Covington is Philadelphia’s Real X-Factor

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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.