwu full-time as the No. 1 center right now?

If the answer is yes, then Capela should be moved to let Okongwu grow and not be stunted by limited minutes. If not, Capela needs to stay so Okongwu doesn’t have the pressure on him, and he can continue to develop at a healthy pace. Remember: it’s not a matter of if he replaces Capela, but when. But within the “when” is the discussion of now or later.

Personally, the sample size is too tiny for Okongwu, and transitioning to him now is a significant and unnecessary risk with both guys under team control for another year.

If I had to choose if Capela would be a Hawk by the end of the season, I’d say he would be due to the win-now mentality of the organization and because Okongwu isn’t ready yet. The sample size isn’t big enough, and while I’m sure he’ll get even more playing time this year, he would have to prove that he’s undoubtedly better than Capela, and do so by the trade deadline.

The talk around Capela has been mainly off the court. Why? Because like I said in the beginning, his skillset will remain the same, and nothing has happened to indicate he’ll deviate too far from the mean. So if he stays, it’s safe to expect a similar amount of production, maybe even slightly more due to the likelihood that John Collins’ successor will be more perimeter-oriented.

Where he does it is the question — but beyond that, Capela is gonna Capela.