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Robert Covington's Incredible Impact On The Sixers Offense

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Robert Covington, the second year player out of Tennesse State the Sixers signed from the D-League in mid-November, has become a starter for a Sixers team desperate for floor spacing. A statistical look at the impact he has had on the Sixers offense.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers offensive rating, which is an estimate of points scored per 100 possessions used, of 93.0 is bad. Not like kind of bad, but historically bad. There's only been one team with a lower offensive rating since the 2000-01 season: the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets, who rode an offensive rating of 92.2 to a 17 win season.

So saying that the Sixers struggle to score is sort of a no-brainer: they struggle to score all the time. But if they really struggle on the season, their offensive rating of 91.1 when Robert Covington is not in the game is darned near unfathomable.

In fact, finding a team with an offensive rating of 91.1 is impossible. They don't exist.

Yet that 91.1 offensive rating jumps up to a 97.4 offensive rating when Covington is on the court. It's still bad, still the worst in the league, but it's not historically bad: there are 39 seasons worse since the 1973-74 season, including some in the modern era! Heck, the Toronto Raptors won 33 games during the 2003-04 season with a 96.7 offensive rating.

Joking aside, that 6+ point jump is significant. The Sixers still clearly lack the talent to become a legitimate offensive club, but the more time that goes on and the more minutes Covington plays, the improvement becomes less and less likely to be a fluke.

How crucial he has become can be reflected on the number of minutes he has played: despite just joining the team midway through November, Robert Covington has played the 2nd most minutes per game on the team over the last 15 games at 32.9 per night, behind only Michael Carter-Williams.

Looking at the production the Sixers have gotten from Robert Covington, it seems almost unimaginable that he was available for any team in the league to sign just a little more than 2 months ago. In only 27.2 minutes per night, Covington is scoring 12.4 points per game, while connecting on 2.2 three pointers per night and shooting 39.8% while doing so.

Those numbers were even better before Covington hit a recent rough stretch, which coincided with the news that came out after the Atlanta Hawks game that he had a right shoulder contusion, an injury which caused him to miss a game last week against the Raptors. Covington, who had just gone 7-14 from deep in the two games immediately preceding the game against the Hawks, was shooting 42.2% on the season from three point range up until that point. He has gone just 5-26 since.

Even with that rough patch, the numbers are amazing.

The numbers are even more amazing when you consider the constructs of the team. With so few shot-creators on the Sixers roster, with virtually nobody who can consistently break down a defense and cause them to collapse, Robert Covington doesn't get all that many open looks created for him.

In fact, nearly 74% of Robert Covington's catch and shoot attempts are guarded, an absurdly high number. For comparisons sake, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews each have about 60% of their shots out of catch and shoot opportunities contested. When Covington has had the rare open catch and shoot shot, he has been as efficient as anybody in the league.

Catch and Shot
% of shots eFG% League Average eFG%
Guarded 73.8% 51.3% 46.6%
Unguarded 26.2% 70.4% 54.9%


Which causes one to wonder just how much more Robert Covington could be contributing to the team if he had, say, a big man who could command a double team in the post, or perhaps a penetrating point guard like Damian Lillard who could consistently generate wide open looks for Covington. The scary thing is, Robert Covington's 39.8% shooting from three point range might actually be artificially deflated due to the the personnel he's playing with.

Ah well. That's for next year, I suppose.

What that does mean, however, is that if Robert Covington isn't getting uncontested jump shots at a high rate, that means his defender should be glued to him out on the perimeter, and the Sixers floor spacing should be improved. With improved floor spacing, you would hope to see a positive impact on the Sixers young point guards: things such as an increase in field goal percentage at the rim, a reduction in turnovers, and the team as a whole operating more efficiently offensively.

And there are some pretty interesting numbers when you start to poke around.

As we previously mentioned, the difference in offensive rating is staggering.

Timespan Team ORtg
2014-15 Season 93.0
With Covington 97.4
w/out Covington 91.1

And looking at how the offense has fared with our two point guards on the court, both with and without Covington:

2014-15 Season W/Covington w/out Covington
Michael Carter-Williams 91.3 83.9
Tony Wroten 101.9 88.1

(And a graph for those who prefer that):

combined-ortg

Note: the last table used NBA.com's offensive rating calculation, which is slightly different than Basketball-Reference's calculation. I prefer to use Basketball-Reference, since it's easier to put that in a historical context. However, it doesn't offer the ability to get a player's offensive rating when paired with (and without) a different player, hence why two slightly different calculations are used.

NBA.com's offensive rating generally comes out slightly lower, but the Sixers 83.9 offensive rating with Michael Carter-Williams on the court without Covington is still just about as bad as it can get. Over the two years of data NBA.com has, the lowest non-Sixers offensive rating is 97.9. So 83.9 is really, really, bad.

Another area where the benefit of floor spacing shows up is when looking at how frequently the team turns the ball over when he's on the court and comparing it to how frequently the team turns it over when he's not. Below is a table that contains the players who have played the most minutes on the Sixers, and compares the team's turnover percentage when they are on and off the court. A negative differential means that the team turns the ball over less when they're on the court, and is a good thing.

Turnover Percentage
Player On-Court Off-Court Differential
Robert Covington 17.2% 20.0%
-2.8%
Hollis Thompson 19.8% 18.1% +1.7%
Henry Sims 18.6% 19.0% -0.4%
Tony Wroten 18.9% 18.8% +0.1%
Luc Mbah a Moute 19.4% 18.2% +1.2%
K.J. McDaniels 17.6% 20.1% -2.5%
Michael Carter-Williams 18.9% 18.7% +0.2%
Nerlens Noel 19.2% 18.3% +0.9%

With a team turnover percentage of 17.2%, Covington far and away has the most significant statistical impact on turnovers among regulars in the Sixers rotation, with only K.J. McDaniels coming close (which is somewhat surprising, and would be interesting to look at in-depth). Of the regulars, only Henry Sims, with a mostly negligible -0.4% differential, is on the positive side of the ledger.

We once again shift our focus to the play of our two point guards. Below is a look at the assist-to-turnover ratio of the two point guards both with and without Covington on the floor. To point out that this is not only due to the team's early season struggles, I've included both the full-season statistics and the last 15 games.

Assists Per Turnover
Player With Covington w/out Covington
Season
Michael Carter-Williams 2.16 / 1 1.17 / 1
Tony Wroten 1.93 / 1 1.02 / 1
Last 15 games
Michael Carter-Williams 2.21 / 1 0.79 / 1
Tony Wroten 1.61 / 1 0.93 / 1

That's amazing. Over the last 15 games, neither Michael Carter-Williams or Tony Wroten have a positive assist-to-turnover ratio when Covington has been off the floor.

It's also interesting to note Tony Wroten's at-rim field goal percentage with and without Covington. As the best slasher on the team, Wroten benefits tremendously from the floor spacing Covington provides, not only as a passer but also as a scorer. Again, I'm going to list the full season and the last 15 games to show that this is not due to any early-season struggles and that the conclusion still applies.

wroten-restricted

The impact has been pretty consistent, with Wroten shooting a full 11-12% better at the rim.

I'm also going to include 4 screen grabs of various plays. I'm not going to do a full video breakdown, as this article was more meant to point out the statistical impact Covington has had on the Sixers offense, but these screen grabs provide a pretty simple explanation on why Covington's presence has helped.

The first one is a hook shot Nerlens Noel attempted in the last game against the Wizards. I included this primarily to show that, while Covington might currently be in a slump, defenses are still giving him the same kind of attention and respect of a high-level shooter, and the benefits his spacing has provided still exist. In fact, most of the team stats have gotten better during Covington's recent struggles.

This play essentially ended with 4 Wizards players guarding two Sixers players in the post.

covington-wizards

The next one is MCW's game winner against Brooklyn. Every other Brooklyn defender is looking at MCW, completely ignoring the whereabouts of their own man. Joe Johnson? Not one care given to Luc Mbah a Moute. But Covington's man remains glued to him, not even looking at the ball.

mcw-gamewinner

The next one is Tony Wroten's game winner against the Cavs. Again, 4 defenders collapsed on Wroten, including K.J. McDaniels man, which would have left a relatively easy kick-out from Wroten to an open K.J. Covington's man stays within arms reach of Covington, though.

My favorite part is MCW. He's there, in good catch and shoot position, with both his hands and feet ready for a kick-out pass, without a defender within 15' of him.

wroten-game-winner

And, finally, here is an example of floor spacing without Covington in the game. This is an especially bad lineup, with Furkan Aldemir, Malcolm Thomas, and Jerami Grant in the game, although Hollis Thompson in the corner provides a little bit of help spacing the floor.

no-spacing

So what does all of this tell us? First, it tells us that Robert Covington is good. His ability to contribute, and do so efficiently, as a catch and shoot guy even when he doesn't get a lot of open catch and shoot looks, is a very good sign for his long-term potential.

But it also shows just how much the Sixers need a guy(s) to spread the floor. The fact that some of those incredibly awful numbers saw substantial improvement with the presence of just one legitimate floor-spacer shows how crucial of a role shooting plays in an offenses ability to execute, while showing how much the Sixers lacked in that regard before Covington's arrival.

So far, Covington has looked like a keeper, and that's something this collection of basketball players has desperately needed.