Robert Covington is the most polarizing player on the Sixers’ roster. To some, he is a hero — the true gem of The Process, evidence of Sam Hinkie’s brilliance, invaluable due to his wing defense and shooting ability. To others, he is an inconsistent player whose low-points are as frustrating as can be, a player who is so back-and-forth that he isn’t even worth the trouble. Covington was on fire to start the year last season; in his first 25 games before suffering a back injury which briefly sidelined him, he shot 42.7 percent from beyond the arc on 7.2 attempts per game. His efficiency and volume were both extremely high, the true mark of an elite shooter. But following his two-game absence, he shot just 33.8 percent from deep for the rest of the season, attempting 6.5 triples per game. While it’s easy to point to his injury as the cause, and it definitely could have played a minor role in his drop-off, it is much more complex than that. Covington is a unique player who as good as he is on defense, may need some specific surroundings in order to reach his potential offensively.
At the start of the year, the Sixers were starting Covington alongside Ben Simmons, Jerryd Bayless, JJ Redick and Joel Embiid. Because the Sixers expected high-caliber shot-making and reliable secondary creation from Bayless, his role was significant to start the year. As the season went on, and it became clear that Bayless was nothing similar to what the Sixers had planned on him being, he started losing more and more minutes, with Dario Saric moving into the starting lineup. This happened to coincide with Covington’s offensive drop-off. Take a look at how Covington’s production regressed as the season went on:
- Games 1-20: 14.9 PPG, 45.3 FG%, 3.1 3PA, 7.3 3PM, 42.5 3P%
- Games 21-40: 11.8 PPG, 38.0 FG%, 2.4 3PM, 7.0 3PA, 34.5 3P%
- Games 41-60: 10.6 PPG, 37.5 FG%, 2.1 3PM, 6.4 3PA, 32.0 3P%
Take a look at Covington’s stats per 36 minutes when playing with and without Saric, courtesy of NBA.com:
What changed? Well, Bayless became a nightly DNP by the middle of January, and Saric grew into having a significant role with the Sixers. Now, this is not meant to be some sort of appreciation for Jerryd Bayless, nor is it a condemnation of Dario Saric. But the numbers and the eye test agree. In order to maximize Robert Covington, there needs to be a limited number of bigs on the floor. What Covington really needs is to play power forward offensively, with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and two perimeter players (whether they are guards, wings, or both) surrounding him. This forces the many teams who play slower, traditional power forwards to have them defend Covington, who can then create space for himself to shoot open threes with off-ball movement against defenders who are not as quick on their feet. With Simmons being capable of defending power forwards while being the point guard on offense, it allows for some mismatches in the Sixers’ favor.
Again, this is not an anti-Saric argument. Nor is it a plea to immediately ditch the starting lineup of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric and Embiid, a five-man group that was among the league’s very best last year. That group had such a good year that they deserve the chance to pick up where they left off. But the rotation should be adjusted so that Covington can play as many minutes as a small-ball power forward as possible.
Eventually, though, the starting lineup will be altered, and that’s because of the true arrival of Markelle Fultz, who the Sixers hope to have in his full form next season. If his shot is fixed, he will soon become too good to not have a starting role. Simmons and Embiid will obviously remain in the lineup, while Redick is essential because of his shooting versatility, and Covington will stay because of the elite two-way play he brings to the table. The logical conclusion is that when Markelle Fultz returns to his versatile self, he will enter the starting lineup for Saric, putting Covington exactly where he needs to be: surrounded by one dominant big (Embiid), two initiators (Simmons and Fultz), and an elite shot-maker (Redick). Teams will be forced to put their worst defender on Covington, who will become an afterthought in opponents’ defensive game-plans as they hone in on the Sixers’ playmakers. This will allow him to focus on doing nothing on the offensive end but knocking down good looks from deep. His efficiency, and overall offensive production, should skyrocket. In previous years, the Sixers’ severe lack of shot creators and go-to scorers forced them to have Covington consistently attempt heavily contested jumpers, as they were often the only decent looks their putrid offense could manufacture.
Covington is not a perfect player, especially on the offensive end. This eventual change will not turn him into the best three-point shooter in the league, nor will it prevent him from being somewhat of a streaky jump-shooter. But, it could make an already extremely valuable role player even more useful for the Sixers as they embark on their quest for a championship.