While Paul George, LeBron James, and DeMarcus Cousins will be their main free agent targets this summer, the Lakers could surprise everybody and try to steal one of the best young centers in the league from the Houston Rockets.
Paul George and Clint Capela could turn out to be the perfect free agents for the Lakers, especially if LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins should decide not to come to LA or the team decides not to risk signing an injured Cousins. A starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Clint Capela would give the Lakers a budding star at all five positions and a talented young core that could grow into a sustainable championship team.
While Paul George would be a perfect fit as starting shooting guard, Capela as starting center would probably require the Lakers to rethink their starting power forward. Since Capela is more of a traditional center, the Lakers would need to start Kuzma rather than Randle at the four to create proper spacing. That’s a move that I think makes sense because, frankly, Kuzma is just too good not to start and small ball center is ultimately Randle’s best position.
The other problem the Lakers will have in pursuing Capela is he’s a restricted free agent, which means the Rockets can not only match any offer the Lakers make but also tie up their cap space until the moratorium period is over. Fortunately for the Lakers, if James and Cousins aren’t available, they would likely just save the cap space being offered to Capela until the summer 2019 by signing veteran players to 1-year short term contracts like last summer.
The main reason the Lakers should pursue Capela is that he has exactly what the Lakers need at the center position to become a top five defensive team, which is elite athleticism and proven ability to protect the paint and rim. The Lakers’ current biggest defensive problem is they are dead last in the NBA in opponent points in the paint, allowing 49.0 points in the paint per game. They desperately need an elite rim protector to anchor their team defense.
Capela is the perfect fit as the Lakers’ defensive anchor. Still only 23, Clint has already become an elite shot blocker. His Defensive Real Plus Minus of 3.07 last season was 11th best for centers versus Brook Lopez’ 0.07 DRPM. Going forward, Capela is only going to get better and projects to be a top five defensive center in the league. The Lakers finished the season ranked as the 12th best defense. Capela’s addition could elevate them into the top five.
While Capela is not a stretch five like Lopez, he’s no offensive slouch. He’s developed into a formidable offensive force, rolling to the rim and throwing down fierce highlight film dunks on lobs from James Harden and Chris Paul. In his fourth year, 23-year old Capela has clearly emerged as a championship caliber two-way center, averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes per game while providing elite rim and paint protection.
The Lakers have a tradition of great centers from Mikan to Wilt to Kareem to Shaq. I have no doubt Magic Johnson remembers that too. I also think Magic understands the power a team gets with a center who can protect the rim on defense and attack it fiercely on offense. At 6–11 with a 7–5 wingspan and explosive ability to jump and play above the rim, Capela could be exactly the kind of modern NBA center Magic and the Lakers have been looking for.
While nobody knows what the Rockets’ strategy will be this summer, there is a good chance Daryl Morey will attempt to add LeBron or another superstar, which could give the Lakers the opportunity they need to steal Clint Capela.
How much the Lakers offer Capela or the Rockets would be unwilling to match will depend on how well Clint plays and the Rockets do in the playoffs and whether Daryl Morey needs to clear cap space to pursue LeBron James. Considering how well Clint Capela is playing so far in the first round of the playoffs against Karl Anthony Towns, the Lakers may need to offer Capela a 4-year deal starting at $20–25 million per year to steal him from the Rockets.
Now if the Rockets make it to the Finals or win a championship, the Lakers will likely have to offer Capela a max contract the Rockets might still match. Giving Capela a max contract might seem like overpaying for a 23-year old center until you consider how much he would transform the Lakers’ half court defense and offense. He would give them the elite rim protector they need on defense and above-the-rim finisher they currently lack on offense.
In a way, adding a promising young star like Clint Capela to young Lakers core might not seem like a move that a hungry front office eager to compete for championships as quickly as possible would make. On the other hand, when you look at long term and you have the opportunity to sign a player who you believe will be a top five defensive center, you make the move even if it means that it might take the team a year or two longer to get there.
Clint Capela could be the Lakers surprise free agent target this summer.