76ers Likes and Dislikes: Robert Covington’s Emergence Key for Sixers

Robert Covington's emergence as a two-way player has made him a very valuable piece in the Sixers rebuild.

Robert Covington's emergence as a defensive player further increases his value to the Sixers | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Covington’s emergence as a defensive player further increases his value to the Sixers | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Each week we’ll dive into a couple of observations about the Philadelphia 76ers. You can view previous installments in the Likes and Dislikes series here.

This week we’ll talk about the return of Robert Covington and what that means for the Sixers going forward, as well as a brief look into the struggles of second year guard Nik Stauskas.

Like: The Return of Robert Covington

Robert Covington was one of the great surprises stories of the 2014-15 NBA season.

Covington, who went undrafted in the 2013 draft after a four-year career at Tennessee State, averaged 13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game for the Sixers last season after being signed in mid-November from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Houston Rockets’ NBA Development League affiliate.

Covington emerged as one of the league’s best three point shooters, connecting on 37.4% of his 446 three point attempts. That placed Covington 10th in the league in made three pointers, a skill that the Sixers sputtering perimeter offense desperately needed: the Sixers shot just 30.6% on three pointers attempted by anyone other than Covington last year, well below the league average of 35%.

The impact that had on the Sixers’ offense was incredible: according to nba.com/stats, the Sixers averaged 96.1 points per 100 possessions in the 1,956 minutes that Covington was on the court last season, compared to just 90.0 in the 1,573 minutes that he was not.

Because of that, Covington was one of the few players to enter this season with real expectations to be a key piece of this Sixers team when it exits this long rebuilding phase.

Those expectations made Covington’s rough start to the season frustrating for Sixers fans. Not that Covington’s rough start was his fault, as Covington suffered an injury in the final game of the preseason, and Covington had been playing well up to that point.

The injury, a sprained MCL and a bone bruise in his right knee, kept Covington out of nine of the Sixers’ first ten regular season games. What happened when Covington did return, however, was perhaps even more troubling: Covington averaged just 7.0 points on 21.6% shooting during his first four games of the season, a four game stretch where he failed to make a three point shot.

The struggles were easily explained in the minds of most, as Covington looked like a player who didn’t have his legs under him and was trying to shake off the rust of not playing. Still, the Sixers desperately needed their best perimeter player to return to form.

Over the last 6 games, that has happened, and then some.

Covington is averaging 18.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.3 steals, and 2.3 assists per game over his last 6 games, while shooting an incredible 44.7% from three point range in the process. His 21 made three pointers is the 5th most in the NBA over that span, behind names such as Paul George and Stephen Curry.

More importantly, the Sixers have been much-improved over the past six games, in no small part because of the impact a healthy and effective Robert Covington has had on the offense. In fact, over the last six games the Sixers have actually outscored their opponents — by 22 points — in the 213 minutes that Covington has been on the court. By contrast, they’ve completely fallen apart as a team in the 75 minutes he’s been on the bench, having been outscored by 34 points during that time.

No other Sixers starter has this kind of an impact on the team.

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One of the biggest changes in the Sixers’ offensive execution with Covington on the court is how they’re finishing in the paint: they’re shooting 62.1% in the restricted area over the last six games when Covington has played vs 47.7% when he’s been on the bench.

The Sixers improved ability to finish near the basket with Covington on the court is likely filled with a little bit of noise, as 62% in the restricted area is pretty unsustainable, especially for a team with the talent level of the current Sixers’ roster.

Still, Covington’s shooting, and how close defenders have to remain to him at all times, clearly helps the Sixers’ offensive execution.

The screenshot below is the end result of a Phil Pressey/Nerlens Noel pick and roll. The Lakers’ defensive match-ups were already in shambles, as a Noel/JaKarr Sampson dribble hand-off caused the Lakers to switch, with Kobe Bryant ending up defending Noel when the Sixers brought the ball back out at the top of the key. This then set-up the Pressey/Noel pick and roll.

In a situation like this, especially with an athletic big rolling to the hoop, defenses require one of the players on the baseline to rotate over and slow Noel down, either to contest his shot or, at the very least, to slow Noel down and allow time for the defense to recover.

This responsibility likely should have fallen on Brandon Bass. This is not only because Bass was Noel’s original defender, but also because he’s guarding JaKarr Sampson, who is far easier to rotate off of than Covington is. His rotation was late, and Noel got an uncontested shot at the rim because of it.

Still, look at how closely Nick Young is guarding Covington on the perimeter. He doesn’t move off of Covington, and barely notices the play going on behind him, limiting the options the Lakers have to cover up the failed rotation. This is gravity, and Covington has a lot of it.

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A better example is when Covington is playing the power forward spot in a small-ball lineup. In the play below, Covington is being defended by Julius Randle, with Noel guarded by Roy Hibbert. Noel is a surprisingly good passing big man for somebody who struggles shooting from the perimeter and, With the Lakers’ other big man now pulled out to the foul line, it opened up a lane for Hollis Thompson, who was stationed on the strong side elbow-extended area, to cut to the basket just off of Noel during a give-and-go.

Again, the Lakers made a curious mistake there, with Metta World Peace deciding to pinch down on Noel to try to force the turnover, when a double team probably wasn’t necessary. Still, the excellent floor spacing that Covington provided made that cut possible, as Randle wasn’t even remotely in position to rotate over and contest.

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The small-ball lineup that head coach Brett Brown is increasingly favoring is an interesting one, and something that could make this increasingly viable has been Covington’s improved play on the defensive glass.

Last year Covington had a defensive rebounding rate, which is an estimate of the available defensive rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the court, of only 14.6%, which made it tough to play him at the power forward spot. That’s up to a much more respectable 19.2% so far this year, which falls much more in line with the 19.6% he grabbed during his four-year college career.

That increased defensive rebounding, along with a steal rate of 5.9%, has made Covington a much more well-rounded player so far this year. If both of those hold true, it increases the value of an already very valuable young player, and somebody would could see more time in a small-ball lineup where his shooting would become even more valuable.

Now if he could just cut down on those turnovers.

Dislike: Nik Stauskas Is Struggling Defensively

Nik Stauskas‘ early season struggles have gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason: he’s shooting just 32.9% from the field and 28.3% from three point range.

But whereas Robert Covington is diversifying his game and becoming a more consistent contributor in the defensive side of the court, Stauskas has no such contribution on that end so far.

His individual numbers are scary: with a 1.3% steal rate the 25th lowest among the 101 guards who have played at least 200 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. The team’s defensive rating of 103.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court is significantly worse than the 101.0 when he’s on the bench, and his -2.0 defensive box score plus-minus is 28th worst in that same group.

Stauskas has been plagued by nagging injuries early on, and hopefully he can find his rhythm, on both ends of the court. Right now, the first 19 games in his Sixers career have been a struggle.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.