This is part six of a season-ending series looking back at each player’s 2017-2018 campaign.
Part one – Jerryd Bayless
Part two – Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
Part three – Justin Anderson
Part four – Richaun Holmes
Part five – Amir Johnson
Robert Covington had a bad Boston series.
The Sixers’ streaky swing man shot 27% over the course of five games, going 0-6 in game one, 0-8 in game three, and 1-7 in game four. A 22 point, 8-15 game two effort was the outlier in an otherwise disappointing offensive performance from a guy who showed similar inconsistency all season long. He was the odd man out when T.J. McConnell was inserted into the starting lineup, coming off the bench to play just 19 and 21 minutes in the final two games of the series.
Covington recently had surgery to repair the middle finger in his guide hand, but didn’t seem to be affected by the extensor tendon issue, at least not outwardly. He brought it up but didn’t make a big deal of it when asked about lingering issues during his exit interview, so it’s hard to know how much discomfort he really felt while shooting the ball. Covington had some recurring back tightness beginning in mid-December but only missed two games, starting 80 times and averaging 31.6 minutes.
A look at the raw season-to-season totals shows that his field goal and three-point percentages were up from last year. 41.3% from the field was his best mark as a Sixer and a 36.9 three-point number was his second best, much better than 2016-17 but down slightly from his first year in town:
All of that looks pretty good on paper.
It was the peaks and valleys on the offensive end of the floor and the low-IQ plays that popped up every so often that would drag down Covington’s game, whether it was a bad turnover or questionable shot choice. Cov wasn’t great in finishing at the rim this year and didn’t create many shots for himself, operating mostly as a stationary “3 and D” guy. To his credit, he spoke to those weaknesses specifically, telling reporters two weeks ago that he’s going to spend the summer focusing on “ball handling, quickness, explosion, and finishing at the rim.”
To the casual observer, Covington’s flaws were always more apparent than his strengths. It was very easy to scratch your head when watching his three-point percentage drop from an unsustainable 46% in October to 29% in February, then back up to 40% in March. He’d follow up a 7-11, 22 point effort (March 6th) with an 0-10, 3 point effort (March 8th). Sometimes he’d pick up a few quick fouls that would force him out of the game and keep him from getting into a groove on either side of the floor. Think back to the November Cleveland matchup.
And because defense is harder to quantify with numbers, those same casual observers would find it very easy to criticize Covington’s overall performances when his shots weren’t falling. It didn’t help that he started to cool down after signing a four year, $62 million contract extension just a month into the season.
Statistically, he was 4th-best in the NBA with 2.6 steals per 48 minutes. He also finished with a league-high 312 deflections. His defensive rating of 99 was the best individual mark among all five starters, better than Joel Embiid’s 99.7.
So yeah, he does play good defense, but I wrote a few months ago about the things you need to specifically look for to understand why Brett Brown values Covington. He is not Bruce Bowen. He is not Patrick Beverly. He’s not going to lock you down 1v1 and make life miserable.
Brown said as much back in March when I asked him about it:
Asked Brett Brown last night if Robert Covington doesn't get a fair shake for his defensive work when his shot isn't falling. Are fans and media looking at the wrong things? – pic.twitter.com/BIKpLIwkCm
— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) March 22, 2018
So some of this is philosophical; how much do you value versatility in defense? The Sixers value it. They like having a flexible small forward who can switch onto power forwards and shooting guards, get his hands into passing lanes, and do a bit of everything. That looks kind of corny when smaller guys are blowing by Covington on the perimeter, but a lot of his contributions are not easy to see.
For instance, here’s a pair of pre-switches that he uses to fluster Indiana on a possession right before half time:
The Pacers are trying to set a Myles Turner screen on T.J. McConnell to get Darren Collison onto Joel Embiid. Covington sees that, so he takes Turner instead and prevents the mismatch. Then he does it again to prevent Collison from getting a mismatch on Ersan Ilyasova.
It’s a small thing that goes unnoticed.
Same thing here, where Ilyasova blows a defensive assignment and Covington goes over the top of two screens to prevent Tyler Johnson from getting an open three point look:
Miami gets a long-two instead, which you can live with.
Those are the things I’m talking about with Covington. It’s just harder to measure his defensive contributions because a lot of them are utility/auxiliary/under the radar type of things. It works well against lesser squads, but when a team like Boston is hitting you with a batch of athletic wings in the conference semifinals, it’s a different story.
I look at those clips above and then wonder why things like this were happening in the playoffs:
Covington hurting the defense big time pic.twitter.com/ceeNlJCRux
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 1, 2018
Again, this is mostly philosophy. The Sixers value versatility. You may not. You may prefer a pest to a glue guy.
Whatever the case, you’d have to say that if the Sixers are going to improve their starting lineup this season, Covington’s spot looks like a starting point. Where else are you going? It’s not Embiid or Simmons. I don’t like moving Saric to the bench. Redick isn’t a guarantee to come back, so maybe they do something different there. But if the Sixers make a play for LeBron or Paul George, those guys take Covington’s position as Philly continues to roll out an amalgam of positionless players.
If the Sixers look to trade instead, Covington is a movable piece with a manageable contract. It seemed like a no brainer at the time, the extension, though a portion of the fan base probably now disagrees with the offer in hindsight. I could be wrong, but I honestly don’t recall a ton of people complaining about it in November. It was a great story, a dude picked up off the scrap pile, given a chance, and molded into a legitimate NBA player. It was very easy to cheer for a guy like RoCo.
The stakes are higher now, as are the expectations. Cov will continue to be a cult hero to Sam Hinkie/Process types, but there are plenty of doubters out there who can be proven wrong if he comes back next season showing more consistency and continuing to improve on his misunderstood and normally overlooked defensive contributions.