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Clint Capela providing Rockets with much-needed hope

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The Rockets, who drafted Clint Capela with the No. 25 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, reportedly got into a contract dispute with him that summer. It seemed they wanted Capela to spend another season with his French pro team in order to maximize their cap space. Capela said his agent advised him to remain patient.

But, as he tells it, Capela saw one option: Jump to the NBA immediately.

“It was important to me to come when I was young, to keep progressing,” said Capela, whom Houston eventually signed.

That year of seasoning is paying off.

Capela is the biggest bright spot on the NBA’s most disappointing team.

Houston’s youngest player, 21-year-old Capela ranks third on the team in win shares behind James Harden and Dwight Howard. The Rockets are 7-2 since making Capela a full-time starter following a 5-10 start.

“There’s still a lot of room for growth, but the confidence that he has, the lack of fear – there’s no situation too big for Clint,” Houston interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said.

Not anymore.

Capela spent most of his rookie season in the D-League, but the Rockets surprisingly put him in the playoff rotation for their run to the Western Conference finals. He became just the second player* in NBA history who recorded more postseason than regular-season minutes (excluding those who signed after the season began, suffered major injury or served in the military during the season) – 90 minutes in 12 regular-season games, 127 minutes in 17 postseason games.

*Marcin Gortat is the other. He played 41 minutes in six-regular season games and 48 minutes in eight playoff games for the 2007-08 Magic as a rookie.

Capela’s initial nerves about playing in the NBA showed. He missed his first 15 free throws in the top league. Then, once he finally started to get comfortable, the playoffs sent him back to square one.

“It was different – the crowd and everything, the details, all that,” Capela said.

Now, with that experience under his belt, Capela is taking his game to the next level.

He’s not the most refined player, but he tends to get to the right spots on both ends of the floor. Once there, he uses his impressive physical skills – including a 7-foot-5 wingspan – to make a play. He’s a quality pick-and-roll finisher, and he crashes the offensive glass hard. He also combines the foot speed to defend the pick-and-roll and the leaping ability to protect the rim.

Simply, Capela – who’s averaging 8.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 20.0 minutes per game – is one of Houston’s top players.

Still, starting him presented complications. He has made only one shot outside the paint in his career. How could such a limited shooter fit next to Howard?

Capela says he focused on floor spacing playing overseas, and it shows. His knack for finding the right spot includes getting out of Howard’s way. Howard actually shoots better with Capela on the floor (74% vs. 58%).

That has allowed the Rockets to enjoy the benefits of pairing the bigs.

When Capela and Howard share the floor, Houston grabs 36% of available offensive rebounds (which would have led the NBA any season this millennium) and 83% of available defensive rebounds (which would set a league record).

The Rockets’ are outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Capela and Howard on the floor, the best net rating of the team’s 50 most-used tandems and one of only a dozen positive ratings in the group. The only other duos coming close to Capela-Howard also feature Capela (Capela-Trevor Ariza and Capela-Marcus Thornton):

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Capela might be Howard’s eventual replacement as Houston’s starting center, but for now, Bickerstaff says Howard has taken Capela under his wing. Howard said he encourages Capela by mentioning that the youngster followed Thabo Sefolosha as only the second Swiss player in NBA history.

“This is a dream, a dream come true,” Howard said he tells Capela. “So, just keep playing and have a good time, because there are plenty of players in Switzerland who wish they were you.”

There are probably a couple Rockets who wish they were Capela, too.

Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have started at power forward for Houston the last couple years. Neither received a contract extension, meaning they’ll become restricted free agents next summer. Getting stuck behind Capela limits their opportunities to show their worth.

The Capela-Howard pairing might not last, though. As well as they’re doing so far, it’s difficult to spread the floor with two non-shooters once defenses adjust. Motiejunas is just beginning to get fully healthy, and he could supplant Capela if fit becomes a bigger issue.

But Capela has shown his talent, and the Rockets will ride him as the starting power forward next to Howard as long as possible. It’s one of the few things that has worked for them this season.

Beyond, they’ll have to take Capela into account when determining how much to pay Jones and Motiejunas. Capela’s natural position is center, but he’s clearly versatile enough to play power forward. When he becomes eligible for an extension in the summer of 2017, he could command a sizable deal.

Just five other players in NBA history have averaged at least 14 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per 36 minutes at age 21 or younger (more than 10 games):

  • Moses Malone
  • Darryl Dawkins
  • Shaquille O’Neal
  • Andrew Bynum
  • Andre Drummond

Capela must prove it over a bigger sample and against better competition. Six of Houston’s seven wins since he became a regular starter are over teams with losing records, and the Rockets’ three-game road trip this week – at the Nuggets tonight, Kings tomorrow and Lakers on Thursday – features more losing teams.

But Capela was ready for the challenge of the playoffs without much playing time behind him. Why won’t he eventually handle tougher teams in the regular season?

“He’s got belief,” Bickerstaff said. “And now he’s getting experience.”

Much to Houston’s benefit.

Rumor: Mike Budenholzer was close to taking Knicks job in 2018

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It’s the lure of the New York market, that a coach would consider passing on coaching Giannis Antetokounmpo and a team on the rise in Milwaukee to take the job.

In the summer of 2018, Mike Budenholzer was out in Atlanta and the best established name on the coaching market. At the time, it was known Coach Bud was the top choice of the Knicks, but he was reportedly close to taking the job, according to Ian Begley at SNY.TV.

Discussions between the Knicks and Budenholzer in the 2018 offseason advanced to a point where some people who would have come with Budenholzer to New York were talking about places to live in the city because they felt Budenholzer was close to taking the job, per SNY sources…

One official from an opposing team involved in searches at the time confirmed that coaching the Knicks intrigued Budenholzer. “Bud was definitely interested,” the team official said recently.

Budenholzer, however, chose Milwaukee, which had Antetokounmpo and a roster that was talented but needed a more modern offensive style and more focus. Budenholzer brought that and the team won 60 games last season, and is a title contender this season (if and when the NBA season restarts).

The Knicks hired David Fizdale, who lasted less than a season and a half before being let go. New team president Leon Rose now has to hire a new coach, and that will say a lot about the direction he wants to take the team.

He’d be lucky to find someone as good as Budenholzer.

Watch Tom Brady tell Charles Barkley to “take a suck of that” after he holes fairway shot

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It was the highlight of an entertaining — if not always pretty — afternoon of live golf, raising money for charity.

Tampa Bay Bay Buccanneers quarterback Tom Brady (it’s so weird to type that) was on his fourth shot on the par-5 7th hole at the Medalist Golf Club. Brady had a rough front nine to that point, and commentator Charles Barkley decided to up the trash talk (as if Barkley should talk about someone else’s golf game).

“How many shots do you want? Come on, I’m going to give you some shots man, I want some of you,” Barkley said.

“Don’t worry, it ain’t over yet,” Brady countered as he walked up to his fourth shot, 130 yards from the pin. “I think you just made him mad, Chuck,” host Brian Anderson said. “No, he can take a joke,” Barkley replied. Then this happened.

Brady earned that trash talk.

It wasn’t the only great exchange between the two; they had some fun on an earlier on a par 3 when Barkley bet Brady couldn’t get it on the green.

Increasing buzz teams well out of playoffs will not come to Orlando for games

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The Golden State Warriors have been public about it, they expect their season to be over. Golden State is far from alone, multiple teams well out of the playoff picture have questioned the expense and risk-to-reward ratio of coming back to play a handful of regular season games without fans in Orlando.

More and more, the buzz has been the NBA league office sees things the same way. I am not the only reporter hearing this: Steve Popper of Newsday wrote a column saying there was no reason to invite all 30 teams to the bubble city and the USA Today’s well-connected Jeff Zillgett added this:

This is where we throw in the caveat: There are no hard-and-fast plans from the NBA yet and every option is still being considered. One lesson Adam Silver took from David Stern was not to make a decision until you have to, and Silver is going to absorb more information in the coming weeks — such as from the recent GM survey — before making his call.

That said, the league seems to be coalescing around a general plan, which includes camps starting in mid-June and games in mid-July in Orlando.

For the bottom three to five teams in each conference, there is little motivation to head to Orlando for the bubble. It’s an expense to the owner with no gate revenue coming in, teams want to protect their NBA Draft Lottery status, and the Warriors don’t want to risk injury to Stephen Curry — or the Timberwolves to Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Hawks to Trae Young — for a handful of meaningless games.

The league is considering a play-in tournament for the final seed or seeds in each conference (there are a few format options on the table, it was part of the GM survey). That would bring the top 10 or 12 seeds from each conference to the bubble, depending upon the format, and they would play a handful of games to determine which teams are in the playoffs (and face the top seeds).

Either way, that would leave the three or five teams with the worst records in each conference home. Which is the smart thing to do, there’s no reason to add risk to the bubble for a handful of meaningless games.

Eight-year NBA veteran Jon Leuer announces retirement

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Jon Leuer is only age 31, but the big man has battled ankle and other injuries in recent seasons, playing in only 49 games over the past three seasons. Last July, the Pistons traded him to the Bucks in a salary dump, and Milwaukee quickly waived him. Leuer struggled to get healthy and did not catch on with another team.

Sunday he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.

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I love the game of basketball. I still want to play, but I know deep down it’s not the right decision for my health anymore. The past 3 years I’ve dealt with a number of injuries, including 2 that kept me out this whole season. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m truly at peace with my decision to officially retire. As disappointing as these injuries have been, I’m still thankful for every moment I spent playing the game. Basketball has been the most amazing journey of my life. It’s taken me places I only could’ve dreamed about as a kid. The relationships it brought me mean more than anything. I’ve been able to connect with people from all walks of life and forged lifelong bonds with many of them. What this game has brought me stretches way beyond basketball. I’m grateful for this incredible ride and everyone who helped me along the way. 🙏🏼🙌🏼✌🏼

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Leuer — a second-round pick out of Wisconsin for the Bucks in 2011 — averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Pistons in the 2016-17 season, and for the years at the peak of his career he was a quality rotational big man teams could trust, either off the bench or as a spot starter.

Over the course of his career he played for the Bucks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pistons. He earned more than $37 million in salary, most of it from a three-year contract the Pistons gave him in 2016. It was not long after his body started to betray him.

Leuer has been riding out the quarantine in Minnesota is wife Keegan (NFL coach Brian Billick’s daughter) and the couple is donating thousands of meals a week to the needy in that community.