Clint Capela's ability to provide 'vertical spacing' offers the Houston Rockets the chance to level up in their pursuit of top spot in the Western Conference.
In a previous look at the Houston Rockets, we touched upon their lack of depth, and how they were so hugely reliant on a select few players, a significant injury to any of which would terminate their championship aspirations. In particular, we looked at their reliance upon Clint Capela at the center position, where they are extremely thin.
Watch T-Wolves @ Rockets free on Sky Sports
Watch Timberwolves @ Rockets on Saturday at 10pm via free live stream on skysports.com, Sky Sports app and YouTube
Behind Capela, the Rockets have only Tyson Chandler, Isaiah Hartenstein and Nene, and their assorted limitations are at the crux of the problem.
The Brazilian Nene has not played for the team all season, is on the roster only as salary cap-related trade filler, is injured and is unlikely to ever play another NBA minute. The German Hartenstein only had his contract guaranteed this week, which serves as fairly compelling evidence of his place near the end of the roster; he has begun to earn the trust of some rotation minutes, but is too foul-prone to be reliable.
The American Chandler meanwhile is into his 19th NBA season - quite possibly his last - and has recorded only 192 minutes, with nearly as many fouls recorded as points. He has been effective in his small role of rim protection and defensive rebounding, but he has not the legs to play any meaningful minutes any longer; given that Nene cannot play any and Hartenstein is not looked to for many, the onus on Capela is enormous.
Even if Hartenstein was to be brought more into the rotation in the second half of the season - and with three double-doubles during a recent Capela-less stretch, it looks as though he might - he is not the same type of player. Despite not having the consistency in his defense over the past season and a half that he did when breaking out in the 2017-18 campaign, Capela's physical profile offers dimensions that the Rockets otherwise do not have when it comes to the modern principle of 'vertical spacing'.
Vote for your 2020 All-Stars now
Who will you send to Chicago for the 2020 All-Star Game? Make your picks now!
The poster child for vertical spacing is Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, someone Capela at his best is not dissimilar to. Although he does not take any jumpers or do anything offensively outside the paint except screen - thus not offering the more conventional form of spacing - the theory holds that, in being a giant of a man who is also athletic, skilled and very timely on the roll, Gobert expands the playbook by always being available for a lob pass over the top.
The manifold intricacies of NBA defense are complicated enough. When a team can consistently add this one extra thing for defenders to think about - possibly the most efficient play in the game when it goes right - then it gets even harder. The five defensive players find themselves often needing to cover eight spots on the floor.
Capela is not quite as big or athletic as Gobert is, yet he still offers this dimension to the Rockets in a way that no other frontcourt player on the team does. Chandler's big leaping days are behind him, as are Nene's, and while Hartenstein plays with good energy and some fluid motion, it is done along the ground. So too is all the hustle of PJ Tucker.
More importantly, what Capela and the team also have is, of course, James Harden at the guard position. When Harden is driving into the paint, you already have to guard the kick-out pass and the inevitability of him getting to the free-throw line; you don't also want to have to guard the alley oop as well. Capela offers that threat, and in doing so, he makes Harden better.
It is hard to guard a lob play. To do so means having good reads on the play from multiple defenders, as well as good attention to always keep the eyes open and the hands up. The player guarding the ball-handler has to try to subdue passing angles with their hands while staying in front with their feet, the player guarding the big has to be in the right spot between the roller and the dribbler to not overexpose himself to either, and the weakside defenders need to be ready and alert to come off and help without giving away easy looks to open shooters.
Moreover, to do all these things, the players in question - and especially the defending bigs drawn into the play - have to be athletic space-covering specimens themselves.
Except for Gobert and the Jazz and Anthony Davis with the Los Angeles Lakers, many of the Rockets' main rivals in the Western Conference do not have the right kind of personnel to do this. The Denver Nuggets' pairing of Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee do not cover the court that quickly, nor get off the ground much themselves. For the LA Clippers, Ivica Zubac is a decent defender in the backline, but he is no Draymond Green.
Indeed, it was Green and his Golden State Warriors team's excellent defense of this play that helped to tip the balance in the 2018 Western Conference Finals and the 2019 West semi-finals against Houston - if Capela is stulted, then Harden is stulted, and thus so are the Rockets. But with the Warriors having imploded, that will not now happen again. The vertical spacing can, therefore, help the Rockets to level up, assuming Capela keeps up the energy.
NBA Sundays: Jazz @ Wizards on Sky Sports
Watch Jazz @ Wizards on Sunday at 8:30pm live on Sky Sports Arena
Capela, of course, contributes in other ways as well. His offensive game has always been relied upon circumstance, given that he does not dribble, shoot or post; he is largely a catch-and-finish guy, be it above the rim for a dunk or below the rim for a soft lay-up that he tends to get blocked on a lot. What he has done offensively this season though is improve his passing on the catch, especially to the corners, which is often the best place to pass to with Tucker (corner three-point specialist) alongside him.
Capela's other main skill offensively is running the court directly from rim to rim, doing so in a way that not many other players at the five-spot can. In these three play types, all of which involve getting as close to the basket as he can, he is highly efficient as a finisher. On the season so far, per Synergy Sports' data, Capela is shooting 65.9 per cent on cuts, alongside 63.3 per cent as a roll man and 72.4 per cent in transition. If ever the free throws start going in, his efficiency numbers will spike even further.
Furthermore, Capela's 127 individual offensive rating is second only to that of Chandler, and while no player is directly responsible for their individual offensive rating (as evidenced by the fact that Chandler is first), it stops being a coincidence after a while. A motivated, energetic and springy Capela adds a hugely important dimension to a Rockets offense that is otherwise overly reliant on the three.
His best value, though, still comes defensively and on the glass. Averaging a career-high in rebounding this season at 14.5 per game, his sixth-consecutive increase in this category, Capela is fittingly also the Rockets' best lob defender. Tucker rotates into the lane well when playing the center position, Hartenstein clears the rebounds, Chandler defends the post…but at his best, Capela does all three. And only he can protect the rim and the paint from the very same feeds that he himself thrives upon.
It seems as though every year, the Rockets get out to a slow start. A 3-3 start to this season, including a loss to the Brooklyn Nets and a drubbing at the hands of the Miami Heat, was no different.
Capela also started slowly this year, being a step slow on defense, not clearing the glass and not running the court. As he has got into shape and got his energy back, though, the Rockets have risen up the standings.
Get NBA news on your phone
Want the latest NBA news, features and highlights on your phone? Find out more
And it is not a coincidence. Only he can do some of the things that they need to compete.