Clint Capela: The unsung center who changed the Hawks

Atlanta Hawks' Clint Capela (15) shoots and scores against the New York Knicks during the first half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Atlanta Hawks' Clint Capela (15) shoots and scores against the New York Knicks during the first half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

The Hawks haven’t yet advanced to Round 2, but there’s not much left to say about Round 1. Had they held any part of a 15-point road lead in Game 2, they’d be preparing to meet top-seeded Philadelphia. The Hawks won Game 4 by 17 points after leading by 26; they won Game 3 by nine after leading by 18.

Rarely is a 4-versus-5 series so lopsided. From the start, it has been clear which is the better side. Eight minutes into Game 1, the Hawks led by 10. Almost everything since has been varying shades of domination.

And here we note: On March 1, the Hawks were 14-20. That was the day they fired Lloyd Pierce. Under Nate McMillan — still technically an interim coach — they’re 30-12. That’s a winning percentage of .714. Playing .714 ball over a normal season would mean a rounded-up 59 wins. Dating back to their 1949 birth as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, only once have the Hawks won more than 59 games. That came in 2014-2015, when Mike Budenholzer’s starless crew went 60-22.

And HERE we note: As of March 1, the Hawks appeared stuck in the throes of rebuilding. To be fair, several of them were injured. To be fair, Lou Williams was imported later that month for Rajon Rondo. Still, on Feb. 28, the Hawks’ starters included Trae Young, Clint Capela, John Collins and Kevin Huerter. Their first sub was Danilo Gallinari. They lost by 10 in Miami. They’d gone 4-10 in February. They held the 11th-best record in the 15-team Eastern Conference.

Hawks center Clint Capela (15) blocks a shot by New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the second half of Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Friday, May 28, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Hawks center Clint Capela (15) blocks a shot by New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) during the second half of Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Friday, May 28, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On the day they parted ways with Pierce, nobody wondered how far the Hawks would go in the playoffs. The bigger concern was if they’d ever again hold a fourth-quarter lead. When a rebuilding team stops progressing — young players are supposed to get better, right? — the question becomes: Are our young players just not good enough?

We have our answer now. Since Travis Schlenk came here as general manager, his Round 1 picks include Collins, Young, Huerter, Omari Spellman, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Oneyka Okongwu. Spellman was a flop and is gone. Reddish is injured. Okongwu, a rookie, plays a few minutes every game. Collins, Young and Hunter are starters; Huerter is a rotational sub. That’s a fine haul from four drafts.

It was clear from the Hawks’ flurry of offseason motion — they landed Gallinari, Rondo, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, Solomon Hill and Tony Snell — that Schlenk felt his team wasn’t far from winning. His vision wasn’t shared by one and all. The Hawks finished last season 20-47, too low to qualify for the Disney bubble. Still, there was this guy, who was acquired at the 2020 trade deadline but who, owing to a sore heel, hadn’t played before last season met its abrupt end … this guy, you thought, might make a difference.

Capela spent six years with Houston despite being the antithesis of what the Rockets had in mind. Houston based its existence on James Harden and 3-point shots. (In his career, Capela hasn’t made a trey.) The Rockets fell so deeply in thrall of GM Daryl Morey’s analytics — core tenet: the only shots worth taking are a 3 or a layup — that they dared to go even smaller. They shipped out Capela, who’d averaged a double-double three years running, in a four-way deal that brought them Robert Covington, Jordan Bell and a second-round pick in 2024.

The Rockets just finished with the NBA’s worst record. Harden works for the Nets. Morey is president of the 76ers. Capela led the league in rebounding. He finished fourth in blocked shots, 10th in field-goal percentage, 13th in player efficiency rating. He has never been an All-Star, but he’s a pro’s pro.

Clint Capela stats

In this series, Capela hasn’t been the first, or even the fourth, most noticeable Hawk. He never is. He has taken 26 shots over 134 minutes. He’s averaging 9.8 points. He’s also averaging 13 rebounds. He has blocked nine shots. In Games 3 and 4, the Hawks were plus-34 with Capela on the court. He’s not the guy putting up gaudy offensive numbers. He’s the guy doing everything else.

Yes, it’s weird. For all the time the Hawks devoted to tanking and and drafting, for the $113 million they lavished on Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic in November, their shrewdest addition was the result of the Rockets getting antsy. Capela was a Hawk for almost 11 months before he played. He’s playing now. The Hawks are good again. We say no more.

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