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Covington is Philadelphia’s Real X-Factor

While all of the Sixers talk surrounds Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz, Robert Covington is an important piece.

Dennis Chambers

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Next season suggests that it will be the most important season in nearly five years for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Finally, the Sixers resemble a competitive basketball team with sights on restoring the franchise to the glory of their once-great selves. With franchise caliber players like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz anchoring the team, the Sixers were in a position this summer to sign important free agents like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. These roster parts add to a bigger machine headed in the direction of playoff basketball.

However, the real X-factor for Philadelphia isn’t any of the aforementioned players. Instead, that title comes by way of a 2013 undrafted free agent: Robert Covington.

That’s right, Covington is poised to be one of the most crucial players for Philadelphia next season as they look to charge towards the postseason.

When projecting the starting lineup for next season, Covington slides in perfectly as the fifth starter in a lineup that will be more or less lacking traditional position titles. Head coach Brett Brown has already designated 6-foot-10 Simmons as the “primary ball handler.” After spending the first overall pick on Fultz this past June and giving Redick 23 million reasons to move to Philadelphia in July, both players look locked into starting roles for next year. As for Embiid, nobody needs to justify why he’ll wind up in the starting lineup.

That leaves Covington. The 6-foot-9 wing player who shoots three-pointers and is a defensive wizard.

Positioning Covington in the starting lineup provides the Sixers with the type of offensive and defensive versatility needed to get the most out of Simmons. As the de facto point guard, Simmons will be responsible for running the offense, but on the defensive end, Brown is on record as saying Simmons will guard whoever checks him on the other end of the court. That leaves some room for experiment, but chances are the Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving types of the world won’t be guarding a near seven-footer who can easily take them to the hoop. Instead, it’s more likely that a small or power forward will be responsible for covering Simmons. That leaves Fultz and Redick to take the opposing backcourt, with Embiid taking the other team’s big man and Covington left to guard whichever wing player doesn’t check his Australian teammate.

Luckily for Philadelphia — and unluckily for opponents — Covington is more than up to the challenge.

Since being brought into the fold, Covington has provided the Sixers with consistent growth and hard work, especially on the defensive end of the court. While he doesn’t have the splashy highlight plays or the big name to go along with some of the other top defenders in the league, Covington does, have the numbers to back up his claim as a premier defender.

Last season, of players who logged at least 50 games, only two recorded a higher Defensive Real Plus-Minus than Covington. Those two players — Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert — just so happened to finish first and second place in the vote for Defensive Player of the Year.

What helps make Covington such a pest on the defensive end is his how quickly he can get his hands in the middle of the action without committing a foul. Covington averaged 4.2 deflections per game last season, which was best in the NBA. Green and John Wall tied for second place with just 3.9 deflections. For a team that is going to look to push the pace on fast breaks next season, Covington’s quick hands are going to result in plenty of loose balls turned fast breaks for the Sixers.

As Covington has emerged for Philadelphia as their primary wing defender, on most nights he is given the task of checking the opponent’s most dangerous offensive player. There were multiple sequences last season where Covington’s primary objective was to slow down the team’s top scorer, regardless of position. Like in consecutive games last November, Covington was asked to guard Wall and Andrew Wiggins. Both dynamic scorers, both, however, two completely different players.

“Bruce Bowen would guard LaMarcus Aldridge down to [Allen Iverson] to [Carmelo Anthony] and so on—Dirk [Nowitzki]—he just was like a band-aid,” Brown told Sports Illustrated last season. “Robert for me, for us, is that.”

Providing the Sixers with his defensive versatility on the wing, Covington looks to be the perfect fit alongside guys like Redick (who isn’t known throughout the league for his defense) and Simmons (who may be guarding a different position every night). By holding down the perimeter, Covington also adds a nice defensive complement to Embiid, who, while on the court last season, proved to be one of the league’s best interior defenders.

Along with being a defensive catalyst for Philadelphia, Covington possesses a pretty shooting stroke that will help aid the spacing when it comes to the team’s offensive game planning as well.

Throughout his three years with the Sixers, Covington has managed a 35.4 percent shooting clip from downtown on 6.6 attempts per game. While the percentage doesn’t blow you away, it should be noted that most of these shots were taken by Covington with no real offensive threat around him at the time, giving opposing defenses no reason to sag in their coverage. With the shooting likes of Redick and Fultz, along with the down-low dominance of Embiid consistently around Covington next season, there’s reason to believe that percentage will increase.

As the NBA continues to evolve into a league that value’s three-point shooting over just about any other quality, players who can let it rip become increasingly more valuable. The players that can shoot effectively, as well as impact the court in other areas, add a whole new layer of value to their worth. For Covington, he’s in rarified air when it comes to those distinctions.

Since 2013-14, there are only two players in the entire NBA who clear 2.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per 100 possessions while shooting 35-plus percent from deep. One player is Finals MVP and proclaimed best “two-way” player in all of basketball, Kawhi Leonard. The other?

You guessed it, Covington.

At just 26 years old, the Sixers swingman is still in the prime of his youth and fits perfectly alongside the timeline of rebuild and growth with the team’s other budding stars. Because of that, and because Covington is in the last year of his current deal, Philadelphia will have to dish out a decent chunk of change to keep their jack knife in the City of Brotherly Love.

Back in June, Philadelphia exercised their option on Covington for the 2017-18 season, paying him $1.57 million for the upcoming season. However, after signing Redick and Johnson in free agency, the Sixers halted their spending and left themselves with around $12 million in cap space. That remaining money, could be used in a Covington extension.

Whatever the final terms end up being, the Sixers need Covington on their roster in order to get the most out of their young star players, and a deal will more than likely get done in due time.

When the new NBA season kicks off, and the buzz starts surrounding the likes of Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz for the Philadelphia 76ers, just remember that Covington is the glue-guy who is holding it all together.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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