Robert Covington didn’t do himself any favors in the playoffs. The defense he’s known for was subpar. His on-ball limitations were shown up against small, dynamic guards like Terry Rozier. His 3-point shot, labelled by many as “streaky” at the best of times, was off to the tune of 31.3%.
As Philly brought the regular season to a close with a 16-game win streak, Covington had just finished his best year yet as a top 3-and-D wing; the hard worker who’d ascended from an undrafted G-Leaguer to an All-Defensive level forward. 10 playoff games later, and many couldn’t see past his shortcomings. Any mention of Covington can now be met with a complacent dig — “he can’t dribble... He can’t make a layup... Yeah, but what about the playoffs?”
Covington has always had sceptics who haven’t been as high on his game, but they received all the vindication they needed from the playoffs. The criticism has gone up a level ever since the Sixers were eliminated in inexperienced, disappointing fashion.
Obviously, some of the criticism is more than justified. His postseason was bad and there’s no way around it. When looking back at the playoffs, I wrote about how his spells of questionable shot selection encouraged his shooting slumps. His offensive game is limited, specifically in terms of his ball handling and ability to attack the rim, beat closeouts and make extra passes on the move. He has some defensive limitations, too. Covington isn’t an elite on-ball defender, and while he can effectively switch around across multiple positions, he doesn’t quite have the high-end speed or agility required to lock up smaller, explosive guards. This opens up chances for such players to beat him off the dribble, which can also prompt him to make ill-advised reaches for the ball at times (he was 7th in personal fouls last season at 238).
But you can’t evaluate Covington through a playoff-only lens. And for all those flaws, there are a ton of high-end strengths that make Covington one of the best 3-and-D wings in the NBA and a deserving All-Defensive First Team player — an honor that you might forget about if you just pay attention to the angrier members of Sixers Twitter.
Despite his streaky shooting reputation, in terms of accuracy and attempts, Covington is clearly a positive floor spacer. He shot 36.9 from deep last season, putting pressure on defenses with a high volume of attempts (6.9 per game for 2.5 makes), including plenty coming a couple of steps beyond the arc. With a fast release, range, and solid efficiency, he easily fills his role as a shooter in an offense that needs space around Ben Simmons.
Defense is Covington's specialty, though, which shouldn’t have suffered so much criticism just because of a lacklustre playoffs. With cat-quick hands and a near 7’2” wingspan thrown onto his 6’9” frame, it’s what he was born to do.
As I’ve mentioned, defending on the ball isn’t his best asset. But Covington can still bother players on the ball with his sheer size and persistence. You can see a few examples here how that helps him extend past screens and contest on jumpers against Paul George:
Even if Covington isn’t able to smother players at the point of attack, he can often catch them off guard by suddenly picking their pocket. It’s no easy task stripping the ball from LeBron James or Kevin Durant in transition, and Covington often makes these kinds of plays:
Similarly, Covington has the hand speed and coordination to swat the ball away on drives like this — a helpful weapon to have if he can’t keep all of his assignments held at the perimeter. He’s always looking for openings to attack the ball and pick at lapses in control:
It’s Covington’s off-ball impact that makes him an elite defender overall, though. He’s a disruptive nightmare for opponents, always lurking and ready to break up plays in a variety of ways.
Effort and a deadly 7’2” wingspan alone allow Covington to make plays. If he’s locked onto his man or opponents make a lazy pass, he’ll snatch up steals with ease. His 1.7 per game ranked 9th in the NBA last season, while he comfortably led the league in deflections per 36 minutes:
Anticipation and awareness is what takes Covington to another level. He doesn’t just throw himself into passing lanes to make a difference — he knows where to be. Take the three plays in the clip below, for example. First, look how he knows what Jeff Teague wants to do, keeps the corner of his eye fixed on Nemanja Bjelica, and perfectly times his drop to the basket to cover the cut and get a steal. Second, how he sees Joel Embiid drawn away from Derrick Favors in the second play, so, expecting a dump off pass, shifts over to thwart the play. And finally, how he knows George Hill only has an open passing window to the corner from his drive, so Covington waits nearer the baseline and snags a steal:
The impact Covington provides as a help defender around the rim can’t be overlooked either. The Sixers have a fierce interior defense with Joel Embiid at the heart of everything and a wealth of size around him (within five feet of the basket, they rank 3rd in opponent field goal percentage and 5th in attempts). Covington is a real factor, providing 0.9 blocks per game as a better complementary rim deterrent than most wings in the league.
Stellar instincts, timing and, of course, ideal size make Covington a great help defender. If Embiid gets pulled away from the basket on a switch or other teammates drop out of position, Covington can be ready to help on drives, big men rolling down the lane, and clear up some breakdowns in positioning:
Covington's opportunistic nature also sets him apart defensively. If he sees an opportunity to punish players with a sudden double team or block opponents from behind to bring plays to a halt — no matter their size — he'll pounce:
Put all of this together, and it gives Covington an incredibly impressive statistical profile for the season: he ranked 5th in Defensive Win Shares, 3rd in Defensive Real Plus/Minus, and 8th in overall Real Plus/Minus. It’s hard to deny how impactful he is when rewatching what he’s capable of and looking at the numbers to back it up.
Ultimately, you don’t have to be a Robert Covington fan. That’s ok. Everyone appreciates different players and values them in their own way. And whether you’re snatching up property on Covington Island or getting as far away as possible, everyone can agree that there’s room for him to get better, from sharpening up his handle to controlling his shot selection.
Just don’t act like a few flaws or one bad playoff run are the be all and end all. No player’s value should be determined by a sample size that small, especially when we have a bulk of evidence to prove just how good he is.