Would it have been all that shocking had this little experiment not worked out?
Sam Hinkie likely found Robert Covington, an undrafted four-year player out of Tennessee, through the former Rockets’ Vice President’s familiarity with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers -- the squad Covington would spend the lion’s share of his rookie campaign with. Picking up Covington on a four-year non-guaranteed deal could easily be seen as a mere business formality at the time, perhaps a tip from old mentor Daryl Morey. And many Sixers observers could reasonably foresee the 6’9” forward joining the Jarvis Varnados and Brandon Davies of the world as non-NBA talents spun through the Philadelphia 10-day cycle.
Covington would ultimately flourish, relatively speaking, standing as the lone triumph of Hinkie’s sometimes frustrating experiment, not necessarily as a jackpot of epic proportions, but good enough for Hinkie to fend off the radio-heavy Philly media for yet another day.
Even that well seemed to run dry as recently as October 2016. He looked an absolute mess in the preseason, connecting on just 28.8 percent of his shots to accompany his fairly uninspired defense through seven games. Even worse, his paltry shooting numbers were further emphasized by the types of shots that created them. Impatiently launching nearly every chance he could fathom, whether wide open or with a defender right in his grill, Covington’s shot selection began giving credence to the “bad habits” argument Process detractors often leaned on -- that playing on such a devastatingly inept team could develop unbreakable habits.
His development as well as his interest seemed to plateau, doing little off the ball as he knew the Sixers lacked a competent game manager to find him open anyway. And the quick hands he once grew a reputation for -- averaging two steals per 36 through his first three seasons -- would additionally look lazier and less selfless than usual, swiping out of position for the sake of stat-padding rather than keeping the defensive scheme in mind. What was that Robert Covington worth at the end of his current deal? Maybe $30 million over four years, $40 million tops?
As it turns out, NBA players a) probably care about the preseason even less than fans and b) are real-life human beings who grow at different paces and whose assessment requires context. Covington would immediately flip the switch with a colossal opening-night performance, delivering the most awe-inspiring 10-point outing Sixer fans have experienced this side of Andre Iguodala. He poked, prodded, and frustrated the Thunder defense every trip down the floor like we hadn’t seen him do before, knowing when and when not to storm the paint with laser precision.
Though his offense would take a few months to catch up, that single game laid the foundation for a defensive identity that would remain the only constant in a Sixers season peppered with exhausting twists and turns. Few on this blog would argue against the single-game impact of Joel Embiid, but Covington remained the Sixers’ most valuable player from games one through 82 (ok whatever, 74). A mere half-year following those dreary preseason days, one could now even reasonably craft an argument for Robert Covington as the NBA’s most valuable wing defender: he more than doubled his defensive RPM from 2015-16, ranking first among all small forwards and fourth overall (only behind the presumed front-runners of this season’s DPOY award, Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green, along with Somehow Former Sixer Andrew Bogut’s 27 games).
Covington led all NBA players in the league’s disruptive new “deflections” stat by a healthy margin; and his presence on the floor with a Joel Embiid or Nerlens Noel made for a damn-near game-breaking combo:
the ground Covington and Nerlens cover on this play is insane pic.twitter.com/0zYt94HqEI— Xylon Dimoff (@xylondimoff) January 7, 2017
i could watch Cov and Nerlens defend pick and rolls forever https://t.co/u1nzOfSRcO— Xylon Dimoff (@xylondimoff) December 30, 2016
The NBA always manages to unearth one of these 3-and-D studs to varying degeres each season -- from Shane Battier in 2009 to Jae Crowder’s breakout season in Boston last year. And while these players are rarely considered key cogs worth structuring a team around, they can sometimes find themselves equally as valuable, often as players who can fill the margins where the team’s stars fall short. Just look up and down the rosters of this playoffs’ teams -- from San Antonio’s Danny Green to Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton to Atlanta’s up-and-comer Taurean Prince -- and you’ll find these players gluing together successful team concepts.
Sometimes they unlock otherwise unthinkable personnel possibilities. Take for instance a player like Jerryd Bayless, who the team likely signed for the sole purpose of spotting up alongside de facto point guard Ben Simmons, but won’t exactly make for the most trustworthy crunch-time defender. Save for some additional ball handling and passing skills that Bayless holds over Covington, is there anything inherently different about the latter that would make him worse at the former’s role? Cov is certainly the better point guard defender of the two, about on par as a shooter (especially factoring a height advantage), and would still allow Simmons free reign as the game manager.
Could the Sixers feasibly roll out a suffocating defensive lineup with Covington as acting “point guard” in the final five minutes, with a guy like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot as its shortest player? Or say the team wants to trot out the pace-and-space, switch-heavy lineup with Simmons as acting center, Covington can join up in the frontcourt without missing a beat.
Think a hybrid between Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala on previous Warriors iterations: somebody who doesn’t overthink his offense and defensively can evolve in a pinch. A major factor in the Sixers’ success in the coming years will be its ability to endlessly tinker with any and all lineup possibilities to an extent the league may have never seen before -- almost like building a lego set with twice the pieces to work with. That’s certainly not possible without players like Simmons or Joel Embiid, sure, but equally as unthinkable without a versatile talent like Robert Covington.
But wait, there’s more! As Derek “Who You Should Subscribe To” Bodner pointed out last week, Cov showed marked improvement in off-ball cutting and dribble moves. And though his shooting splits from the last two seasons may underwhelm, we can take solace in that Covington was perfectly league-average from distance since New Year’s. Expecting him to improve vastly further may be a fool’s errand at 26, but as long as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have healthy feet to walk on (pending), Covington already doesn’t have to worry -- his role will no longer go unappreciated.
Unfortunately for everyone not named Robert Covington, his laughably cheap contract couldn’t last forever -- and it may even end sooner than you think. He’s eligible for renegotiation as soon as November 14th (the three-year anniversary of his deal) and can be extended anywhere between then and March 1st, and his eventual contract may not be long for a roster loaded with first-round talent. Luckily he and the Sixers seem to be on the same page, as Bodner pointed out the team has its sights set on extending Covington as fast as you can say “re-sign Hollis.”
Rock’s new deal will be one of the summer’s most fascinating contract negotiations, where $15 million figures to be an easy starting point despite the projected cap coming in lower than previously expected. The Sixers may expect leverage considering a recent knee surgery and Covington’s career earnings have yet to clear what Jahlil Okafor made in his rookie season, but the team should tread lightly with a player whose skills would be welcomed warmly into contenders of present and future. Covington may well set the standard, as the cap flattens over the next few years, for how expensive these unlikely stars should be in the modern NBA -- as several fans wonder just how much a player who can’t get his own shot is worth.
finally got a chance to catch friday's game; imagine being Robert Covington and just knowing you're about to make 80 million dollars pic.twitter.com/o5HUqRW5a4— Xylon Dimoff (@xylondimoff) March 26, 2017
For the Sixers, it may be the difference between great and otherwordly.
What would you do with Robert Covington?
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