When Robert Covington left the court on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, he did not expect his absence from the Minnesota Timberwolves to last long.
He had not broken or torn anything, so his apparent injury hiatus should be short-lived, he and anyone watching figured.
The Timberwolves were 17-20, hardly out of playoff contention in the aggressive West. They had rattled off an 8-3 stretch when Covington first arrived from Philadelphia in the Jimmy Butler trade, turning a tumultuous 5-9 start into a 13-12 standing filled with possibility. Even the subsequent 4-8 stretch did not totally derail hopes.
Covington’s injury did.
“I was sitting back at home while my team is sitting up here trying to win games, make that playoff push,” he said Monday at Minnesota’s annual Media Day. “I was on my way back when I had that small setback and had to have surgery. That made me even more frustrated.”
The bone bruise to Covington’s knee eventually developed swelling that needed surgery to address, removing loose bodies from the knee. Even if the swelling setback required the surgery just to be properly diagnosed, it was merely the obvious injury, not the only one.
“I thought [a bone bruise] was something so minor, so simple, when actually it’s not,” Covington said. “It was more in-depth than what I actually knew. I was frustrated.”
The threat to Covington’s long-term play, and thus the Timberwolves’ future, was that frustration and the effects that came from it. The seven-year veteran felt his headspace wavering to such a degree that he dispatched his family, not wanting his deteriorating mood to rub off on them.
Someone who prides himself on bringing an uplifting energy to every room he walks into, Covington instead walked around Minnesota’s facilities with his head down, lost in thoughts of his teammates “busting their ass each and every day to make it to the playoffs” while he could do nothing but watch.
The Timberwolves’ coaching staff took over six days after that New Year’s Eve injury, with Ryan Saunders moving from assistant coach to interim head coach when Tom Thibodeau was fired. In that assistant’s role, Saunders had known Covington since only the trade in mid-November, yet it was clear to the now-head coach that what was amiss was nothing to dismiss.
Saunders, general manager Scott Layden and head trainer Gregg Farnam sat down with Covington to talk through the effects of the injury, both physical and mental.
“It brought tears to my eyes because not only did they notice — I knew on the inside how I was affected,” Covington said. “It built trust because Ryan shared stories with me about how a therapist helped him with the loss of his father, how he dealt with it.
“Ryan gave me motivation to keep reading, to keep my head in a positive manner to where there’s going to be days when you have stress and frustration and everything. How you handle that is what is going to dictate the outcome of how you feel about it.”
Covington took their advice and spent a couple sessions with a therapist. To hear him tell it, that proactive approach aided both Covington’s mental health and his physical recovery.
“The therapist gave me a professional way to view everything, to handle certain things, to get through it,” he said. “That’s what has allowed me during this whole phase to not have any issues and what has helped my recovery process…If I do have a day where I do feel discomfort or anything, I’m not viewing it as I did before based off of where I was five months ago. I’m nowhere near that person.”
Instead, Covington knows and acknowledges he is not yet in playing shape — only recently cleared for competitive action. He understands the long run is valued more than October, particularly in an organization now preaching sustainable success under president Gersson Rosas. These practical approaches fit how Covington long approached the game on the court, his under-the-radar contributions adding up to a whole performance pushing the team over the top.
That is part of why the Timberwolves went 8-3 when he first arrived, a groove Covington fully expects the team to get back into. After all, the core pieces of that stretch are still around, despite rampant roster turnover.
“We still have the same caliber of guys, just not the names behind them,” he said. “They’re guys that are younger, but we still do the exact same thing…You just come into the building and buy into what we’re doing. That’s what guys are doing the past month and a half as they’re working, getting to know the system.”
That system has changed, as one might expect with Saunders installing his own staff under Rosas’ guidance. The united front now preaches an up-tempo offense focusing on efficient shots and a defense ripe with switching, as much a philosophical method of defending as one natural to a roster loaded with wings. The first thing Saunders cited as a focus of this week’s practice was, in fact, defense.
It is Covington’s calling card, so his physical and mental health is paramount to its success. That is not lost on anyone, particularly not franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns, who did not hesitate to put Covington’s name into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
Covington will likely spend considerable time as the biggest body alongside Towns. That would, in theory, leave Towns alone responsible for protecting the rim. The seven-footer sees it the other way around.
“We all look way better defensively because you don’t have to worry about — for me, personally, I know if RoCo is on that side, on the wing, I don’t have to worry about penetration coming into the paint,” Towns said. “I don’t have to protect it.
“One of the biggest things I’ve stressed a lot is I don’t want to be leading the league again in contested shots…There’s no reason I should be doing that, because we should be playing defense to a standard where I don’t have to contest that many shots and put myself in a position [of foul trouble].”
Towns fouled out nine times last season, coming one foul away from it another 19 times. Lessening that starts with Towns, obviously, and extends past Covington, who Towns expects to defend four positions. It also lands at the feet of free-agent signee Jordan Bell, who Towns suggested can defend all five positions, and even Andrew Wiggins. They will all be pieces of Saunders’ switching schemes.
“That’s just going to make us more and more deadlier,” Covington said. “It’s going to give us a little bit more freedom to do things. We are able to make up for a small [mistake].”
Those defensive efforts begin with Covington on the court. After all, he was active for only one of the Timberwolves’ 12 worst defensive showings last season. Towns specifically mentioned giving up 140-plus points four times; there were another eight instances of Minnesota allowing 130 or more.
If Covington’s presence is vital to stopping such egregious showings — and it is — then the Timberwolves’ desired defensive improvements began in the offseason with a difficult conversation between Covington and a head coach he had never played for.
A conversation that inspired trust and led to needed recovery, mental as much as physical.
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