For the past two years, Robert Covington has largely been treasured as the crown jewel of The Process. A long, active and sweet-shooting combo forward plucked from Houston’s D-League affiliate in Rio Grande, Covington bombed threes for the Vipers in 2014, dropping in 3.2 of them per game at a 37 percent clip, compiling 23 points, nine rebounds, two steals and a block per game in 34 minutes spanning 42 contests. Prior to his D-League steamrolling, Covington was already a well-established outside shooter, attempting 3.7 triples per game during his four-year career at Tennessee State, during which he played 118 games, no less than 27 minutes on average during any season and shot over 42.2 percent from distance on the aggregate.
So, it’s all the more puzzling that we find ourselves 14 games into his third season in the NBA, and second with a uncontested starting role, questioning if he’s really a reliable shooter after all.
A good place to start on Covington’s player profile in November 2016 would be on the defensive side of the ball, which is a notable change in identity from the player he came into the league as. It’s hard to overstate how important he’s been to the team’s defense with his ball-stopping and activity away from the ball. He’s tied for sixth in the league in deflections per game, sandwiched between John Wall and Kyle Lowry and a few ticks behind Draymond Green. He’s second in DRtg (104) on the team, behind only Joel Embiid (102).
h/t: Xylon Dimoff (@xylondimoff)
With a few seasoned guards capable of running NBA offenses joining the Sixers’ bench this season, Covington has been burdened with less ball-handling duties than last year, and that extra energy seems to have been harnessed in a positive way. His help defense and anticipation have been much improved, and with Henderson’s defensive duties being geared more towards point guards and stopping the ball at the point of attack, Covington’s been able to put his off-ball activity on display.
But here’s the problem: if he’s not hitting outside shots, it’s very, very hard to keep him on the floor. Covington is certainly towards the bottom of the barrel of NBA wings in the ball-handling department, a heavily right-dominant below-the-rim player with poor touch on drives and someone who’s yet to show much vision or even willingness to pass with the ball in his hands and/or attacking the basket. Which isn’t to say he’s a gunner — far from it — but he struggles mightily to create separation for himself going to the rim, and coupled with his shortcomings as a passer, that can be a rough combination. On 32 drives this season, he’s shooting 4-of-13 with three assists and three turnovers on 12 total passes, with only 0.34 PPP on drives, the 13th-worst mark in the NBA. He’s 9-of-28 from inside five feet.
The team is getting very little out of possessions that end with Covington dribbling, and getting very little out of possessions that end with him shooting. You can see the problem. This isn’t a new problem, just a magnified one. On 252 drives last season, he shot 43-of-114 with 22 assists and 33 turnovers. These are simply ineffective uses of possessions.
An ideal solution to Covington’s problems on offense would be to slide him over a position and play him as a small-ball four. But there are two complications that come with that, of varying degrees of concern. The first would be that he’d be put in more pick-and-rolls defensively, and he’s a shaky pick-and-roll defender who lacks the requisite foot speed despite his overall mobility at his size. The second, the most glaring, being that the Sixers have two power forwards cemented into the rotation already and more front-court room needed with Nerlens Noel returning from knee surgery.
Problem number one can be mitigated, thanks to the 7’2”, 280-pound rim-protecting behemoth who anchors the defense. Number two, that’s not so easy to solve in the short-term. But given the difference it’d make for Covington’s ball-handling disadvantage if he were to be defended by fours instead, and the lowering of the bar (and the pressure) that would follow for his shooting at the four, it’s something that should be a priority for the team, even if it’s only for a handful of minutes here and there with bench units.
Covington has yet to put together a full season of concern-free, accurate three-point shooting in the NBA, and that’s a problem. This is the lowest of the lows that he’s hit at this stage, but looking through his splits, you won’t find a stretch of more than two months at a time during which he’s shot the ball at an above-average clip from outside. He fought the injury bug in 2015, and took on the biggest role of his career yet in 2014. Now is the time to get it together and prove his place, and he’s falling short.
He’s firmly an NBA player. He leads the team in defensive win shares (0.5), his defensive rebounding is fantastic for a non-big and his shooting, although obviously streaky, is still an asset for someone who’d probably be splitting his minutes down the middle at the four if he were playing elsewhere. But he isn’t. It’s not time to start reconsidering his level of talent, but it’s time to start reconsidering an identity change. With Nik Stauskas turning a corner and more shooting added across the board over the summer, maybe the team shouldn’t rely on his shooting in such high volumes going forward.
The next few weeks leading up to Simmons’ assumed arrival are going to be very telling for Covington’s role moving towards the future. The ball will be in Simmons’ hands more often than not, and the general pecking order will likely be turned on its head. If he’s still not performing up to par as a shooter, it’s possible a move to the bench (or the trade market, given the depth chart) is in order.
In the midst of a slump, Covington found a way to knock down a big shot down the stretch last night. But intermittent contributions from deep won’t be good enough. What’s clear is that the time to perform as the shooter he was billed as is now for Covington, if he still hopes to develop into the best possible version of himself in the NBA.