Rockets center Clint Capela is the MIP frontrunner

Houston Rockets center Clint Capela lays the ball up against the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Rockets announced their contender status to the NBA in 2013 when they convinced then seven-time all-star Dwight Howard to leave the bright lights of Los Angles to join in Houston’s “Legacy of Bigs.”

Howard had his share of success, averaging 16 points and 11.7 rebounds during his time in Houston and helping push Golden State to five games in the 2015 Western Conference Finals, but he never endeared himself to the fanbase and he unceremoniously left the team in the 2016 offseason.

Dwight Howard‘s departure from Houston opened the door for Clint Capela.

There were no “Stay D12” billboards put up in Houston prior to Howard’s departure, and it’s likely because the Rockets knew the next member of their “Legacy of Bigs” was already on the roster.

The Rockets selected Clint Capela with the 25th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft as a raw, 19-year-old kid from Switzerland. Four years later, the 6-foot-11, baby-faced big man is quickly developing into one of the best centers in the league.

In the Rockets 117–113 victory against the Cavaliers on Thursday, Capela scored 19 points and pulled down 13 rebounds to go along with four blocks, including an emphatic rejection of LeBron James on the final possession of the game.

Capela anchored a Houston defense that held Cleveland to 20 points in the fourth, and he scored 11 of his team’s 17 points in the quarter.

When the Rockets’ offense bogged down late, Capela scored the final six points, none more important than a dunk on a lob from James Harden, after a scrum for an offensive rebound, to take a four-point lead with 10 seconds remaining.

Capela followed up his marquee performance with 27 points and 31 rebounds in less than 24 hours in back-to-back victories against the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers to boost his season line to 13.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just under 26 minutes per game.

Per 100 possessions, Capela is averaging 24.8 points and 21.5 rebounds with 3.5 blocks, but even those numbers belie his impact on the court this season.

According to basketball-reference.com, Capela ranks second in the NBA in TRB% (25.2) and DRB% (36.1), while slotting in seventh in ORB% (14.5) and third in BLK% (6.1). The only time he’s finished among the top 10 in any of those categories prior to this season was a ninth place finish in ORB% a year ago.

If those numbers hold up, Capela would be the first player in NBA history to finish a season with a TRB% of at least 24 percent, a DRB% of 32 percent, an ORB% of 14 percent and a BLK% of 5 percent. In fact, only five players have even reached the thresholds of 20, 30, 10 and 5, respectively, over a single season.

Houston Rockets center Clint Capela knocks the ball away from Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love on Nov. 9 in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

The progress Capela has made on the defensive end has also been tremendous. In past seasons, it was clear Capela needed to improve his court awareness to become a true rim-protector, but his fluidity and lateral quickness could make one salivate envisioning his potential as he switched onto guards on the perimeter.

This season, Capela has been a key cog in Houston’s defensive resurgence by allowing the team to switch everything. Through 14 games, the 11–3 Rockets rank eighth as a team in defensive rating, and Capela sits second in the league with a defensive box plus/minus of 4.1.

Capela is also the only player in the league to currently rank in the top 10 in both offensive rating (132; third) and defensive rating (97.5; seventh). His 34.5 net rating is the best in the NBA.

Harden loves to feed Capela a steady diet of lobs out of the pick-and-roll, and its because the Swiss big man has become one of the best finishers in the league, able to play high above the rim. Capela is making a remarkable 70 percent on shots inside the arc this season, and his .696 FG% and eFG% are tops in the NBA. His improvement from the charity stripe, where he’s shooting 70 percent compared to 38 percent two years ago, has his TS% at a league-best .708.

And Capela doesn’t require the ball right at the rim to be effective either. Harden can drop off the ball in the pick-and-roll and rely on the “Swiss Roll” to find his way to the hoop.

The offseason acquisitions of Chris Paul, PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute were lauded, and rightfully so, as all three look like they could play a major role in the Rockets challenging the Golden State Warriors’ NBA supremacy.

But, ultimately, it may be the developmental leap Clint Capela has made that gives Houston a puncher’s chance at upsetting the defending champions come June.