Injury-riddled Houston Rockets missing Clint Capela's inside punch

With the right pieces in place, Mike D’Antoni’s offense is an avalanche capable of devastating everything in its path. It did just that through the first two months of the season, racking up an impressive 25-4 record highlighted by a 14-game winning streak of shooting destruction.

Then the holidays arrived and the Rockets received two big lumps of coal in their stocking: injuries to All-NBA point guard Chris Paul (adductor strain) and blooming big man Clint Capela (calf, orbital fracture). The result: a five-game losing streak punctuated by a defeat to the inconsistent Wizards on Friday night.

Houston already proved earlier this season it can do much more than tread water without Paul, who missed a month of the season after opening night. The team went 11-4 in that time because it happened to have another all-world playmaker who could shoulder heavy minutes in the meantime (James Harden).

The same cannot be said concerning the Rockets’ performance without Capela, whose absence looms much larger than the 25.6 minutes per game he plays. His role is as vital in its own way as that of the point guard(s). For D’Antoni, he is a poor man’s Amar’e Stoudemire on offense and a zillionaire’s Stoudemire on defense, the combination of which allows all those whirling perimeter wheels to leave tread marks on the hardwood.

Capela is averaging career-highs in nearly every statistical category. He will get serious All-Star consideration, especially if Paul’s own injury woes disqualify him in voters’ eyes.

During Houston’s big winning streak, 10 of the Rockets’ 11 best five-man lineups in terms of plus-minus featured Capela or Paul. Five of the top eight included Capela. The other three relied on his backup, Nene, to fill the role of screen-and-roller and paint protector.

The Brazilian big man still performs that role effectively, but — at age 35 and in year 16 of his career — is unable to do so for more than 15-to-20 minutes per game. That has left D’Antoni resorting to small ball lineups featuring either shooting forward Ryan Anderson or limited big man Tarik Black in the middle. The former juices up the offense but submarines the defense. The latter does the inverse. Whether either of them are on or off the court, Houston has consistently sported a minus-10 net rating during the losing streak.

Nene is the happy medium. He can plug both needs adequately enough to make a difference. During their current skid, the Rockets have played the competition nearly even with him on the floor. With their only competent big on the bench, they are a minus-10.4 per 100 possessions. Plug Capela back into the at least 100 of the last 162 minutes he has missed, and the Rockets are in a much better place.

Injuries (ideally) get better. So do shooting slumps. During the losing streak, the Rockets have uncharactistically shot just 36.1 percent on wide open 3-pointers, per NBA.com. During their 14-game tear, Houston was hitting 43-percent of those same attempts. Given their league-leading shooting rate from beyond the arc, that’s enough to tilt four single-digit outcomes out of their favor.

Capela’s return (which will reportedly take place on Sunday) will make it easier to absorb the occasional cold spell. He is the inside yin to all the outside-shooting yang spread around him. Until his absence, the Rockets boasted a top-10 defense to go along with its league-leading offense. During their losing streak (and most of Capela’s absence), that defense has ranked dead-last in the league. His absence is another reminder of the delicate balance teams not named the Warriors pray holds up.

For the Rockets, when all the parts are present and working, the machine as a whole is a vehicle of breathtaking precision. Remove one or two of those parts, and a minor fender-bender throws the entire operation out of whack.


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