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Robert Covington is a vital piece regardless of his three-point shooting

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Three-point shooting or not, Covington is still contributing on offense while playing great defense.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

The first 32 34 games of the 2016-17 NBA season are a time period Robert Covington likely won’t be reflect upon positively any time soon. During those two-plus months, Covington shot a paltry 33 percent from the field and 26.4 percent from beyond the arc. Covington was in the crux of his slump against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 3, as a chorus of boos rained down from the home fans during his 1-9 three-point shooting performance.

But in the waning seconds of the game, the 26-year-old deposited a Dario Saric inbounds pass with an acrobatic layup to knock off the Timberwolves. The jeers were replaced with cheers, and from that moment on it’s looked as though a light switch flicked back on for the Sixers’ starting small forward.

In the 14 games since that victory, Covington has shot 38.6 percent from three, and posted an effective field goal percentage of 55.4. It was inevitable that the fourth-year pro would eventually regain his outside shooting stroke; his career three-point shooting percentage of 36.5 percent (D-League numbers included) indicated his poor start to the season was a pretty extreme outlier. However, streaky shooting from month to month has been Covington’s M.O., and it’s inevitable that he’ll hit a rough patch at some point again this year, although hopefully not nearly as extreme.

Regardless, Covington has done enough on both ends of the floor to prove that he’s been a crucial part of the Sixers’ recent success even when his shooting touch abandons him.

Covington’s struggles shooting the ball only seemed to enhance his determination to make an impact on the defensive end. He’s number one in ESPN’s defensive real-plus minus, ahead of stalwarts like Al-Farouq Aminu, Andre Roberson, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Covington has also turned into one of the NBA’s elite ballhawks, currently leading the in pass deflections (4.3) while sitting 11th in steals per game (1.7). Those skills were on display late in the Sixers win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday evening.

Notice how Covington strapped a smaller, elusive Ty Lawson in the video above, leading to a difficult pass from a precarious position. His versatility on the defensive end has been a huge bonus for the Sixers, and he’s put it on display all month. Covington is agile enough to effectively hinder smaller guards like Lawson or spark plug Isaiah Thomas, and big enough to limit the seemingly unstoppable Antetokounmpo, who was held to just 17 points on 19 shots in the team’s matchup on Jan. 25.

All of those things contribute to why the Sixers’ defensive rating takes a nosedive when Covington isn’t on the floor, plummeting from 102.8 to 108.9. A portion of that can certainly be attributed to Joel Embiid’s rim protection prowess, which allows Covington to go hunting for steals without worrying nearly as much about the team getting burnt on the backend. Covington’s numbers don’t look nearly as great when the seven-footer isn’t on the floor, but Embiid’s numbers also take a hit without the Tennessee State product. The two definitely feed off of each other. Per NBAWowy:

Defensive On/Off Stats

On/Off Minutes PPP FG% EFG%
On/Off Minutes PPP FG% EFG%
Covington on 1325 1.05 44.9 50.1
Embiid on 759 1.02 42.4 47.5
Covington and Embiid on 505 0.999 41.9 46.8
Covington on and Embiid off 820 1.08 46.8 52.3
Covington off and Embiid on 254 1.07 43.5 49.1
Covington and Embiid are both really important defensive pieces.

Covington’s also been a menace on the boards. He’s posted five double-doubles in the month of January alone, and has seven so far this year, just three short of his total in the past two seasons combined.

On the offensive side of the ball, Covington’s still found ways to have an impact even when he’s struggling to score from deep. Seen almost exclusively as a catch-and-shoot threat in previous seasons, he’s greatly improved his ball handling and finishing ability around the rim in his third year in Philadelphia.

Covington Off The Dribble

Season Drives FG%
Season Drives FG%
2014-15 4.2 37.6
2015-16 3.8 37.7
2016-17 3.4 45.2
Covington is improving as a scorer with the ball in his hands.

Covington’s still far from perfect in that department. He’s used mostly brute strength to score around the rim as opposed to any real dribble moves, and it’s led to him getting called for way too many charges. Still, it’s serious progress from a player who struggled to even put the ball down in years past, making it possible to envision him as a legitimate, multi-faceted offensive player somewhere down the line.

Covington is also doing more damage as an off-ball cutter than in years past. According to NBA.com, he’s upped his cutting frequency is to 8.2 percent from 3.5 a year ago, and is scoring 1.19 points per possession. It’s something he should continue to do with more frequency, especially now that he plays most of his minutes with floor spacing big men like Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova, as opposed to the dumpster fire that was Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.

(clips via 3Ball.io)

It’s always worth noting that Covington’s four-year, $4,103,441 deal is the best bang for your buck contract in the NBA. For some perspective, retired big man Sasha Kaun -- who general manager Bryan Colangelo traded for and immediately waived -- is getting paid over $300,000 more than Covington by the Sixers. He may be the only player in the league not on a rookie contract to have such a large impact on a team while getting paid so little, and that’s important to remember on the nights he struggles to shoot the ball. No matter what, Covington has been an absolute steal, and that’ll be evident in the summer of 2018 when he’s rewarded with a significant pay raise.

With a solid shooting month now in the rearview mirror, one can only hope that the impending All-Star break doesn’t slow Covington down. Even if his three-point percentage takes a hit in February, his game has become well-rounded enough that he can continue to make a serious impact. The playoffs are still within reach for Philadelphia, and if they’re lucky enough to steal the eighth seed, Covington will be a big reason behind the team’s successful late season push.