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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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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, currently 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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