The development of Philadelphia 76ers' forward Robert Covington closely mirrors that of The New Day, the WWE tag team whose name we've lovingly appropriated as the theme for 2017-18 player preview series.
In late 2014, Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods were saddled with mid-card level gimmicks that generated no pop or heat from the crowd. The trio was first repackaged as a gospel-tinged stable, but after a bit of a heel turn, The New Day has firmly established themselves as one of the most popular tag teams in wrestling history.
In late 2014, Robert Covington was preparing for his second season in the NBA's Developmental League. While in the middle of training camp with the Grand Rapids Drive, the 6-9 forward signed a four-year deal with the Sixers primarily due to his offensive prowess. Three years later, he's emerged as perhaps the best perimeter defender in the Eastern Conference.
It's a new day, yes it is. And we're going to celebrate it in our player previews, which will focus on the change in the air, the new faces, and the old faces in a new era of Sixers basketball. We'll compare and contrast the old and the new, though the writers here might change the format up day-by-day. Today's discussion centers around Robert Covington, who should have a lot more space to operate this year thanks to the pieces around him.
At his annual Coaches' Clinic last month, Philadelphia 76ers' head coach Brett Brown firmly asserted that Robert Covington was one of his team's "shooters."
That distinction is somewhat debatable at face value: During his time with the Sixers, Covington's three-point percentage has actually declined each season. Specifically, Covington's first year in Philadelphia (2014-15) was the only season in which the former Tennessee State product shot better than league average from beyond the arc.
The Sixers' lack of a true playmaker has allowed opposing defenses to key on Covington, but everything is different now with rookie Ben Simmons serving as the team's de facto point guard.
In just two preseason games, we've already seen how Simmons' unique skill set - even without a reliable jump shot - will open up the floor for everyone else. Simmons is someone who can get to any spot on the court virtually at will, and his elite vision and passing ability will lead to kick-outs to (a much less closely guarded) Covington. On wide-open three-point attempts last season, Covington shot an impressive 41.4 percent.
Last year, the man affectionately known as RoCo served as the Sixers' best (lone?) deep threat, but that also changes with the arrival of J.J. Redick. Brett Brown figures to implement a lot of floppy action and/or other off-ball screen sets in order to get both Redick and Covington into optimal position for high-value shots.
My favorite Ben Simmons effect so far is that Covington is playing the 4 on offense and the 3 on defense which, at this time, is optimal.— Sean O'Connor (@soconnor76) October 6, 2017
What's intriguing is that with Simmons running point, and with Redick and Markelle Fultz serving as the Sixers' "backcourt", Covington can be viewed as a something of a stretch-4 on offense. It almost goes without saying, but very few teams have the personnel to matchup with a 6-9 shooter, a 6-10 ball handler/elite passer, and a 7-foot center who T.J. McConnell referred to on Saturday as "the second coming."
On the other end of the court, Covington will continue to be tasked with guarding the opposing team's best perimeter player. Defense is the one aspect of his game that doesn't figure to regress this season: Covington (who racked up 3.2 Defensive Win Shares in 2016-17) was one of four players in the league to average at least 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game last year.
That's not to say that Covington has reached the ceiling of defensive potential, however. The fifth-year forward probably should have been named to the All-Defensive team last season, but he hasn't let the slight sour his approach to the game in any way.
"Of course I want to solidify myself as a wing defender," said Covington at the team's Media Day event. "But I'm not too pressed on accolades or anything of that nature."
As Xylon Dimoff wrote in April, Covington is going to get paid soon, and no one will re-create the blinking white guy meme when the details of the contract are released. He's on the books at a hair under $1.6 million this season, and his next deal will likely increase that number by at least eight-fold.
Robert Covington enters the 2017-18 campaign as arguably the best bargain in the NBA, and he also happens to be on the precipice of emerging as the 3-and-D standout we've all been waiting for.