Rockets Go (Sm)all In with Trade of Clint Capela: Four Thoughts

Clint Capela became collateral damage to the Rockets small ball approach.
Clint Capela became collateral damage to the Rockets small ball approach. Photo by Eric Sauceda
Of course it would be Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his former protege, Minnesota GM Gerson Rosas, who would pull off one of the largest and most complicated deals in NBA history. The trade, which included 12 players and four teams — for Rockets fan purposes — sends Clint Capela and Nene to Atlanta, and Gerald Green to Denver, in exchange for Robert Covington and Jordan Bell. There are a LOT of other moving parts, but let's stay here for now because it is really the point for the Rockets.

On the surface, particularly for casual fans, this may seem like a crazy deal. Capela is a young, talent center who is very good with fans and a dynamic playmaker above the rim. He also represents one of the few big men on the Rockets roster, who happens to have a relatively team-friendly contract. And it doesn't help that fan favorite and Houston-forever guard Gerald Green is shipped out and we gave up a first round pick as well.

But, there is method to the madness in this deal and, if it makes you feel better, the pick is not going to be a good one and Green will likely be waived so he can continue rehab, and might even wind up back with the Rockets next season. Let's dig in.

Deal highlights the complexities of the league's luxury tax and salary cap.

The NBA what is commonly referred to as a "soft cap." Teams can go over it, but they eventually get into the luxury tax area, which means for every dollar they spend, they have to hand money over to the league in tax. Owners hate that and for good reason. It not only is the antithesis of why most of these guys got into business in the first place, but it hamstrings a teams flexibility when it comes to making trades.

The Rockets used this deal in part to get under the luxury tax. That isn't a crime, though it has been portrayed as one by Rockets fans who deem owner Tillman Fertitta as cheap. But, it does help underscore the precarious spot the team was in while over it. Unfortunately, the rules regarding the salary cap are far too complex for most fans — hell, most PEOPLE — to fully understand, so it feels like going cheap even if it probably isn't.

There is more to come.

The Rockets aren't going to go the rest of the season with no legit big man on the roster. They want to play small — more on that in a second — but they recognize the glaring deficiencies that would set up against teams like Denver, Utah and the Lakers. The trade could actually be expanded or another side deal made to bring in a big man. A prime target will be Golden State's Kevon Looney. The Warriors are desperate to get under the luxury tax to avoid being placed into repeater tax territory (after years of staying above the luxury tax threshold, the repeater increases that tax significantly if you don't get below it) and Looney could be their way to do it.

Looney, who just came back from an injury, is a solid big man with plenty of playoff experience. He wouldn't need touches on the offensive end and would fit in nicely as a rebounding, run-the-floor big man. There are some other possibilities as well, but Looney seems like the most obvious choice at the moment.

Covington and Bell will help.

For all the complaining about the loss of Capela, what the Rockets got in return fits them quite well. Covington, who played with the Rockets previously, has developed into one of the league's best three-and-D players, a long, rangy wing player who shoots a decent percentage from three and defends on the perimeter at a very high level. The Rockets have needed a player like him since losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute two seasons ago to free agency.

Bell adds a bigger body at 6'8" and a guy who will understand his role. He'll get more opportunities than he did in Minnesota and the Rockets no doubt want to use him the way Golden State did while he was with them for two seasons, including winning a title his rookie season.

Rockets on board with small ball.

Landing Covington and Bell doesn't necessarily make the Rockets better on paper. It makes them different and the Rockets are banking on, to quote Groundhog Day, "anything different is good." The team is 4-0 using this super small ball lineup and feel it has real advantages against many Western Conference teams. It has particularly helped Russell Westbrook, and that was ultimately the game changer in this deal.

The biggest drawback to Capela's game is he is an inside player, not someone who needed to be defended outside the paint. That clogged the lane. Initially, the thought was Westbrook could shoot a little more from the outside, but when that clearly wasn't working, he went back to being arguably the most dangerous first-step-to-the-basket players in the NBA. With Capela out of the lineup, that style of play thrived.

Players like Bell and, perhaps, Looney, will help with length and give them multiple defensive switching options just like the Warriors had when the dominated the league. That's what the Rockets hope anyway. They aren't under any illusion they have the same firepower of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, but they hope the concept will still work despite some of the unique big men cropping up in Dallas and Denver, and the stalwart backcourts in LA and Utah.

The jury is out, but it's clear the Rockets are going to run this experiment this season — maybe deep into the playoffs or maybe right into the ground.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke