Hawks

Capela Has Strong Case for All-Defense Selection

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During the 2019-20 season, the Atlanta Hawks finished with a 114.8 defensive rating— 27th in the NBA.

At this time, the Hawks were typically anchored by Alex Len or Damian Jones, who provided little paint deterrence.

One of the Hawks’ biggest roster needs — alongside secondary playmaking and three-point scoring — was a defensive anchor. In February 2020, Clint Capela was traded to Atlanta as part of a four-way mega-trade with the Rockets, Timberwolves and Nuggets. In return for Capela, the Hawks surrendered the Nets’ 2020 1st-round pick, Golden State’s 2024 2nd-round pick and Evan Turner.

Capela arrived in Atlanta with a reputation as an elite rebounder, rim runner and paint protector. Unfortunately, though, he was unable to make his Hawks debut that season due to a heel injury. Fast-forward one year and Capela has arguably been the Hawks MVP in 2020-21 – adding to Houston’s embarrassment after their roster implosion.

Capela’s impact, especially defensively, has been a vital reason behind the Hawks’ season-long success– making him a lock for an All-NBA Defensive Team.

Capela’s competitors for All-NBA Defense

Across every (all-in-one) defensive impact metric, there is always one leader: Rudy Gobert. On top of that, he is leading the Jazz to a higher playoff seed and is having one of the best individual seasons of his career. If I had a vote, Gobert would comfortably be my DPOTY.

Assuming Gobert gets DPOY (and more obviously, makes the All-NBA Defensive 1st team), this leaves numerous bigs fighting for one spot on All-Defense Second Team. The shortlist is Clint Capela, Myles Turner, Bam Adebayo, Nerlens Noel, Jakob Poeltl and Joel Embiid.

For now, though, let’s focus on Capela.

Shaq-like numbers

Capela’s season has been nothing short of sensational, and for stretches in January, he even posted Shaq-like numbers. On January 20th, he recorded 27 points, 26 rebounds and five blocks in a comeback win over the Pistons. This performance made Capela the first NBA player to record a 25p/25r/5b game since Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. He was also the first Atlanta Hawk to log 25 points and 25 rebounds in a game since Dikembe Mutombo.

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Three days later against the Timberwolves, Capela went on to record a triple-double with blocks (13p/19r/10b), becoming the 33rd NBA player in history to do so. This stretch of play catapulted him into the national spotlight, and for probably the first time in his career he was being labelled as a borderline star across the league.

Loved by Advanced Statistics

Capela consistently ranks amongst the most elite defensive specialists in the NBA according to all-in-one advanced player metrics.

Of all-in-one player metrics, EPM (Estimated Plus-Minus), RPM (Real Plus-Minus) and RAPTOR (Robust Algorithm using Player Tracking and On/Off Ratings) have the least margin of error. These metrics all attempt to quantify a players defensive, offensive and net impact over 100 possessions. So, a player with a DEPM (defensive EPM) rating of +2.5, would improve his teams defensive performance by 2.5 points per 100 possessions.

Capela’s +2.1 DEPM rating puts him in the 95th percentile of all NBA players. Of players shortlisted, that puts Clint behind only Gobert (+6.0) and Poeltl (+2.7).

DRPM and DRAPTOR also reflect Capela’s impact. With a DRPM rating of +4.6 and a DRAPTOR of +5.2, these metrics list him as the second-most impactful defender in the NBA. The one player ahead of Clint? Two-time DPOY, Rudy Gobert.

The Hawks’ Transformation

If you love Chris Paul‘s one-man rebuild for the Suns, you have to love Capela’s transformation of the Hawks, too. Clint has altered outsiders perspective of the Hawks, along with Trae Young in particular – who has been (unfairly) criticized for his playstyle and lack of winning just two years into his NBA career.

The Hawks have a defensive rating of 112.6 this season (21st in the NBA), but this doesn’t tell the whole tale. The Hawks held a respectable top-15 defensive rating for the first 20 games of the season, until losing Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter to injury. But even with the 10th-worst defense in the league, that’s still a significant improvement from last season.

During Reddish and Hunter’s absence, Capela gets very little defensive help. He spends much of his effort cleaning up defensive mistakes from teammates Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic and others. However, Clint single-handedly alters the approach and confidence of the opposition with his presence in the paint. Despite his great ability to alter or block shots at the rim (BL% of 5.8), Capela rarely finds himself in foul trouble, which is an added bonus.

Perhaps Capela’s greatest ability is his rebounding. Clint currently leads the NBA in rebounds per game, and grabs an astonishing 33% of all available defensive rebounds (98th percentile). Even while John Collins and DeAndre Hunter missed long stretches of time, the Hawks have dominated the glass on both sides of the floor (7th in REB%).

Capela’s abnormal habit to find himself in a position to challenge or keep the ball alive is mesmerizing. This ability on the defensive end is instrumental to the Hawks success; killing opposing offensive possessions after just one attempt.

The Best Ability is Availability

One of the most under-appreciated qualities in basketball is the ability to be healthy and available. Capela has done that this year, giving him a major leg up on the competition.

If healthy, Myles Turner is one of the most impactful defensive centers behind Gobert. With the Pacers flying, Turner even looked like an early DPOY candidate to start the season. Indiana soon fell off, however, and Turner suffered an injury that kept him out for a significant stretch.

Joel Embiid is undoubtedly one of the best two-way players in the NBA. At this point, however, his offensive skillset is more unique and valuable than his defense. Of the players shortlisted, Embiid is consistently among the least impactful according to advance statistics, and he struggles defending the perimeter.

Across the NBA, isolation plays result in 0.82 points per possession on average. However, Embiid gives up 1.06 points per possession on these plays (26th percentile). This is entirely typical of centers, but given Embiid’s lack of games played due to injury, he’d have to perform at Gobert levels to make an All-NBA Defensive Team.

That isn’t happening.

Despite staying healthy, Poeltl and Noel have had their minutes cut short for other reasons. Until Mitchell Robinson‘s injury, Noel was a high-level bench piece. Since finding is way into the starting lineup, Noel has been pivotal for the Knicks, blocking an impressive 8.3% of two-point field-goal attempts (98th percentile). Despite this, he still only averages 23.8 minutes per game over the season.

Likewise, Poeltl is an excellent rim protector. He’s perhaps one of the most undervalued players in the league. Like Noel, though, Poeltl is also somewhat limited (in regards to playing-time) by his offense, and therefore doesn’t log as many minutes as the other big names.

The Final Two

That leaves Bam Adebayo and Capela as the last two standing. Unlike most of the players shortlisted, Bam is an excellent perimeter defender in isolation. His matchups score at a measly rate of 0.78 points per possession (74th percentile). But despite this, his impact metrics suffer in comparison to Capela, largely because of their presence at the rim. According to DEPM, Capela has a +2.1 impact in contrast to Adebayo’s +1.7. DRAPTOR and DRPM both estimate a larger difference in their impact – favoring Capela.

On top of their advanced statistics, Capela is likely going to lead the Hawks to a higher seed than the Heat, while also having a bigger individual impact on his team’s success. One of Adebayo’s biggest criticisms this season is day-to-day consistency, even quarter-to-quarter. Consistency hasn’t even been a question for Capela.

Bam is one of the most talented defensive players in the league and his versatility will be paramount to any Miami success in the postseason. However, All-NBA Defense is a regular-season award and Capela has Bam, and the rest of the field, beat. As the most impactful defensive center in the game besides Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela is more than deserving of an All-Defensive team nod this year.

Follow us on Twitter @HawksLead for the latest Hawks news and insight. 

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About Elliott Godfrey-Clark

Writer for Hawks Lead. Huge fan of Hawks basketball, despite being 4000 miles away. Born and raised in Bradford, United Kingdom. I have a social science background with an MSc in Social Research and Evaluation and have recently started a career in analytics. Follow me on Twitter for more NBA/Hawks takes @ElliottGClark

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