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The case for Covington: bring back the process gem

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Philadelphia 76ers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

That ESPN Trade Machine image above... that’s the nuts and bolts, player-wise, of how a trade to reacquire Robert Covington might look. (Guessing). Then the Sixers and T-Wolves would probably begin negotiations on the draft compensation Philly would have to include. A future first round pick and a good second round pick? I have no clue, I’m just spit balling. They might have to top teams like the Lakers, Mavs, Rockets or Bucks, all rumored to have considered the former Sixer. As it stands now, Head Coach Brett Brown keeping his job may come down to this upcoming playoff run. And he’ll have to place his fate in the hands of two centers who haven’t really meshed offensively, and a bench that leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to winning playoff games in Spring. He needs more help than he’s been given.

Letting a plug-and-play vet like Covington have 25 of those minutes makes all of those difficult personnel and lineup decisions a bit easier, and might just put the finishing touches on the championship level defense they’ve been trying to build.

Divisive and streaky but oh so reliable

It’s disgraceful interesting that Sixer fans seemed so split on their feelings about Cov when he was in Philly. Cov’s last full season here he made an All NBA Defensive First Team, while shooting 36.9 percent from deep. Despite the (fair) reputation that he’s a streaky shooter, his percentages have been consistent with larger samples since the beginning of the 2017-2018 season. He hovers right around his career average of 36 percent from deep. Over his last 2.5 seasons his catch-and shoot percentage is a shade better at 37.4 percent. Streaky on a nightly or weekly basis, quite consistent over large samples. Kind of like a deck of cards.

He ranks 37th overall in the entire NBA for PIPM and ranks 29th in wins added this season, per B-Ball Index. For comparison, Joel Embiid ranks 13th in PIPM, while Tobias Harris ranks 24th in Wins Added. That’s impressive, especially considering it’s not easy to contribute wins in Minny.

The good news is that if the Sixers reacquired him, they would not need him to defend the opposition’s best player each night like they did in 2017-2018; they have Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson now:

They could let Covington do what he does best and focus on help defense more than he ever has. By surrounding him with so much elite D (as opposed to y’know JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli or Karl Anthony-Towns) the Sixers could unlock a side of RoCo largely untapped when he was asked to chase Paul George or Kemba Walker. And save his legs in the process.

They wouldn’t be totally reliant upon Cov’s streak shooting either. He’d just be another weapon to turn to in Brett Brown’s rotation. If Furkan Korkmaz were off or getting picked on defensively, if Matisse Thybulle were in foul trouble, Cov to the rescue. And vice versa.

Cost in players

Another dude in the photo above is Mike Scott. Scott’s also a streak shooter and after some hot shooting a year ago, is now in the midst of an extended cold-spell. He has shot about 36.5 percent since Elton Brand traded for him. It’s the one who didn’t win himself any cult followings who is the better player.

It would really sting to lose a player like Zhaire Smith who never got a fair chance to shine because of his injuries and the team’s win-now timeline. If Smith ever winds up better than Cov, it’s more likely to happen beyond this team’s title window. Moving on from Smith would be a similar thought process to moving on from Markelle Fultz: a brutal pill to swallow, but worth it under very particular circumstances.

The reason to consider it here is because trading Scott and giving his and maybe some of James Ennis’ minutes to Covington would be a turbo-boost to the lineup. It’s probably worth the sacrifice in future picks to win with this core.

Health Check

RoCo has had some injury issues. After suffering what was called a bone-bruise last season, he underwent arthroscopic surgery for loose bodies in his knee. There were some concerns that his knee issues could even be chronic. The Timberwolves have said they don’t think that’s the case. Any serious discussion would require lengthy medical reviews. But Covington has looked healthy recently. Ideally, he could help everyone important on the 76ers play a little bit less per night but stay fresh through mid June.

Anyway, see for yourself: here’s a look at some defensive highlights from Cov this season. The Sixers need offense. One way to generate it is with easy transition looks. Whether it’s spying to help his center with pick-n-roll coverage or sticking Kawhi he can ignite a break:

But they need offense not more D

You’re reading this piece so you’ve heard the following sentiment 38 times since Christmas: the Sixers roster fit is clunky and they lack ball-handlers, shooters, and primary initiators. Look at what Ben Simmons does next to someone who can dribble and pass!

The team ranks 18th in offensive efficiency so that’s all probably true. Each title winner since 2011 has at least fielded a top 8 offense during the regular season. And Rob does not address playmaking needs. Names like Bogdan Bogdanović, Tomáš Satoranský, Gary Harris, Zach LaVine, Evan Fournier, Alec Burks, or Derrick Rose all do on varying degrees of the salary spectrum. A few of them have already been linked to Philadelphia in trade rumors. Some of them would require a starter and picks to obtain.

The Sixers should explore the entire market. But Covington’s overall impact-per-dollar is probably far greater than most of the other guys they could get without dramatically changing their core and needing to overhaul the offense. If I had my way, they’d be aggressive and push for both Covington and a cheaper scoring guard like Alec Burks (who blew up last night). Just one of the two might not be enough. But for this piece I’ll just continue to focus on the merits of RoCo.

No more turnstiles, no new plays

This offseason the Sixers appeared to make the decision to obtain the best playoff defense in the NBA, and one that has no glaring weaknesses. No “unitaskers.”

RoCo’s two-way style fits that plan but unlike blockbuster trades the team has made in the past, there would be almost no learning curve; he doesn’t need the rock to be effective and he knows the system cold. No new plays. No film room blowups with coaches. He’s about as plug-and-play as you can ask for.

Sub him in for almost anyone

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” -Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Imagine a player who you could sub in for almost anyone on the Sixers without changing their identity:

Covington knows his role and he could sub in for guards, forwards, or one of the centers.

Coach Brown does not love to play both Joel Embiid and Al Horford together. When healthy, the duo shares the floor for about 15 minutes per game. In the 403 minutes Joel and Al have played together the team has an offensive rating of 101.4. Only the Atlanta Hawks have a lower offensive team rating than lineups featuring Embiid and Horford this season. A player like Covington fits well with either big and may offer a viable alternative to Horford in crunch time units.

Remember how Brett Brown’s mentor Gregg Popovich would start PF-C Tiago Splitter alongside Tim Duncan, yet only play them together about 15 minutes then close the match with the better shooting Boris Diaw? It was the year they won the championship in 2014. There’s a model in place here.

More firepower to stop the very best

If Philadelphia faced a frantically uptempo opponent (like the Bucks) Cov lets them play faster than their twin tower lineups. If they faced one of the premiere triple threat wings, he’s a reliable defender who is a little bigger than Richardson and a lot more experienced than Thybulle. (As great as Matisse has been defensively, he has not appeared to fully earn respect yet from NBA officials).

In ESPN’s Zach Lowe’s words from his October Lowe Post podcast:

“...the most important kind of player in the league is a big wing who can hurt you from the triple threat position….the Los Angeles teams have 3 of those players between them. In Kawhi, Paul George and LeBron James.... It stands to reason then that one of the other 2 or 3 most important player-types in the league is somebody who can guard those players.”

Cov is certainly somebody who can guard those types of players as you saw from the video above.

Coach Brown might drool when he imagined the potential defensive synergies:

Narrative heaven

From Process beginnings to completing the process, Rob’s homecoming would be a trip. That trade machine image above? The code for it was written by Sachin Gupta, the former VP of BBall Ops under Sam Hinkie. Those two found Cov once upon a time. Gupta, now the VP in Minny, might be on the line with 76ers GM Elton Brand if the teams hash this deal out. The whole thing would feel like an NBA version of Groundhog Day meets Moneyball. But this trade would not be about nostalgia or narratives. It would be about giving Brett Brown another “adult” he knows he can trust and improving his choices when he looks down at his bench in crunch time on the road this May and hopefully beyond.