Not Embiid or Fultz, Robert Covington is The Process

The Process is more than using picks to acquire superstars. Robert Covington's emergence was a deliberate result of The Process.

Now that the 76ers have acquired number one pick, Markelle Fultz, many are declaring an end to The Process in Philadelphia. Fultz looks like a future star, and his skills are a perfect match with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Many are now arguing that Fultz’s selection marks the culmination of former GM Sam Hinkie’s dream, and the end of a long, difficult stage in 76ers history.

But The Process had already succeeded - this past season, with the elevation of Robert Covington.

Sam Hinkie’s Process was never fully understood. This was by design. As he explained in his infamous resignation letter, Hinkie avoided any public explanation or defense of The Process, for fear it would encourage another NBA front office to emulate him. 

The Process was regarded as long-term, but one-dimensional: lose a lot for a while until you compile enough elite lottery picks that their talent turns you into a championship contender. The Process was worthy of capitalization because of its unusual duration – more losing, over a longer timeframe, than garden variety tanking.

But there was always more to it than that. The draft was not the only talent source the 76ers were relying on.

Hinkie Takes Over

The 2011-12 76ers made the playoffs as the eighth-seed, beating the first-seeded Bulls, and losing to the fourth-seed Celtics in seven. In 2012-13, the final season pre-Hinkie, they were the last team eliminated from the playoffs. The team was led by four players under age 24.

Despite the promising young squad, Hinkie entered in the Summer of 2013 and implemented a complete overhaul. By the start of the season, only five active players remained from the 2012-13 team. By the trade deadline, that only two remained.

The 2013-14 team featured two lottery picks, one of which missed the entire season. After the deadline, there were only two active players earning more than $1.2 million. Everyone else was competing for a career-defining opportunity.

Teams can be designed to lose, but the players on the court must try to win to advance their own self-interested goals.

Without anyone on the outside noticing, Hinkie created an environment where the internal pressures were comparable to those usually associated with the playoffs. These were young players competing for an NBA career. Winners didn’t just get roster spots; they got minutes. Losers were out of the league – nine different people played their last NBA game as a member of the 2013-14 76ers.

Postponing Draft Picks

By gutting the team completely, Hinkie turned the 76ers into the NBA’s version of American Idol. It was a regularly televised audition platform. Strong performances won the right to be traded for assets that would mature later. The trade allowed the hit show to renew for the next season while creating value later (when it would actually be wanted).

For example, KJ McDaniels was a solid second round pick. Drafted in 2014, he stretched the floor and was a versatile defender. But the 76ers didn’t need those skills in 2014, so they traded him for a 2015 second round pick. On a more talented roster, McDaniels would have played less, and carried less trade value. Because the 76ers roster was so bereft, Hinkie was effectively able to delay his 2014 draft pick one year.

McDaniels was hardly the only player used by The Process to postpone a draft pick. 2013 first round pick Michael Carter-Williams experienced Process-induced-stat-inflation. His trade value rose, and he was exchanged for the Lakers 2018 first round pick that was just used to acquire Fultz. Spencer Hawes averaged 31.4 minutes until he was traded for two future second round picks. These two trades also opened up the audition space for Ish Smith and Jerami Grant, the latter of whom would, in turn, be traded for future picks.

Hinkie routinely found ways to postpone draft picks. Within a month of the 2015 draft, Hinkie used two trades to turn cap space and three 2015 second round picks into one future first, two first round pick swap rights, and two future second round picks.

A Role Player Emerges

The Process didn’t treat July-to-May as hibernation, painfully waiting for the next June draft pick, though that’s how many perceived it. The Process understood the importance of the supporting cast and created an environment designed to foster their discovery. For four seasons, the 76ers had 82 games of live, televised tryouts for the role of NBA role player. Many washed out. Others flashed potential but saw their end in trades. Robert Covington emerged as the winner of 76ers’ Idol.

Undrafted after four years at Tennessee State, Covington began his NBA career with the Rockets, logging only 34 minutes in seven appearances as a rookie. He spent most of the season in the D-League, won D-League Rookie of the Year, but was waived by the Rockets the day before the start of the 2014-15 season. The 76ers picked him up two weeks later, and he quickly became a part of the regular rotation and emerged as a strong defender and outside shooting threat.

On most teams, sophomore Covington would not have played nearly 28 minutes per game. The Process’ complete gutting made room for him, however, enabling 76ers management to develop a much more thorough and accurate assessment of his future potential. 

The 76ers liked what they saw, and held on to Covington. Over the past three seasons, he has developed into a reliable role player - someone capable of starting for a deep playoff team. He is a prototype versatile "3&D" wing player. He frequently sees minutes at shooting guard, small forward, and power forward. Last season, his three point shooting improved to 39.9%. He has a very real chance at being named to an NBA All-Defensive team.

Covington is currently locked in at $1.57 million with the 76ers for 2017-18. He is eligible for a 4-year, $39 million extension, though he is likely worth more on the open market. Alternatively, the 76ers can renegotiate-and-extend with him in November, a course of action that makes a lot of sense for both sides. A four-year extension would expire when Covington was 31, and after the first year of Fultz’s new contract, when the 76ers are likely to need cap relief.

Through The Process, the 76ers found an ideal role player. Covington’s veteran “3&D” presence will aid the 76ers as they rise from lottery dregs to playoff contender. His skills are complimentary, and his timeline is perfectly suited to the team’s long-term needs.

The Process will be remembered for bringing Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz together. That’s ok, but Sam Hinkie’s Process also gave rise to Robert Covington, and that was always a part of the plan.

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