Do Robert Covington and Dario Saric Make the Timberwolves a Better Team?

Jimmy Butler has finally been traded. The Timberwolves just lost their most talented player but do Robert Covington and Dario Saric make the Timberwolves a better team?

It happened, it finally happened. After a tumultuous 18 months, the Timberwolves have parted ways with Jimmy Butler. This brief relationship has touched every point of the emotional spectrum. When the Timberwolves initially traded for Butler it appeared to be a change of times for a franchise historically plagued by ineptitude. They were able to pair a top 15 player in the league with their young, promising roster. As the season progressed, stories of friction and discontent brewed but none of it seemed to matter as the team was in line for the third seed and Butler was playing at an MVP level.

Pure optimism and naivety led fans to dismiss the more frequent reports of Butler’s despondent views towards the franchise. While it is foolish to argue that Butler didn’t make the Timberwolves a better team, it doesn’t excuse the circus he created over the past few months. This trade was beyond necessary and long overdue. The extensive publicity that this saga generated sapped the Timberwolves of almost all of their leverage. The longer this carried on the uglier the situation became. In spite of this, Minnesota was able to get a rather generous return from the 76ers in Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and a second round pick. Receiving Josh Richardson from Miami would have been nice but it was pretty clear from the start that the Heat were not willing to include him. The four first-round picks from Houston was an interesting offer, but there was no chance that a coach expecting to get fired after this season would take a deal to help the team well after he’s gone. This trade was the best the Timberwolves were ever going to do, and by no means is that said as a qualifier. The Timberwolves were able to get rid of a locker-room cancer while adding two versatile wings that add depth and will help from the start.

Covington and Saric are well versed in playing the supporting role alongside an elite big man. Last season, Covington and Saric were advanced stat darlings when they shared the floor with Joel Embiid as they posted a net rating of 18.1. Karl-Anthony Towns is a different player than Embiid, most notably on defense, but there are similarities that will carry over. Towns can stretch the floor, create his own shot, and is a really good passer out of the post. The transition for Covington and Saric shouldn’t be too drastic as they are transitioning from one highly skilled center to another.

Robert Covington

So what are the Timberwolves getting with Covington and Saric? Covington is the definition of a three-and-D wing. He was a major factor in the 76ers success last season with the offensive and defensive versatility he provided. Covington is a very efficient offensive player as last year he posted a true shooting percentage of 56.3, turnover ratio of 10.7, an offensive rating of 108.7, and produced a shot chart that would make Daryl Morey drool.

Covington rarely wastes his time with inefficient mid-range shots. His trend of avoiding the mid-range has carried over to this year as 84% of his shot attempts have come either at the rim or from three, per Cleaningtheglass.com. This is one of the most common trends across the NBA but it doesn’t mean that all players are doing it at an efficient level. Per Cleaningtheglass.com, Covington is shooting 75 percent at the rim (90th percentile among players at his position) and 39 percent from three (68th percentile).

The above clip is a prime example of Covington’s impact on the offense and his comfort with navigating around the arc. As JJ Redick and Saric initiate the pick and roll, Covington sets up in the opposite corner, essentially a non-factor in the play. As Saric receives the pass as he rolls, he attracts three defenders, including Covington’s defender who slides over to help. At the same time, Ben Simmons is on the right block so Zach LaVine is unable to switch off, leaving Covington unguarded. Once Saric receives the ball, Covington recognizes Saric can’t see him in the corner so he slides a few feet to his left for a wide open three. This may seem like an obvious move, but there are a lot of players who fail to recognize open space and remain unavailable for a pass.

The most encouraging part about Covington is his awareness of who he is as an offensive player. He rarely forces his shot and acts purely as a support role. This season 75.7 percent of his shot attempts have been taken with zero dribbles and only 27.8 percent of his threes have been considered guarded (defender was within four feet). Covington does almost all of his work off the ball on offense. This will help open up the offense as the Timberwolves will be able to more effectively drive and kick, increase their overall ball movement, and not worry about having to take turns on offense.

Covington has turned himself into an effective offensive player but his biggest impact comes at the defensive end. Last season Covington posted a defensive rating of 99.1 while recording 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. Even though his defensive rating has risen a bit in this early season, his steal and block numbers are far more impressive. Per Cleaningtheglass.com, Covington has a 2.3 steal percentage (steals per team play) which ranks in the 87th percentile among his position and a 2.5 block percentage (blocks per team play) which ranks in the 100th percentile among his position.

Covington does a great job of reading the play and getting his hands in to disrupt opposing offenses. This year he ranks third in the league with 41 deflections and fourth in the league with 60 contested three-point shots. The below clip is a great example of how Covington reads the play and anticipates where the ball is going to end up. As the Celtics swing the ball Covington does a great job of staying between his man and the rim without losing sight of the ball. As Jaylen Brown drives, Embiid is forced to rotate over to protect the rim which leaves Aron Baynes unguarded to crash to the rim. Covington makes the right rotation and beats Baynes to the spot to force the turnover.

Covington isn’t the flashiest player but that’s not what the Timberwolves need. He will be able to provide efficient offensive play along with tough-nosed defense. His outside shooting will add a new facet to their offense and his defense will help boost one of the worst defenses in the league.

Dario Saric

Saric is another versatile player who provides a new aspect that the Timberwolves lacked. He is a 6’10” big man who moves well without the ball, can stretch the floor, and create for others. Saric has gotten off to a slow start this year but is coming off a year in which he was extremely impressive. Last season Saric posted a net rating of 6.3, a true shooting percentage of 58.2, and an assist to turnover ratio of 1.36.

The league is constantly playing with high spacing and at a higher pace. Big men must be comfortable on the perimeter or risk being buried on the bench. Even though Taj Gibson and Gorgui Dieng have had a productive season so far, Saric adds a sense of agility and flexibility to their big man rotation. Saric can score off the dribble but his movement without the ball is more impressive and effective.

In this clip, we see Saric’s footwork and comfort on the perimeter. As he goes to set the screen, his defender, Khris Middleton, drops back to eliminate Simmons’s ability to drive. As Simmons dribbles into the pick, Giannis Antetokounmpo ducks under the screen. This queues Saric to slip the screen, utilize the pick from Embiid, and knock down a wide open three. This is an action we often see guards and wings run but when a team’s power forward can seamlessly execute this action it adds a whole new element to the offense.

Saric is also more than capable with the ball in his hands. He has no problems using his size to score on smaller defenders and use his agility to dribble past bigger defenders. The below clip is a great example of how Saric can attack off the dribble. Myles Turner is forced to guard Saric out on the perimeter due to his shooting ability. Once Saric receives the ball he takes a quick jab step to the left which freezes Turner for a split second and opens a lane for Saric to drive. Turner is then unable to cutoff Saric’s drive so Domantas Sabonis is forced to slide over and leave Amir Johnson. As soon as Sabonis is engaged, Saric dumps the ball off to Johnson for an easy layup.

The Timberwolves roster has lacked depth the past two seasons. Some of this is due to Tom Thibodeau’s reluctance to play the bench but it is also a result of a lack of talent. Both Covington and Saric will help the Timberwolves. Covington will bring a defensive intensity with the ability to knock down threes at a consistent rate. Saric is a fluid big man that can score from any level of the floor. They will also allow Towns to become a much bigger focal point of the offense. Late game offenses should see more ball movement instead of the expected contested jumper by Butler after a dozen dribbles. After this trade, the Timberwolves aren’t as talented of a team, but they are a better team.

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