The Process Philadelphia 76ers can learn a lot from their first playoff experience. This series will look at key takeaways for different players, and what they should develop moving forward.
Besides Ben Simmons’ lack of a jumper and too many late-game breakdowns to remember, the Philadelphia 76ers had another glaring problem as they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics: two-way wing play. Marco Belinelli and J.J. Redick in particular can both provide quick offense, spread the floor and hit tough 3s to keep defenses scrambling, but they were liabilities on defense. Whether it was an Al Horford mismatch out of a pick-and-roll or Marcus Smart bullying in the post, Belinelli’s and Redick’s lack of size was attacked.
While he obviously couldn’t cover completely for the weaknesses of Redick and Belinelli, this is where Robert Covington should thrive, as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D wings. That’s what he is at his best.
The playoffs weren’t for Covington, though. He had some solid outings against Miami and shot 37.5 percent from deep in the first round (close to his 36.9 percent stroke from the regular season, including good volume with 2.5 makes per game), but he fell off a cliff by his typical standards in round two against Boston. His 3-point percentage dropped to 25 percent for the series, accompanied by just 6.8 points per game and far more lackadaisical defensive breakdowns than you’d expect. When Covington can’t find his shot and he’s falling asleep on simple Jayson Tatum backdoor cuts, it’s not surprising that he had the ninth-worst playoff net rating out of the 11 Sixers who played in at least three games.
Let’s not focus on defense, though. After earning an All-Defensive First Team spot this season for maximizing his disruptive length and versatility, that’s not a problem. Instead, I’m going to look at what Covington should be thinking about this summer as he looks to learn from his first playoff run, which was a perfect microcosm of an issue that's always hurt him and contributed to his nature as a streaky shooter: shot selection.
Shooting too early
Covington’s playoff shot chart isn’t pretty. Despite looking very Morey-ball-esque with a wave of 3s, a sprinkle of layups and only a handful of mid-range attempts, the vast majority of his shots were way below league-average efficiency. Not a single speck of orange looks about right after watching him.
You can also see that Covington took plenty of 3s from well beyond the arc. Which, despite being a good way to keep defenders on their toes and pull them even further away the the paint to open up lanes for teammates, isn’t so great when you’re missing and launching shots at unwise moments.
It’s easy to say Covington just missed shots in the playoffs, and that’s certainly part of it. “The NBA is a make or miss league” and all that. But there are more specific problems with his shooting, one of which is firing too early in the shot clock.
A fair amount of those non-corner 3s came with a lot of time left on the clock, with Covington ignoring the idea of waiting for a better shot or looking for teammates. And when you’re in a cold streak, as Covington was throughout the playoffs (he only had four games where he shot above 33.3 percent from deep), these generally aren’t the shots that snap you out of it.
Just look at the attempts in the clip below if your eyeballs aren’t too sore from watching the bricks live:
You can see on the first play that Covington could have easily pump faked, kept the attention of both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and hit Ersan Ilyasvova in space along the wing. Or on the second play, where Covington could have made an extra pass or done literally anything else to find something better for the Sixers’ offense with 19 seconds left on the clock — in a situation like this, down 12 points with only six minutes left, Covington needs to be know how to cherish possessions with more composed play.
The Sixers do need Covington to take 3s early in the clock if he gets an open look. It’s just knowing when to hold back in tough, contested situations and making extra passes to relocate to space off the ball that Covington needs to work on.
Shooting out of rhythm
It’s important to take some pull-ups and quick-trigger 3s when curling around screens or on the move. Those are the shots that keep defenders on their heels. Unlike his teammates Redick and Marco Belinelli, though, it’s not Covington’s strong suit. And even with that mindset, he does like to make life difficult for himself. Shooting when contested, off-balance, or over pump-faking his way out of space can all bother him at times.
Here, Covington actually had a great open look early in the shot clock after bringing the ball up the court, giving the ball to Ben Simmons, and shifting to space on the wing. With only three Celtics back on defense, he had a ton of space to take an open shot. This was a time when he should have fired without hesitation. Yet he threw himself out of rhythm, pump faking unnecessarily to gave Terry Rozier enough time to close out:
This play couldn’t be a better example of Covington shooting himself out of rhythm — it’s like there’s no comfortable middle ground between being overly cautious and chucking. In these instances, you have to shoot immediately, to both take your attempt in one fluid motion and to avoid letting the defense recover.
Of course, it’s important to note that Covington did miss some easier shots, too. In the playoffs, he shot 26.3 percent on open 3s and 27.3 percent on on wide open 3s. That said, some of those shots were so open because he shot them from so far beyond the arc. Tightly contested 3s also accounted for 1.6 of his 4.8 attempts per game. His opponents (primarily the Celtics) deserve some credit for that, but Covington not always knowing when to hold back is part of it as well.
Similarly to Joel Embiid (whose passing got a lot of attention in my first episode of this series), the Sixers' offense could really benefit from some improved playmaking from Covington. Even though he never will (and never should) be required to create for others out of pick-and-rolls or crossover fuelled drives, looking to attack closeouts more and keep the ball moving would be an ideal way to improve. Cutting down some of his ugly 3s in the process wouldn’t be bad either.
This is a perfect example of what Covington can do when he puts his mind to it. He lets Rozier flail out to contest the shot, waits for Aron Baynes to help away from Embiid, then hits his man for a dunk:
It just doesn’t happen enough. You can see this from the shots above and when looking back at Covington’s assists from the playoffs (there are far more simple swing passes to shooters, rather than driving and kicking past closeouts). 65.8 percent of all his field goal attempts this season were 3s and Covington is seriously limited when using his dribble.
The threat he poses from 3, though, especially as someone so willing to shoot, does force defenders to close out hard and should create opportunities for more plays like the one above.
Covington will never be the smartest offensive player. He’ll probably never be a 40-percent 3-point shooter either. But he still has all the tools to thrive at both ends of the floor with this growing Sixers core. If he stays (as in doesn't get sent away in a trade for, oh, I don't know, Kawhi Leonard), his potential improvement comes down to mental adjustments and sharpening what he can do with a few dribbles. As he approaches his fifth season as a starter, that shouldn’t be too much to ask for.