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Quarter Season Awards: Clint Capela for Most Improved Player

Nov 7, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) dunks the ball against the Washington Wizards in the second quarter at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 7, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) dunks the ball against the Washington Wizards in the second quarter at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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Nov 7, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) dunks the ball against the Washington Wizards in the second quarter at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-2017 NBA season is about a quarter of the way through. 20 games in, Clint Capela has made a good case for himself to win Most Improved Player.

When news broke in July that Dwight Howard would be leaving the Houston Rockets, it was widely assumed that the team would have to find a replacement center. In fact, GM Daryl Morey spent a good portion of the summer pursuing Al Horford. Eventually, Horford signed with the Boston Celtics and it became apparent that Houston’s backup center Clint Capela would be tasked with filling Howard’s shoes.

As a fairly inexperienced player who posted a single-digit stat line the previous season, it was unsure how well Capela would fare in his new, much larger role. Dwight Howard grabbed the third most rebounds in the league last year, and was still a solid defensive presence in the paint despite his age. The Rockets signed Nene as a bit of an insurance policy, in case Capela faltered in his attempt to replicate D12’s production

Now, a quarter of the way through the season, Capela is shattering expectations. The Swiss Roll is averaging 12.1 points per game along with 8.4 boards, and has posted six double-doubles already. There is lots of basketball yet to be played, but he could be a solid candidate for Most Improved Player. Continue reading for a few reasons why that’s the case.

Next: The stats don't lie

Nov 19, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) shoots over Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and guard Dante Exum (11) in the second half at Toyota Center. Rockets won 111-102. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Clint Capela has improved in nearly every single statistical category since last season.

Stats certainly aren’t the only thing that determines the winner of the Most Improved Player award, but posting good numbers never hurt anybody’s case. From simple stats like points per game to complex ones like player efficiency rating, Capela is better than he was in 2015-2016.

Here are some of the Swiss Roll’s most significant improvements from last season to now:

Points per game: 7.0 to 12.7

Rebounds per game: 6.4 to 8.4

Field goal percentage: 58% to 63%

Free throw percentage: 37.9% to 45.5% (he’s been even better as of late, shooting 57% over the last seven games)

Player efficiency rating: 18.3 to 20.3

Defensive rebounding percentage: 22.7% to 25.5%

Statistically speaking, Capela has filled Howard’s shoes nicely. His rebounding totals aren’t as high as Howard’s, but he’s a much better fit in Houston’s offense than D12 was. He’s more than willing to run the pick-and-roll, and is destroying opposing defenses in doing so. Capela has dunked 51 times so far this season, second only to DeAndre Jordan. Defenses must double-team James Harden when he drives, which allows him to throw up lob after lob to the Swiss Roll.

Next: Team success matters

Nov 7, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) leaps to pass the ball to Wizards center Marcin Gortat (13) as Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) defends in the second quarter at Verizon Center. The Rockets won 114-106. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Fair or not, NBA awards are not usually given to players on bad teams.

This unwritten rule is usually thought of in regard to the MVP, but the league is often partial to players on playoff teams when it comes to handing out awards. Four of the past five Most Improved Players have participated in postseason basketball in their respective seasons. That being said, the fact that Clint’s Rockets are on pace to claim a home court playoff seed will work to his advantage.

Oct 4, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) attempts to score during a game against the New York Knicks at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets, due in part to Capela’s surprising play, are exceeding almost every expectation. They’ve beaten both the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in their own respective cities, and have been ranked as high as fourth in pundits’ weekly power rankings.

Under Mike D’Antoni‘s leadership, the Rockets look primed to continue their hot streak. James Harden has been nothing short of unstoppable, and he finally has options on the perimeter. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have both been injury prone in the past, but have looked as healthy as ever so far this season.

Next: Why the other guys won't win it

Oct 4, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) controls the ball as Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) defends during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As with most other years, there will be plenty of competition for the Most Improved Player award.

Like I said earlier, the season is long from over. But, there are several arguments that could already be made as to why Clint Capela is more likely than other candidates to win Most Improved Player.

Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes will look like a good pick to win the award from many angles, but a closer look at his stats says otherwise. His 11.7 to 20.0 scoring average jump doesn’t seem as amazing when you address the fact that his usage rate has also gone up from 15% last year to 26% so far in 2016-2017. It’s also notable that his assists total and field goal percentage have both taken dips during his first season with the Dallas Mavericks.

Kristaps Porzingis

The second year big man of the New York Knicks will likely get a good number of votes for Most Improved Player. However, while Kristaps Porzingis has significantly increased his scoring output, that’s about the extent of his improvement. His rebounding average has gone down this year, as has his blocks per game. He’s shooting a worse percentage on free throws compared to 2015-2016, and has shown no improvement on his assists per game.

Myles Turner

Before the season started, Myles Turner was my pick for Most Improved Player. However, despite his improved scoring, rebounding, passing, and defense, his Indiana Pacers are 9-10 and out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. As well as he’s playing, it isn’t enough to help his team be respectable. If the aforementioned trend continues, his team’s lack of success will doom him.

Next: Wrapping up

Feb 19, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Houston Rockets forward Clint Capela (15) dunks against the Phoenix Suns during the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Rockets won 116-100. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, Capela was expected to perform adequately at best. 20 games in, however, he’s proved himself a force to be reckoned with.

Whether or not he wins Most Improved Player, Clint Capela has solidified himself as the Rockets’ big man of the future. At only 22 years old, he’s got lots of great basketball ahead of him. He clearly gels well with James Harden, and gives defenses trouble on a nightly basis with his ability to finish at the rim.

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The Rockets’ 2016-2017 has opened up as wonderfully as possible, and Clint Capela can take a healthy amount of credit for it. The offense is firing on all cylinders and the defense has been passable enough to allow Houston to come away with quite a few wins.

At this point in the season, he has an edge up on most other candidates for the award. If he continues his effective play, that advantage has potential to grow as the season wears on. He’s already set personal bests in scoring twice so far this year, and he looks more polished every night than he did the last.

Next: Motiejunas signs $37 million offer sheet with Nets

Make no mistake, the Rockets are Harden’s team. However, Capela is an important piece to the puzzle.

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