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Clint Capela on the ‘winning mind-set’ the Hawks need

The Atlanta Hawks acquired center Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets in a four-team trade-deadline deal in February,
The Atlanta Hawks acquired center Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets in a four-team trade-deadline deal in February,

Credit: David Zalubowski

Credit: David Zalubowski

James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard.

Clint Capela can still recite the starting lineup from his rookie season with the Rockets in 2014-15, when Houston went 56-26 and advanced to to the Western Conference finals before losing to eventual NBA champion Golden State.

A young Capela struggled to get playing time, averaging 7.5 minutes in 12 games, and was assigned to the G League (at that time called the NBA Development League) several times. The next season, Howard’s final one in Houston, Capela took a step forward with 7.0 points and 6.4 rebounds in 19 minutes, starting 35 games and appearing in 77. Then, as a starter in his third season, he averaged 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game, starting 59 out of 65 games played (missing some time with a broken fibula). It wasn’t until his fourth season in Houston that Capela became the double-double machine he’s known as today.

“It was really hard for me to get in the Rockets’ rotation,” Capela said. “It was already a winning team.”

In Capela's five-plus seasons with the veteran-heavy Rockets, they never failed to make the playoffs, making it to the conference finals twice and the conference semifinals twice (they also made the playoffs the two years before his arrival). The Hawks acquired Capela, who recently turned 26, in a four-team trade-deadline deal in February, and since then he has talked about his desire to help young players develop and bringing a "winning mind-set" to Atlanta, a team that finished 20-47 (its 2019-20 season cut 15 games short because of the coronavirus) and hasn't made the playoffs since 2017.

Capela got that mindset, he said, by learning from veterans in Houston, and that’s what he wants to contribute as one of the older players on a young Hawks team looking to become more competitive, transitioning its focus from rebuilding to winning more games. Capela has already been a vocal voice during his short time in the Hawks’ locker room and bench, as he rehabbed from a heel injury.

“I was just a young 19-year-old guy, and I just learned from them that every game is important,” Capela said. “We (the Rockets) cannot just go to Memphis and play around and think that if we lose, it’s OK. Because we’re fighting for spots. Second spot or the third spot, there’s a difference in the playoffs. So I’ve learned from that for six straight years and even more the last three years, especially when Chris Paul came, that really every game counts and it’s going to make a difference down the road, and trust me, it did.”

The Hawks, of course, were not fighting for the second or third playoff spot this past season. They spent the majority of it either in or near the Eastern Conference basement, going 8-32 in the first 40 games.

You can attribute that to several things, including: the Hawks had taken on some bad/expiring contracts, so most of the veterans on the team weren’t contributing much. John Collins 25-game suspension set them back big-time, as did two injuries to Kevin Huerter, a nagging right knee injury that bothered him for the first half of the season and a left shoulder injury in November. Also, the Hawks got even younger than the season before (when they went 29-53), asking a lot from two rookies in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, both of whom had their ups and downs. And for most of the season, they didn’t have a starting-caliber center who could impact the game on both ends of the floor (enter Capela, and also Dewayne Dedmon, to an extent).

But, if a more competitive roster comes together for the 2020-21 season (tentatively scheduled to begin Dec. 1), that could change.

“I think we’re good enough to win games,” Capela said. “Sometimes, from what I’ve seen on the bench, it’s just that we just need to change our mentality. Push ourselves, really, to more about winning games and not just playing two good quarters or just playing good at home, or when we play away, we just don’t play good. Just to have this mentality of every game counts.”

The past season, there are many examples of Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce calling out his team’s effort or level of “competing.” That’s hard to quantify, but it’s also not unheard of on teams that can’t seem to gain traction in the standings.

Two blowout losses to the Grizzlies in March come to mind, when Memphis was fighting like crazy to keep hold of the No. 8 seed in the West and had a sense of urgency, while the Hawks lacked energy.

Pierce has said that next year the Hawks will be a playoff team, which means they would have to take what they did toward the end of this season (going 12-15) and build on it.

That also would require, per Capela, winning on nights when you don’t play your best.

“The main goal is really to be a winning team, have this winning mentality, be able to night in, night out go get wins,” Capela said. “Tough wins. Even wins that you don’t deserve. I’ve been with teams where we had a lot of wins, 58, 65 wins, and those kinds of seasons, you win games even when you play bad. So I really want to maybe bring that mentality that you have to bring it every night, just enough to win. It doesn’t matter if you play good or bad, but you have to have that dog mentality to make stops, to at least get a win.”

Because of that heel injury, Capela wasn’t able to make his debut with the Hawks this past season. But it sounds like he’ll be good to go for next season, provided he doesn’t have any setbacks.

With Capela on the roster, as well as what the Hawks add through the draft and free agency, they’ll look to take a leap next season.

“Just have that dog mentality every night to go get the win because at the end of the day, for the team, that’s what, this is what’s going to matter for us next year is to win games,” Capela said. “We don’t want to be seen as a young team that’s developing players, we want to be seen as a young team that’s fighting for a playoff spot.”