I promised this story last week, so here goes.
The premise is this:
We know that Robert Covington is a streaky shooter, a “3 and D” guy who sometimes drops fireballs from deep, but goes cold more often than not. When he’s on, he’s really on. And when he’s off, he’s really off.
That stuff is easy to identify. It’s easy for us to sit here and say, “well, Cov had 5 points last night after putting up 22 the previous night.” People bitch and whine and say he’s not performing to the level of his new contract, which results in we, the media, usually justifying his minutes with something like this:
“Well, Covington is the team’s best defender. He guards the opponent’s best player and performs well in that phase of the game, which is why Brett Brown trusts him.”
It’s so simple to parse and quantify offensive basketball data to frame a narrative, but it’s a lot harder with defensive basketball. The data doesn’t tell nearly as much of the story. You simply have to dig into the film and use your eyes to make observations and draw conclusions, the ‘ole “eye test” that college basketball pundits love to use in March. It’s a polite way of saying, “you simply didn’t watch enough games.”
We’re gonna do that with Covington. I want to pull some clips to show the things he does well, and not so well, on the defensive end of the floor.
First, let’s take a brief look at some of the numbers that DO matter without going too deep into advanced metrics.
Covington is 15th in the NBA with 1.59 steals per game. Ben Simmons leads the Sixers with 1.69 SPG.
When you extrapolate the numbers per-48 minute shifts, this is how the Sixers look:
- T.J. McConnell – 2.71 SPG
- Covington – 2.37 SPG
- Simmons – 2.35 SPG
All three are top-30 NBA players in this category, though you see how effective T.J. is projected to be if all three of those guys played the same amount of minutes.
One area where Covington sags a bit is steals per personal fouls, where he falls into a 57th-place tie with a 0.54 number. That basically means he commits two fouls for each steal, which could be a result of a number of things.
That leads into our next category.
Cov is more aggressive than most defenders. He gets his hands into passing lanes and will poke at the ball and try to turn you over.
To that end, he’s 2nd in the NBA with 3.9 deflections per game. Only Paul George has a better number at 4.1. Per 48, he would put up 5.8 deflections per game, leading all NBA starters.
Common knowledge says that the more you reach for the ball, the more likely you are to commit fouls, which is why Covington’s steals to personal fouls ratio is low.
A metric that determines how many points you allow per 100 possessions.
As a team, the Sixers are 5th best in the NBA at 103.1.
Individually, Joel Embiid has the best Philly mark at 100.2. Covington is right behind him at 101.1, placed just ahead of guys like Andre Iguodala, Justise Winslow, and Draymond Green on the league-wide charts.
Simmons logs a 102.6 DEFRTG while JJ Redick lands at 103.4 and Dario Saric is at 104.5.
To the Video
Alright, so the basic numbers say that Cov has a pretty solid defensive rating, steals and deflects at a high level, but fouls a lot and can sometimes be over-aggressive.
I went back to a few games to see what I could find.
One of the things to keep in mind is that the Sixers do a lot of switching on defense, more than most NBA teams. For that reason, Covington usually starts on the opponent’s best player, but draws a variety of matchups as the Sixers rely on their athleticism and don’t often find themselves in lopsided mismatches. I can’t stress that enough; he really is asked to do a lot of different things on any given night.
A play like this is typical:
There you’ve got Covington on Dwyane Wade, but he switches onto Wayne Ellington to deny the catch and shoot three-pointer.
When Ellington ducks underneath and tries to free Wade, Covington blocks the passing lane and Kelly Olynyk decides to take Dario Saric to the rim instead:
Roco does a good job at switching early, getting his hands up, and using his length to block passing lanes and deny easy distribution. He’s really not the fastest guy out there. He doesn’t possess amazing foot speed and he’s not going to lock down defenders 1v1 necessarily. What he does is switch fluidly and uses his wingspan to complicate things for opponents. There are a lot of off-ball things he does that go unnoticed.
To that point, when you watch him defend pick and rolls, there will be some times where he looks like he’s being screened into oblivion:
It’s a middle pick and roll with Wade and Bam Adebayo. Covington looks a step slow on the play, but he actually does a nice job of hooking that right arm and using leverage to turn with the bigger roller and stay with his man.
Embiid, then, is athletic enough to “zone” the screen and engage Wade at the foul line, forcing him into a contested fadeaway:
That’s a tough shot, and I think you’d be satisfied with forcing an opponent into that look on most occasions. D-Wade is a special player, especially in the 4th quarter.
Sometimes it’s a little messy, though, and Covington will find himself trailing the roller when overplaying the screen:
This sequence starts with Covington switching onto Wade, who sets up a middle pick and roll with Hassan Whiteside. Wade doesn’t get him the first time, but Cov tops the second screen and finds himself turned around. He grabs Whiteside to slow him down and the refs miss the foul, but Amir Johnson does a nice job of sliding over to Wade and forcing the turnover.
Obviously Joel Embiid is a better PnR defender than Johnson, but Covington usually stays in front and likes to defend the three point line. I don’t see a lot of instances where he goes under the screen, and that’s not a bad way to approach these scenarios when you have a rim protector like Embiid right behind you.
One more play from the Miami loss, a possession that begins with Ersan Ilyasova on the wrong man and Covington defending the perimeter 1v2:
Roco is on Tyler Johnson this time, and goes over two James Johnson screens to deny the three pointer. Ilyasova eventually comes into the play and the first Johnson hits a 21-foot jump shot.
That’s fine. You can live with that. It’s the lowest-efficiency shot in basketball. It’s similar to the Wade fadeaway, which isn’t the best look on the planet. This is a broken defensive play and Covington does a nice job to prevent a three-point look and get Miami to settle for a long two instead.
Last Tuesday, Covington started on Nicolas Batum, then guarded Kemba Walker when JJ Redick came off the floor in Charlotte. Walker finished with 5 points on 1-9 shooting in a 14-point home loss to the Sixers.
I thought he did well here to get through a baseline screen to stick with Batum on the low block:
Charlotte tries to free up Dwight Howard with a second screen, but good job by Covington, Embiid, and Redick to choke the space and keep their hands up. Batum tries to take it himself and settles for a tough-angle shot after Covington pins him down near the baseline.
Earlier, this play jumped out to me:
Steve Clifford sets up a a curl for Walker with two screens and Covington does a really nice job of skirting Marvin Williams and Howard to get a hand on the shot. That’s all reach right there, with Cov using those long arms to get up and challenge a shot that I thought he would be nowhere near.
Again, when it looks like he’s beat, he usually finds his way back into the play.
Some clips now from Tuesday night, when Covington spent most of his time on Victor Oladipo, who finished 4-21 from the floor.
Really nice defense here:
He fights through the Myles Turner down screen and sticks to Oladipo on the perimeter. Even when Oladipo creates some separation with a slight right arm shrug, Covington does a nice job to keep his hands up and contest the shot.
This was one of the few things Oladipo did all night:
You see Redick “hedge” the screen and get out in front, then Indiana resets and brings Trevor Booker into the pick and roll. But Oladipo takes it himself and gets Covington with a beautiful crossover and step back.
Sometimes you just have to give credit to the offensive player when they make plays like that. Most people on the planet aren’t defending that.
And finally, we’ll wrap it up on a high note, a play that Alaa Abdelnaby half-explained last night, which I’ll expand on:
That’s brilliant stuff.
What you have here is a “pre-switch,” which Covington does twice in once sequence.
Indiana is trying to set a Turner screen on T.J. McConnell to get Darren Collison onto Joel Embiid. Covington sees that and so he takes Turner instead.
Make sense? You wouldn’t switch Collison onto Covington, because there’s no mismatch there. They wanted Embiid.
Instead, Indiana tries it from the other side and brings Thad Young to the arc to try to switch Ilyasova, but Covington sees that, too, and pre-switches there:
Collison ends up driving on Cov, who blocks his shot.
Just high-IQ stuff right there.
Is Robert Covington good at defense?
I think so, but we waste a lot of time looking at it the wrong way.
Cov is a 6’9″ guy with great reach and active hands. He disrupts passing lanes, steals the ball, and deflects it. He’s versatile enough to switch onto both smaller and bigger guys and plays a somewhat aggressive game that places trust in Joel Embiid and Amir Johnson to cover behind him. His strengths, I think, are seen much more off the ball, and not so much in on-ball situations.
No, Covington doesn’t have the best feet or the quickest lateral movement. Sometimes he gets lost in screens and can’t recover. He’s not a lockdown, 1v1 defender, and I think that’s how people are judging him. I often hear about dribblers “blowing by” Covington as a main criticism, which I think is overdone. If you’re looking for Bruce Bowen or Gary Payton, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Collectively, this starting group has one of the best defensive ratings in the NBA, and when you take the parts and put them together, you’re got an incredibly efficient unit out there. Covington is a big part of that for reasons that might not be so obvious.