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Robert Covington needs to stay in Sixers’ rotation

Robert Covington has been a positive role player at both ends of the floor this season. He needs a consistent spot in the Sixers' rotation.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sixers have more strong wing options than they’ve had in years. So many, in fact, that a solid two-way forward like Robert Covington isn’t consistently in the team’s rotation at the moment.

Over the last three games, he’s only played 18 total minutes — not even getting on the floor at all against Atlanta last Friday. He was able to bounce back to a slightly better 14 minutes in the Sixers’ dominant 146-101 win against the Wizards on Monday. Marcus Morris, Sr. has generally surpassed him in the last three outings, though, playing 43 total minutes.

It’s been a sudden drop in playing time for Covington. When asked if he finds it difficult following the Sixers’ win on Monday, he made it clear he understands. It’s something he’s used to after turbulent minutes and plenty of DNPs in L.A. last season.

“I just went through a whole year of that. No, not at all,” he said. “We’re a deep team, so no. Definitely not.”

Covington acknowledges that the team is still experimenting with different lineups, and staying ready for whatever happens night to night is key.

Nick Nurse explained to reporters before the Sixers’ 125-114 win over the Hawks that the top eight in his rotation are pretty firmly in place. After the starting five, that eight includes Kelly Oubre Jr., Paul Reed and Patrick Beverley.

Now that Oubre is back, immediately making a positive impact again after missing a few weeks, there’s understandably more competition for the ninth spot in the rotation. Oubre has been stepping up in his role at both ends of the floor this season, and still boasts improved defensive effort and averages of 14.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals per game and a 60.9 true shooting percentage.

Covington isn’t edging out Oubre for minutes. After that, though? When Morris, who can’t come close to matching Covington’s defensive impact, is the main competition? That’s where Roco deserves a promotion in the rotation, as much as he understands his changing minutes.

“Just trying to read the game as it’s going,” Nurse said after beating the Hawks, when asked about his decision to close out the game with Oubre and Morris. “I think that, you know, for me, there’s still some things to kind of figure out there in that back half of the rotation. But I again think that Marcus is very experienced, I think he’s very physical, very tough, and he can make a kick-out pass or three. You know he’s gonna shoot ‘em with confidence, but saying that, it could be a couple other guys there, too. We just made that decision and went with it, and I think he’s played well, Marcus. He does give us some veteran presence out there, he does give us some physicality.”

Even though Covington is awfully limited offensively when it comes to handling the ball, he still has the shooting to support those around him. He’s confident firing against closeouts, has a fast enough release, he’s happy launching trailer threes in transition, and continues to shoot efficiently on solid volume (38.1 percent over the last four seasons, including 41.5 percent with the Sixers this year).

And despite his limitations, Covington has looked slightly more comfortable with basic attacks inside the arc. Of course, you still want him doing the majority of his damage from three-point range (where 63.9 percent of his field goal attempts have come from over his career), but his straight-line drives, touch around the basket, and cuts haven’t been too bad.

Defense is where Covington, as always, knows how to make his mark.

“That’s my job,” Covington said on Monday when asked about being a defensive leader. “That’s how I set the tone. You know I’m the guy that brings the energy, brings the effort, and if I don’t do it, who else will? Like I said, it’s a mentality of like that’s what makes my presence felt on the floor. That’s what my job is and that’s what I do best.”

He doesn’t have the best lateral quickness on ball, but has great size at 6-foot-7 with a near 7-foot-2 wingspan and enough agility to hang with most forwards.

It’s defending off the ball that’s always been his forte. In only 16.9 minutes per game, Covington is nearly leading the Sixers in steals at 1.3 (just behind De’Anthony Melton, playing nearly twice as many minutes, at 1.5). He’s also currently averaging career-highs in steals per 36 minutes (2.8) and steal percentage (3.8) in Philly this season. Covington’s continued his signature artistry with deflections, too. His average of six per 36 minutes ranks fourth in the NBA (among players with at least 100 minutes played).

On Monday, a reporter asked Covington if he’s aware he leads the league in deflections per 100 possessions.

“It’s not the first time,” he said. “It’s not the first time, it won’t be the last.”

He’s probably right.

From poking the ball away from unsuspecting players, to timely help around the rim, to helping off his man to break up plays at the elbows, to anticipating passes on the perimeter, he can be a nuisance all over the floor. Sometimes he’s just proactive in catching opponents off guard and finding opportune moments to fly in and rip the ball away.

Again, compared to Morris, Covington offers more resistance on the ball and far more disruptive skill as a ball hawk and help defender off the ball. Morris has size, but doesn’t nearly match the quickness, energy, and off-ball IQ and impact of Covington. Sure, Morris can do more off the dribble on offense. He’s a reliable three-point shooter as well at 40.5 percent over the last five years. But he’s still not good enough with the ball in his hands as a scorer, passer, or general decision-maker to warrant such priority over Covington when you consider the disparity between them on defense.

The Sixers had slipped all the way down to 15th in defensive rating for the season, before thrashing the Wizards bumped them back up to ninth. They could certainly use more of Covington’s roaming off-ball activity to continue solidifying their defense. Their second-ranked offense has enough firepower, and Covington has still been doing his job just fine at that end of the floor, too.

It’s not just having more to offer than Morris, either. Covington, with his quick-trigger three-point shooting and defense, has outplayed the currently slumping Tobias Harris at times, too. It wouldn’t hurt for Covington to steal a few minutes from the Sixers’ starting 4 if he’s playing better. There are small things that Covington does while needing minimal possession of the ball — from breaking up passing lanes with consistency, to launching threes without hesitation — to make a difference where Harris has been falling short.

Nurse is still experimenting right now. Maybe his focus will shift more to Covington rather than Morris in the coming weeks. An increase in the former's playing time against Washington was a positive step. We’re still only a quarter of the way through the season, too. Like Nurse said on Friday after beating Atlanta, there could have been another couple of guys (i.e. Covington) in Morris’s spot to close that game.

But based on recent seasons, how both have played to start 2023-24, and the skillsets they bring to the table, it’s quite clear that the Sixers could use Covington’s play in their rotation.

When it comes to staying ready, even with changing minutes, he knows what approach he needs to have.

“Listen, you got to be prepared, you got to be a pro,” Covington said on Monday. “And every time you step on the court, your names called you gotta be prepared. That’s it, at the end of the day, I went through the stuff that I went through in LA. You know everybody ask the same question, ‘how do I stay ready?’ It’s a mental thing.”

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