Houston Rockets’ center, Clint Capela, is expected to miss at least four weeks with a thumb injury. Which players need to step up in the meantime?
Unfortunately, injuries continue to pile up for the surging Houston Rockets. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Clint Capela will miss the next four to six weeks with ligament damage in his right thumb.
Capela injured his thumb on Sunday against the Magic in the third quarter while going up for an alley-oop and he was clearly in immediate discomfort. Shortly after sustaining the injury, Capela checked out of the game and continued to grimace while on the bench.
With Capela joining Chris Paul and Eric Gordon on the sidelines, the Rockets went into Monday’s game against Memphis without their second, third and fourth leading scorers. Houston’s defense and 57 points from James Harden helped the Rockets secure a 112-94 victory, but winning without three starters won’t be easy.
Fortunately, Eric Gordon could return by the end of this week and Chris Paul could return next week. Obviously, CP3 and Gordon will take a lot of the pressure to score and distribute off of Harden and Houston’s perimeter defense will benefit as well.
However, the Rockets are now fairly thin in the front court. No other player on the team can finish high above the rim, protect the paint and rebound as well as Capela. The Rockets need their other front court players to fill Capela’s shoes by committee. Let’s take a look at three Rockets’ players who need to step up with Clint Capela out.
Next: No. 3
3. Gary Clark
Earlier this season, the Houston Rockets signed Gary Clark, in large part, to take Carmelo Anthony‘s minutes at the power forward position. Even at this point in his career, Carmelo is the superior offensive player, but Clark’s defensive versatility made him more valuable in Houston’s rotation.
However, poor shooting and the emergence of Danuel House Jr. has kept Clark from receiving consistent minutes over the last two months. Now that Capela is out, Clark has moved back into the rotation. He played 26 minutes against Memphis on Monday, scoring 8 points and securing 3 boards.
Even with Capela out, Nene is unlikely to play much more than around 20 minutes per game. That means Clark will see extended playing time and he will often have to guard the opposing center and grab rebounds to finish out the defensive possession.
The Rockets don’t need Clark to average double figures in scoring, as they have more than enough offensive weapons, especially once Paul and Gordon come back from their injuries. But they’ll need Clark to play hard-nosed defense, especially when he’s switched on to guards, and they need him to rebound. Of course, it would be an added bonus if he can make at least 35 percent of his 3-pointers.
Next: No. 2
2. Nene Hilario
After missing the first month and a half of the season, Nene has returned at the right time. In 18 games this season, Nene has only played at least 20 minutes once and the Rockets are holding him out of one game in back-to-backs.
Nene played just under 14 minutes against Memphis, nailing his only shot attempt and grabbing 3 rebounds. The Rockets employed small lineups for most of the game and their defense held up without a true center in the paint.
However, Nene will come in handy when the Rockets are taking on teams that have larger centers, like Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz. Nene isn’t a shot blocker like Capela, but he is definitely a defensive presence. Houston’s defensive rating with Nene on the floor this season is 101.0, easily the best on the team and lower than Houston’s 111.4 defensive rating for the season. Nene’s defensive rating last year was 97.2, which was again the best on the team among players who received at least 100 minutes last season.
Nene probably won’t receive heavy playing time as the Rockets want to preserve his body for the postseason, but he is obviously very valuable to the team’s defense and his mid-range game adds a nice wrinkle to Houston’s offense.
Next: No. 1
1. P.J. Tucker
P.J. Tucker became a fan favorite in Houston last season after he replaced Ryan Anderson in the starting lineup and the Rockets started stacking wins left and right. At just 6-foot-6, he’s a little undersized for the power forward position, but his energy and strength makes up for his lack of height.
Tucker is so valuable to Houston’s system that Mike D’Antoni just can’t take him off the floor. He’s averaging a career-high 35.1 minutes per game this season, more than Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela. He is probably the team’s best defender and he always defends the opposing team’s best wing. Tucker is also shooting a sizzling 41.8 percent on corner 3-pointers, giving Houston’s offense more space for Harden to go to work.
Last season, the Rockets had a lot of success with their small ball lineups, playing P.J. Tucker at the center. Once Paul and Gordon return, we’ll probably see a lineup featuring Paul, Harden, Gordon and Tucker along with one of House, Clark or Ennis.
Tucker’s minutes could climb even higher over the next month or so without Capela, and the Rockets will need him to crash the boards, set more screens and continue to play stellar defense and nail those corner 3s.