Rockets' Clint Capela working to fill Dwight Howard's shoes

HOUSTON -- It was time for the Houston Rockets to let center Dwight Howard go. Sure, the team wouldn’t have minded if Howard had returned this offseason, but this is James Harden's team now, and the Rockets didn’t want to give Howard a big-money contract to stay in Houston and play second fiddle to Harden.

With Howard now in Atlanta, the Rockets have turned to 24-year-old Clint Capela as their next starting center. The expectations for Capela, who came to the Rockets as a 2014 first-round pick, have increased greatly.

“Clint is someone for us, to have the season we want to have -- to get home court in the Western Conference and to make a deep playoff run and hopefully to go deeper than we’ve ever been in my career -- Clint is going to have to take a big step forward,” general manager Daryl Morey said. “And it’s not an easy step, from playing 15 to 20 minutes against ... often, but not always, the starting center to playing 25-plus minutes against front-line guys. That’s a big step forward. It takes being more physical, it takes a big toll on your body to do it night in and night out.”

While Capela is projected as the starter, 14-year veteran Nene Hilario was signed in the offseason as a mentor and backup center, who could also threaten for the starting job. During the early stages of training camp for the Rockets, the discussion about how Nene performed almost overshadowed the expectations on Capela.

“He is looking good, and he’s playing well,” coach Mike D’Antoni said of Nene, whom the Rockets acquired in free agency to add depth at center. “He physically feels good, his body feels good. He’s in shape, he’s at a good weight. Nene is one of the better players in the league -- one of the best centers in the league when he’s healthy, and he’s healthy.”

The Rockets want to utilize Nene’s passing abilities at the top of the key in their open-ended offense, and a veteran with his skills can only help Harden, who is now the full-time point guard and leader of the offense.

Yet, Capela participated last season with the Rockets and developed a strong chemistry with Harden on pick-and-rolls.

Unlike Howard, who wanted passes near the rim and seemed stiff when being the roll man in the pick-and-roll, Capela is more athletic and can get to passes in different areas near the basket. Last season, Capela scored on 61.4 percent of pick-and-roll plays, shooting 68.4 percent from the floor. He also converted 57.7 percent on offensive putbacks, which came with a 23 percent frequency.

Relying on Nene as the starting center might be difficult given his past injury issues: The 34-year-old has played a full 82 games just once in his career. While with the Washington Wizards last season, Nene missed one game to back spasms, 21 with left-calf issues, one more with a strained right triceps and another for body soreness. In the 58 games Nene played, he averaged 9.2 points and 4.5 rebounds, and he remained a physical presence, particularly on the defensive end.

Yet if the Rockets want to go far, as Morey expects, Capela must become the starting center for a franchise with a storied history of big men.

“I was more like, just keep working hard and doing the same thing,” Capela said. “Learn my role and the team will make a decision [on Howard] about it. If it don’t work out, I’m ready. I felt like I’m ready, and I’m really excited about it.”

One issue for Capela since joining the Rockets was his weight. He came into the league too thin to withstand the physical punishment he would take as an NBA center. But he has gained 50 pounds of muscle in two NBA seasons, which should help with durability.

The Rockets also hired John Lucas as the head of player development to work on weaknesses in Capela's game, such as free throw shooting. Last season, Capela shot 38 percent from the line, so over the summer, Lucas said the 6-foot-10 center made 2,500 free throws a week.

“The biggest thing is his confidence,” said Lucas, whom the Rockets took first overall in the 1976 draft. “This is going to be a process -- he’s never been counted on like this; he had Dwight. He’s fighting here for his minutes, and he’s going to have to learn to play 30 to 35 minutes, but I expect if we continue to work with him, he will be an All-Star in a year or two at the most.”

The way the NBA has moved to 3-point shooters and spread offenses, centers have drifted from being a focal point of the offense, in much the same way running backs have in the NFL. Even Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has said there are just a few centers whom teams make the catalyst of the offense.

Capela won’t be the first option on offense, but defense -- an area in which Houston also needs improvement -- is something where he can lead.

And overall, the confidence level is high for Capela.

“He’s gained a lot of muscle, he’s worked extremely hard over the last two years,” Morey said. “So we feel like he’s somebody who can take that step forward, but that is something we’re going to need if we’re going to be successful as we want, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”