I'm done arguing about Robert Covington

He is the subject of hotly contested debates among the Sixers fanbase and is probably the most misunderstood player on the roster. Why is Robert Covington such a divisive figure when his production should supersede everything?

There are two things you can count on after the Sixers lose a game. Fans breaking into a civil war over whether or not head coach Brett Brown should be fired, and whether or not Robert Covington is a bad player. 

As last season progressed the latter became more contentious than the former. Covington is one of the remaining undrafted players from the Sam Hinkie era. Out of all the 10-day contracts, and minimum deals, Covington somehow made it out and turned himself into a full-time starter on a 52 win team. Process trusters have held Covington in special regard, while the anti-Covington crowd has been the exact opposite. 

The debate has now reached a point where neither side will listen and the heels are dug in deeper, not budging on their position. 

Truthfully. I am a Covington fan, and even I can admit that he has some weak parts to his game. It's baseless takes from the anti-Covington crowd that stem from misinformation and just lack of willingness to do at least some research that is more annoying than when the pendulum swings the other way. 

Some of the criticisms whether we talk about offense, defense, or his contract, are just three bridges too far for me to cross. 

Defense

More so last season than in 2016-17, Robert Covington's defense, somehow, some way, became a topic of debate. A guy who made the all-defensive first-team has somehow had his defense called into question by the anti-Covington crowd. This usually came when the team lost, or when he had an off-shooting night --which had nothing to do with his defense--. Covington's outlier growth on defense from 2015-16 to 2016-17 was so well documented and covered that it probably caused a backlash effect where people #wellactually'd the notion that he became a good defender. If Covington got burned by a quicker point guard or by an all-star player in isolation, it was pointed to as "evidence" that he was bad, or overrated on that end of the floor. 

There is some kernel --albeit a very small kernel-- of truth in those examples about Covington's one-on-one defense. It's one of the weaker parts of his defensive game. Covington is not a world class athlete, and it shows in his lateral foot speed. The average lateral quickness puts a cap on his ceiling as a one on one defender, it makes him decent in some games, and in other cases above average to very good. He is more susceptible to getting burned by quicker guards or getting exposed in a pick and roll if he doesn't have his hips down in a stance. 

However, while his one on one defense is a weaker part of his defense, it's not a complete weakness. He makes up for his lack of lateral speed with his length, quick hands, and anticipation. 

In the 83 possessions where Covington was defending in an isolation situation, he only allowed 61 points, according to Synergy. That comes in at a cool .735 points per possession, which is a hair behind Klay Thompson at .734 points per possession, and Thompson is considered one of the better defenders in the NBA. In pick and roll, Synergy only grades Covington as average, allowing .843 points per possession, but he had to spend an inordinate amount of time defending guards due to the lack of point guard depth on the roster, and the lack of a point-of-attack defender. You also have to account for the Sixers occasionally droppign the center in coverage while Covington went over the screen, so defensive coverage plays a part in the pick and roll numbers.

Covington is not Kawhi Leonard in terms of guarding your man in isolation. No one is. It's the NBA, and sometimes players will get torched on defense. Just because it happens on one possession, doesn't mean that the previous possessions, where he actually did play well in isolation situations, don't count. I would also make the argument that while isolation defense still has value, it has become less and less important. There is more to playing defense than sticking your man one on one, especially in the modern NBA where player movement, ball movement, spacing, and pace are king.

More teams have geared their defenses towards switching everything, with length and multiple wings on the floor. The Sixers started to use a more switch-heavy defense in January, which not only shot the team up the league rankings defensively, but it also played to Covington's real strengths, the strengths that made him an all-defensive player. 

Off-ball defense

Covington is not only one of the best wing defenders off the ball, he is one of the most disruptive. His length, frame, and quick hands give him the ability to switch 1 through 4, and makes him the most important defender on the team behind Joel Embiid. Yes, Ben Simmons has the athletic ability to stay in front of someone, and is also able to switch 1 through 4, but Covington's ability to get deflections, make reads, make smart decisions, and diagnose what the opponent is doing on offense is so important to this team that sometimes stats don't even quantify it. Which is why we have video.

Players always have to be wary when going into the paint, not only because Joel Embiid is patrolling, but because Covington will come off his defender, and provide calculated help, which usually results in discombobulation for the opposing offense. The deflection stat was turned into a meme for the anti-Covington crowd to throw back at the pro-Covington crowd who cited it, but deflections ARE IMPORTANT. It shows signs of activity and effort from the player, and it also throws the opposing offense off-schedule. Deflections cause offenses to get in sets later than they want to, and it results in a poor possession. 

Covington also has a high IQ, watch as he is able to diagnose and help out TJ McConnell who is guarding a bigger player. These type of plays might seem insignificant on the surface, but the possession results in the Pacers never exploiting the mismatch, causing a missed shot.

Covington's ability to switch across multiple positions is premium in today's NBA.

He is also one of the better defenders in transition. When the offense seems to have an advantage it was usually Covington breaking up potential baskets. 

I wonder how many "bad defenders" have ever stripped LeBron James clean while he had a full head of steam in transition?

Or Kevin Durant...

The instincts and skills on defense are what made many smart basketball minds, who have a vote in awards and all-NBA categories, pick Covington for an all-defensive team. Getting selected to the first team was admittedly a little bit of a surprise, but it would have been shocking to me if he was left off altogether. Covington also had the numbers the back it up. He was tied for first in deflections per game (3.9), was 9th in steals per game (1.7) and had the highest defensive rating on the team. The Sixers' 3rd ranked defense took a huge hit whenever Covington was on the bench as well. The Sixers allowed 99 points per 100 possessions when Covington was on the floor and allowed 107 points per 100 possessions when he was off the floor, a difference that was bigger than Joel Embiid, who came in 2nd for Defensive Player of the Year.

This doesn't mean that Covington is better defensively than Embiid, but these numbers underline the importance of him on that end of the floor.

While relying 100% on numbers is never the way to go, those numbers weren't fabricated or pulled out of thin air. The numbers are generated as a result of play on the court, and as the film shows, Covington is an impact defender and one of the better defenders in the league. One putrid series against Boston --where everyone on the team played badly by the way-- doesn't change what he did all season, and against the Heat in the first round.

If he was truly a bad defender, he wouldn't be sniffing anywhere near the top of any defensive statistical category basic or advanced, and that's a fact. 

With Markelle Fultz back in the fold, and hopefully Zhaire Smith down the road to mix in with TJ McConnell, there should be more like-sized guards in the rotation who can defend the quicker guards at the point of attack. In theory, that would make Covington, and also Ben Simmons, even more effective on the defensive end as they would defend 3's and 4's more often and not the waterbugs --a Brett Brown term-- possession after possession. They would only have to defend those quicker players on a switch with less than 8 seconds on the shot clock, which is a more effective way of utilizing their size and length. 

Offense

The original source of the Covington debate stems from his offensive ability and this is where the conversation usually gets frustrating. To be clear, he has limitations on offense, he is never going to be a 20 point per game scorer, but if you were to see the backlash whenever he has an off-shooting night, you would think people expect that type of player. 

He is never going to be that, nor do the Sixers need him to be that. His skill set perfectly complements the talents of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric, and JJ Redick. He is a high volume three point shooter, that defenses have to respect. 65% of Covington's 836 field goal attempts were three-point attempts, and he made 203 threes at a 37% clip, which is above league average. A lot is made about the streaky nature of his shooting, and when you look at the three-point percentage month by month, it certainly feels that way. Covington got off to an unsustainable shooting start from three in October and November but came back down to earth as expected around mid-December.

Month # of games played 3pt %
October 7 47.7%
November 14 40.4%
December 13 35.4%
January 11 36%
February 11 30%
March 16 41.3%
April 7 31.3%

Diving deeper into his shooting, he was a much more consistent catch and shoot three point shooter (37.9%) throughout the year. Which made up a huge chunk of his three-point shots.

Month # of games Catch and Shoot 3pt%
October 7 47.7%
November 14 38.6%
December 13 34.8%
January  11 38%
February  11 32%
March  16 42.2%
April 7 31%

Role players go through slumps. It happens. That's why they are role players, but Covington's streaky nature shooting the ball, in particular, gets overblown like no other. He could absolutely be more consistent overall from month to month, but Covington will get easier catch and shoot opportunities, especially when the team is running more pick and roll with Markelle Fultz and Covington is in the weakside corner.

Finishing around the rim

His finishing around the rim definitely leaves a lot to be desired, it still has room for improvement, but the extreme thoughts range from "never makes layups" to "he is so bad at making layups". In the 2017-18 season, Covington took 167 shots at the rim --per Cleaning the Glass, which tracks shot attempts-- and made 107 of them, which is 64%. That is not only ranked in the 62nd percentile among forwards, it's was a better FG% at the rim than other 3-and-D type players like Jae Crowder, or...new Sixer Wilson Chandler.

For context, the 167 attempts at the rim were fewer than in the 2016-17 season (241 attempts) but the 64% at the rim was also a 9% improvement from 2016-17 where he shot a poor 55% at the rim. So he actually became more efficient at finishing, and took easier shots, thanks in part to the increased talent on the roster.

But for some reason, the Covington critics only remember the misses, in the same way, that we only remember that one possession where Victor Oladipo torched him on the defensive end. 

Of course, Covington can raise his percentage even higher. One of the basic ways to do that is by cutting more, something he only did 59 times last season, per Synergy.

The real weakness in Covington's finishing ability is his dribble drives. They are an adventure that usually ends in a disaster because they are straight line drives due to lack of shake and craft with the ball. 

Sometimes his takeoff point is a step too far because he doesn't use the extra dribble to get closer to the rim on a consistent basis.

But again, when you have 3 potential stars that should have the ball in their hands, the Sixers should not be asking Covington to turn into a dribble-drive finisher. However, an alternative tweak he could add is to attack closeouts by using an escape dribble into a mid-range jumper. It's an area of his game that had mixed results last season, but little improvements there can incrementally boost his efficiency overall and cut out even more of the straight line dribble drives to the rim.

His finishing has its warts, but at this point, he is what he is. It's highly unlikely that he'll have the skills to be a dribble drive finisher, but his finishing at the rim, overall, wasn't the catastrophe that it was made out to be. It's amazing how one dreadful playoff series can alter the perception of a player as if an entire season didn't happen.

Covington had a 15.8% usage rate which was 5th on the team (Fultz only played 14 games so I omitted his 25.6% usage rate). The low usage rate means that he doesn't need to commandeer the ball to be effective on the court, which is the type of player that should be in demand if you have three future stars, a high-level role player like Saric, and a knockdown shooter like Redick. A low usage player who averages 12.6 points per game, while shooting 37% from three is a skillset tailor-made to be a good 5th option on offense, which is the type of player that shouldn't make or break the offensive performance as a whole.

He shouldn't be asked to create off the dribble if other players do it better, that's just common sense. He does have flaws, but for some reason, those flaws or any Covington related topic has been completely blown out of proportion to the point where he is somehow this polarizing. Which brings me to his contract.

The Contract Extension

Whenever a player gets a new contract, the spotlight is, of course, shifted to that player, and it was no different for Covington. The talk surrounding his contract is something that irks me the most from the anti-Covington crowd. The contract is considered an "overpay" and he "fleeced" the Sixers. That's the kind of baseless talk that comes across as misinformed and quite frankly, ignorant.

No, Covington does not make over $16 million dollars per year. He had his $1 million dollar salary bumped to $16.57 million dollars in only the 2017-18 season because he was in a unique spot where he could re-negotiate and extend his contract that only averaged a little over $1 mil per season. So basically, He got a $15 million dollar raise in salary which allowed the Sixers to pay less per year on the actual 4-year extension, which kicks in this season. Here are the figures provided by Spotrac.

2018-19 $10,464,092
2019-20 $11,301,219
2020-21 $12,138,345
2021-22 $12,975,471

Covington isn't overpaid, in fact, you could argue he is a little underpaid when you look at the average salary of other role players. He has the 117th highest average salary in the NBA, while guys like Ian Mahinmi, Kent Bazemore, and Danilo Gallinari make considerably more than Covington while being way less effective on the court. A wing who makes over 200 threes and is an all-NBA defender doesn't grow on trees and the Sixers have one at one of the better rates in the NBA. The contract is also very friendly for the team's cap space, and it's very tradeable if the front office wants to pull off a big trade down the line.

The shooting slump started to come about after Covington agreed to the extension, so of course the lazy takes of "fat and happy" and "he got paid and now he doesn't care" started to rear its head. The Sixers put aside $15 million dollars in cap space in the summer of 2017 because the extension was basically agreed to without making it official until November 15th. So suggesting that the shooting slump was caused by him getting paid is silly. 

Can the Sixers compete for a championship with Robert Covington starting?

To imply that a 5th starter like Covington can make or break the team's chances at title contention is an absurd notion. If a role player truly had that much swing in the Sixers' future chances at a title then that means 10 other things would have to go horribly wrong with the team building process. Things like Ben Simmons not panning out, Joel Embiid not staying healthy, Markelle Fultz never figuring out his shot, the robot masquerading as the Sixers' new General Manager malfunctions or Brett Brown losing his job. 

History shows that teams compete for NBA championships because they usually have two of the best ten players in the NBA --Nowadays most likely three stars--, and one of those two is a top 5 player. The Sixers have 2 players that have top-5 player potential in Embiid and Simmons, and hopefully, another high octane star in Fultz. Covington's offensive role is one that raises the entire team's offensive output on a good day, and doesn't really affect it negatively on a bad day because you have all-star players that are supposed to carry the bulk of the burden night in and night out.

We have seen teams win championships despite role players playing or shooting poorly. Harrison Barnes shot 35% from the field in the 2016 finals and the Warriors were a Draymond crotch-shot away from winning back to back titles. The Cavs won that 2016 title with Kevin Love shooting 36% in the series. The Spurs won the 2014 NBA finals with Boris Diaw, one of their important role players, shooting 36% in that series. The thought that Covington, who is the 5th option on offense, is going to affect the Sixers title odds is ridiculous. With Covington's skillset, he can start on a championship team.

Verdict

Covington is not a perfect player, but over the last two seasons, he has turned himself into a highly effective role player. He had one bad series in the playoffs where his weaknesses were shown in the worst way. He is a low usage player whose offensive skill set meshes well with the other players. Could his offensive game be more diverse? Absolutely, that would be a plus, but he is not asked to be that kind of player and doesn't need to be with all the other offensive talent on the team. If someone like Khris Middleton becomes available, the Sixers should absolutely go after him because he is an upgrade over Covington, but those Middleton-type players --borderline all-stars, or All-NBA type forwards-- are the only players that would be considered an upgrade, both talent and contract value wise, over Covington.

But for now, He is on a valuable contract, and that contract is going to look cheaper as the salary cap rises by $15 million dollars over the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons. That fact is borderline indisputable. This is my long-winded way of saying that Covington is extremely valuable to this team and going into this season, I am no longer going to argue with people on the internet about it. 

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