Houston Rockets center Clint Capela blocks the shot of Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant.

Hawks trade-target Capela would help them now and later

Six young players form the Hawks’ core. One of them, second-year point guard Trae Young, already is an NBA All-Star. Another, third-year forward John Collins, is a good starter. The other four have the potential to be good, but there’s only one center among them, rookie project Bruno Fernando. 

The Hawks need a better big man in the middle. The NBA trade deadline is Thursday. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports the Hawks are targeting Houston center Clint Capela, who would make them significantly better. If all Capela costs the Hawks is the lesser of their two first-round draft picks and filler contracts, great. 

That’s the only way I can see the Hawks doing a deal for Capela. He’s not good enough to part with one of their top five. But Capela is the starting-caliber center the Hawks lack. He also fits the player profile that general manager Travis Schlenk said he’s looking for: young guy on a long-term contract who is good now with room to grow. 

Capela, 25, is signed through the 2022-23 season. He’s good, especially on defense. I don’t know how much higher his ceiling goes — more on that later — but if the Hawks acquire Capela, they’ll have a proven center as part of their core. Add him to the group, and see where it goes. 

There’s little risk that Capela’s contract would end up as dead weight on the Hawks’ salary cap. His salary averages about $17 million over the next three seasons. That’s good value for a legitimate starting center. If Capela didn’t work out for the Hawks, he’s the kind of player that has trade value for a contender. 

Collins has played roughly half his minutes at center. He’s a better overall player than Capela but he’s small (6-foot-9, 235 pounds) for the position with a relatively short wingspan. Collins still has held his own. According to Cleaning the Glass lineup data, the Hawks’ best defensive alignment features Collins at center with natural wing De’Andre Hunter at power forward. 

The downside is that physical centers can give Collins trouble. Also, a lineup with him as the lone big man gives up a lot of offensive rebounds. Capela would immediately help with both issues. He’s not much bigger than Collins (6-10, 240), but he’s longer and more of a banger. Few big men are better on the boards than Capela. 

A Collins-Capela front court would be a very good one for the Hawks. Finally, Collins would be paired with a center who can score and defend at the basket. Young would have another terrific pick-and-roll partner on offense and another defensive backstop. 

Since the 2015-16 season, Capela’s first as a regular, he ranks eighth in blocks per minute among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Capela also can guard pick-and-rolls away from the basket and smaller players on switches. Not many big men can do both well. 

The likely reason the Rockets are ready to move on from their starting center as they gear up for a title is Capela’s low offensive ceiling . He’s a great rim runner, but in a league in love with 3-pointers, Capela never shoots them. That’s barely an exaggeration: Capela has attempted two 3-pointers in 334 career games. 

According to Cleaning the Glass, at least 81 percent of Capela’s shot attempts have come from within four feet of the basket in each of his five seasons. Capela draws a lot of fouls, but is a poor free-throw shooter. He’s unlikely to develop into a reliable 3-point shooter. 

That makes Capela an awkward fit for the Rockets. No team in the NBA shoots 3-pointers at a higher rate. The advanced stats suggest that Capela’s limitations have dragged down Houston’s offense even more than usual this year (his lingering foot injury may also be a factor). 

The Hawks also are built to shoot a lot of 3-pointers. Five of their core six players do it. Kevin Huerter, Young and Collins make them at better than league average. Rookies Cam Reddish and Hunter are trying to get there. Ferando is the non-shooter among the Hawks’ core six. 

Capela would be another. If Hunter and Reddish improve their 3-point shooting, then maybe Capela’s limited range wouldn’t matter so much. But the Rockets tried the approach of putting good shooters all around Capela and have seen diminishing returns. The same could happen for the Hawks. 

Capela might find more chances to score at the rim with the Hawks because Young, an elite passer, gets everyone good shots. Or maybe Capela’s inability to shoot means his defender can help clog the paint. That would leave less room for Young to operate in a space where he’s so good. 

The Hawks could work it out. Capela’s defensive ability more than makes up for his offensive limitations. He’d give the Hawks a good center, which they need now, and another good piece for their future.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.