February 5, 2020, 1:35 am
The Rockets were part of the trade deadline’s opening salvo on Tuesday night, sending Clint Capela and Nene to the Atlanta Hawks and Gerald Green and a first-round pick to the Denver Nuggets. In return they received Robert Covington, Jordan Bell and a second-round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Capela’s name has been on the block dating back to last season and the Hawks have been known suitors for any center upgrade, so those dots were easy to connect. The Rockets lose one of the league’s leading rebounders and a terrific rim-runner, though the persistence with which Capela’s name appeared in trade rumors suggests that Houston won’t be all that heartbroken about it.
Though he’s a tremendous lob threat, Capela ranks just above the 50th percentile in terms of points per possession generated as a roll-man this season at 1.10, down from 1.17 in the 2018-19 campaign. Capela does rank eighth in the league with 13.8 shots contested per game, however, and this current iteration of the roster has the Rockets trending extremely small.
That’s unlikely to be problem internally, considering Houston just became the first team since 1963 to play a game without a player over 6’6”.
It has been reported that the Rockets are in the market for another center, comfortable with trading Capela to get wing help, which they accomplished here, and then turning around to find a lower-profile big man to bolster the frontcourt. Daryl Morey and company must be comfortable with the high replacement level at the center spot these days, as the market tends to have an excess of non-shooting bigs.
Perhaps Bell can step in to absorb some of Capela’s 32.8 mpg. The talented but frustrating 25-year-old has shown tantalizing upside in spurts but can never seem to stay on the floor due to frequent mental lapses. Bell started for the Warriors in Game 1 of last season’s Finals but is averaging just 8.7 minutes per game this year for the Wolves. How quickly things change.
Isaiah Hartenstein has shown flashes of being a trustworthy rotation player but to date, Mike D’Antoni hasn’t trusted him, giving him just 12.0 mpg in 21 games.
Barring another trade, tentatively expect PJ Tucker to man the center spot for Houston in their most common lineups, as he has been starting at the spot with Capela sidelined by a heel contusion lately. Whether that’s a look that the Rockets are comfortable using in matchups against other elite Western Conference teams, like Anthony Davis and the Lakers or Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets, remains to be seen.
The departures of Green and Nene do nothing to Houston’s rotation, as neither has played this season.
In Covington, Houston very much gets its man. The Rockets have been starved for wing help since letting Trevor Ariza leave in free agency two years ago, and in Covington they get one of the league’s truly elite 3-and-D options. It helps that he’s been tasked with playing both power forward and small forward this season for the Wolves, as he gives the Rockets a neutralizer for tough combo forward matchups.
Though overuse and knee issues are red flags, a healthy Covington in his prime could be like a souped-up version of the player that Ariza was in his Houston glory days. Though he is shooting just .343 from 3-point range this season, Covington has not been below .369 from deep in any of the previous four seasons, with nearly two-thirds of his field goals coming from behind the arc in that time.
Knee issues limited Covington to 35 games last season but he has consistently been among the league’s top thieves, with two top-10 finishes in steals per game and top-30 placement in every season (where he’s played enough to qualify for the leaderboards) since cracking the league. At 6’7” and 209 pounds, Covington gives the Rockets another tough, switchable defender who should feast on open 3-point shots.
This season Covington is averaging 4.7 3-pointers per game that are classified as either open or wide open, per the NBA’s tracking data. Danuel House, the catch-and-shoot type that Covington is likely to replace in the starting five, gets 5.2 such attempts per game, with 3.5 of those coming in the “wide open” category. Defenses will pay more mind to a proven shooter like Covington, but the Rockets could not ask for a better fit in terms of a defensive-minded wing who can stretch the floor.
The overall picture will hinge on who the Rockets add to the frontcourt before Thursday’s trade deadline, but in Covington they’ve picked up a player that should be a wonderful complement to their star guard duo.