Thanks to the three-point revolution, the three-and-D player is more valuable than ever, and Robert Covington fills that role perfectly.
Robert Covington, 26, is fresh off of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers where he tallied 31 points, six rebounds and four steals while making five of his eight attempts from three. He’s in his fourth season with Philly — fifth overall — and I don’t think anyone expected him to be as impactful as he is now.
In 67 games last season, Covington garnered nationwide attention as an outstanding defender, but his offense wasn’t as noteworthy. He was one of 10 players to finish 2016-17 averaging at least one steal and one block per game, accompanying names like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, who won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Additionally, the Sixers maintained a defensive rating of 105.9 when Covington was on the court, compared to 113.4 when he sat. There was optimism brewing in Philadelphia, and Covington has masterfully evolved into the league’s best three-and-D guys.
Over the years, that role has become more and more pronounced. Players who fit that particular niche are more sought after now than they were in 1989 when the league average for three-point attempts was 6.6; 14 players are eclipsing that mark this season.
The ideal three-and-D guy stands 6-6 of 6-7 and is long and athletic, both laterally and vertically. Having someone who’s that size with those attributes is vital because teams are running small lineups since the three-ball has become more prevalent. That player needs to be capable of switching and not getting burned by smaller guys or overpowered by bigger ones. It’s weird to think, but versatility is worth more than size in 2017. At the 2013 draft combine, Covington measured 6-7.5 in shoes with a 7-2 wingspan (to be exact, it was 7-1.75). Those are the anthropometrics of a natural three. In today’s climate, Covington regularly guards threes and fours; according to Basketball Reference, he spends 63 percent of his minutes at power forward and the remainder at small forward.
Having the body type to play defense is all for naught if you’re a liability. There are plenty of players who can’t defend their shadow despite being big. Covington’s defensive box plus/minus is 1.0 to start the year, meaning he’s an above-average defender. Coincidentally, it’s down a point from last year. I’ll chalk that up to his increased load on offense. Furthermore, the 76ers defend better as a team when Covington is out there. According to Basketball Reference, Philadelphia has a defensive rating of 105.2 with RoCo on the floor, and that balloons to 109.7 when he sits. It’s not an atmospheric jump, but a jump nonetheless.
Being a reliable defender is crucial for this role. However, with teams commoditizing points, the last thing a coach wants is the Andre Roberson-type of player — an elite defender who’s better off lying down on offense.
Mixing three-point volume and accuracy are the two most important ingredients for a three-and-D player; you want someone who’s focused on shooting the three and works vehemently to make sure that’s what they do best. After all, it’s their job is to stretch the defense. Covington has shot 96 threes in 13 games, an average of 7.4 a night. His three-point attempt rate is 67.7 percent. That’s tremendous volume — although, we don’t bat an eye at it because of how desensitized we’ve become. Even with that amount, Covington is still only ninth on the three-point attempts leaderboard. The attention grabber is the consistency with which he makes those attempts.
Half of Covington’s threes are falling. That’s a tremendous feat. And it’s just as tremendous that that clip isn’t enough to lead the NBA. Tobias Harris (50.6), Aaron Gordon (51.9), C.J. McCollum (52.7) and Nemanja Bjelica (53.1) are all in front. Covington separates himself from the group because he’s the only one who’s labeled a three-and-D guy. The four others are either (a.) multi-faceted scorers who use the three to open up their offense or (b.) below-average defenders. It’s the latter for Harris and Gordon and McCollum; their teams are reliant on them doing more.
The Sixers would be fine offensively without Covington. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are a great duo, but they’re able to do a lot more because of Covington’s gravity. He requires defenders to stick to him like crickets on a glue trap.
Philly’s offense produces more points than 20 other teams, but their Achilles’ heel is efficiency. They don’t score enough to complement their rapid pace, boasting an offensive rating of 104.9 and a pace of 103.0. Without Covington, their rating drops to 96.2. That would be the lowest in the league. It’s a drastic improvement with the Tennessee State product present. The offense does a complete 180 and production improves by 13.5 points per 100. When Covington makes shots, it’s easier for Simmons to attack the basket, the part of his game where he’s most effective. Additionally, teams can’t afford to double-team Embiid because the quick ball movement would find Covington in two seconds.
Another expected improvement is their effective field goal percentage, which tops out at 56.2 compared to 45.7 when Covington sits. After that, it’s the steal percentage, an estimation of how many times a team can pick the pocket of their opponent. Covington’s presence fosters a 3.9-percentage point increase from 5.8 to 9.7. That’s astounding.
Robert Covington was the point of profuse slander this summer when people in the NBA community said they would take him instead Carmelo Anthony. Now that the season’s begun, I imagine more people feel comfortable going that route. Covington is a hyper-efficient shooter who has a profound impact on how the Philadelphia 76ers play. The numbers don’t lie, and he’s worked his way to become an integral piece of Brett Brown’s rotation. Now, in his fifth year, after drastic improvement from downtown, Robert Covington has become the NBA’s ideal three-and-D player.
Start a conversation with me on Twitter