Is Clint Capela the most important player on the Hawks?

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The Grizzlies snapped the Hawks’ four-game winning streak last night, but the result really shouldn’t have surprised anyone after looking at the injury report. Not only was Atlanta without John CollinsDe’Andre HunterKris Dunn, and Cam Reddish — as they have been for weeks now — but they were also missing Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela, likely because of rest.

The Hawks’ entire effort last night was lackluster, which isn’t entirely unexpected when playing on the second night of a back-to-back, but what was abundantly clear was the Grizzlies’ dominance in the paint. The Hawks had Jonas Valanciunas looking like prime Shaq, as he recorded 19 points and 11 rebounds — four of which were offensive — in just 26 minutes. As a team, Memphis racked up 60 points in the paint, reaching the line 21 times, and shot 53.9% from the field. They also out-rebounded the Hawks by 12 — 54-42. That level of dominance just isn’t heard of when Capela is in the starting lineup. 

Not having John Collins also played a factor, but so did Atlanta’s overall lack of depth at the center position. Collins is really the only option that can play center when Capela is off the floor, and he is far from a true center, standing at 6’9″. Rookie Onyeka Okongwu performed admirably, scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 boards — six of which were offensive. Still, there were several times when he couldn’t hold his own in the paint defensively, where Capela would have totally changed the game.

The former Rocket is averaging 2.3 blocks per game this season, good for third in The Association, and he affects many more than that. Rarely is there a shot that goes up in the paint that isn’t contested by his 7’5″ wingspan when he’s on the floor.

Offensively, Capela has also become the Hawks’ most efficient option. Over his past 23 games, he’s averaging 16.7 points per contest on 62.4% from the field. He’s even shooting a respectable mark from the free-throw line over that span (62.5%), which is very close to his career-high of 63.6%.

All of this has led to Capela leading the Hawks in PER by quite a large margin (24.8 to 22.1 over Trae Young; John Collins is next at 20.7). Capela also ranks as the 5th best player in the NBA, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Total RAPTOR, and he’s not far behind Kawhi Leonard for second. Much of that is due to Capela’s elite defense, which ranks second according to RAPTOR, behind only Rudy Gobert.

I would still say Trae Young is the most important player on the Hawks because of his offensive capabilities. Every team that wins in the playoffs needs a player like Young to create offense in bunches — both for himself and his teammates. Capela probably isn’t having a career year if it weren’t for Young feeding him perfect passes around the rim. Still, the Hawks likely aren’t in the playoff contention without Capela, and they certainly wouldn’t be a threat in the postseason. Stealing this guy from the Rockets should have been illegal, and it’s a primary reason why the Hawks are ascending into contention while the Rockets were forced to trade away their franchise superstar and hit the reset button.

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