Should Nik Stauskas Be Starting Over Robert Covington?

Robert Covington's struggles have opened the door for a change in the starting lineup. Should the Sixers send Covington to the bench?

Robert Covington's struggles to start the season have opened the door for a change in the starting lineup | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Covington’s struggles to start the season have opened the door for a change in the starting lineup. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Starting small forward Robert Covington is going through one of the biggest slumps of his career, shooting just 25.7 percent from the field through the first 13 games of the season.

On the flip side is Nik Stauskas, who is currently in the midst of the most prolonged stretch of success he’s experienced during his short NBA career, averaging 14.5 points on 66 percent shooting from the field, including 53.6 percent from three-point range, over his last six games. That makes Stauskas the team’s second leading scorer over that period of time, despite coming off the bench.

When you combine how well Stauskas is playing, along with Covington’s prolongued struggles, and the fact that Stauskas was formerly the #8 overall pick in the draft and came into the league with some pedigree, is it time for head coach Brett Brown to make a change in the starting lineup?

Not according to Brown. Or Nik Stauskas.

“We just spoke about it,” Brown said yesterday during the Sixers off-day. “The role that he is in (off the bench) we’re going to keep him in that role. He’s fine with that role, and the bottom line is he and our team are seeing really good results from his efforts.”

Stauskas agreed.

“I said I couldn’t agree more. I don’t really want to start right now,” Stauskas said about the conversation. “I like playing with the second unit, I like coming in and being that spark off the bench.

“At the end of the day it’s about winning games,” Stauskas continued. “Guys like Jamal Crawford, Manu Ginobili, there’s tons of guys throughout the league that have made an unbelievable career off of being that spark off the bench, so I don’t really have a problem with that.”

Keeping the starting lineup as-is may end up being the correct call in the long run.

Part of the hesitance to make a change may be the simple fact that what is happening now, through 13 games, isn’t necessarily a predictor of what will happen in the next 69. Robert Covington has a history of making three-point shots, having made 36.3 percent of his 939 NBA three-point attempts heading into the season, in addition to 42.2 percent of his 431 college three-point attempts and 37 percent of his 359 D-League three-point attempts. That kind of effectiveness, on that kind of quantity, usually isn’t a mirage.

When shooters have a big change in efficiency, there’s usually a reason. Their role changes. Their teammates change. The quality of their shot attempts change. Their body changes, either through injury or aging.

For Covington, there’s no reason to point to that would suggest a long-term change in his effectiveness. He’s simply not making open looks that he previously made, something which is incredibly frustrating and hurting his effectiveness in the short term, but not likely to be a long-term concern.

Year3pt%% of three-point attempts with 6+ feet of space
Prior to 2016-1743.8%19.8%
(Robert Covington has struggled to make shots, even when he's been open. The table above lists how Covington has fared on three-point attempts when the defender is 6-feet or more away from him. Data from and through November 20th, 2016).

Sure, most other high-volume three-point shooters still get more open looks than Covington does, and his shot selection is sometimes questionable, but he’s getting more three-point attempts with 6+ feet of space between himself and the defender than he ever has, and he’s simply not converting on them.

Rounding out Covington’s game would certainly help. “We talk a lot about the point-5 game. You have a half a second to figure it out when the ball comes out,” Brown said at practice the other day when speaking broadly about all of his perimeter players including, but not limited to, Covington. “You need that balance trying to play downhill versus just catching it and shooting it.”

Having more of a dribble-drive game to attack closeouts would certainly give Covington more space, as it would force defenders to think twice before selling out on an overly-aggressive closeout to contest his shot.

Those limitations in his offensive game certainly make his cold spells more pronounced, not only because it impacts the quality of shots he gets, but also because he has little else to fall back on when his shot isn’t falling. With 74 percent of his field goal attempts coming from behind the three-point line, Covington’s offensive effectiveness rides with his jump shot, an aspect of the game that is inherently streaky.

But the fact still remains that Covington is missing more wide-open looks than he has at any point in his career, and Brown thinks that is a temporary problem. “I’m going to back the fact that shooters shoot, and his time is not far away,” Brown said before the Sixers 120-105 victory over the Phoenix Suns, another game that saw Covington shoot just 1-for-5 from the field. Brown reiterated on Sunday that he will not change up his starting lineup.

“If you saw what I saw, and you see the volume of work that he puts in…at our practice facility we have a board, a sweat equity type board. How much time do you put in, what shots do you put up, when nobody is here? And he’s amongst the leaders,” Brown continued. “I think it’s a matter of time. And my choice is to stay with him and to help him get through this.”

Brown has benched Covington in past seasons when his offensive slumps have caused his defensive attentiveness to wane. According to Brown, that hasn’t occurred this year.

“I wouldn’t say he was nowhere near the defensive player that he is now last year, but he’s significantly better,” Brown said. “So that holds his spot on the mantle for me. I can rely on Robert Covington defensively.”

That’s a stark contrast to Stauskas. Even when Covington’s shot isn’t falling he’s been one of the Sixers top-2, if not the best, perimeter defenders. Stauskas, by contrast, struggles defensively, so when his shot isn’t falling he’s hurting you on both ends of the court, and there’s been plenty of evidence over Stauskas’ two-year NBA career that a cold streak is likely to hit at some point.

You can see that clear difference in defensive production both in film and on the stat sheet. Whether it’s Covington’s ability to fight over screens or his quick hands, his DRPM or his DBPM, or the team’s defensive performance when he’s on the court, Covington outclasses Stauskas in virtually every regard defensively.

PlayerRPM (position rank)Def RPM (position rank)
Robert Covington+0.59 (18th)+2.26 (3rd)
Nik Stauskas-2.58 (75th)-2.35 (90th)
(Where Nik Stauskas and Robert Covington rank in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus)

It’s impossible to hide when somebody is struggling offensively. Every pair of eyeballs in the arena and watching on television is focused on a wide-open jump shooter bricking yet another makeable three that cost his team points.

What’s not so evident is when a perimeter defender fights over a pick and roll and forces the ball handler to pass the ball away, or when an in-control closeout takes away a driving lane that was otherwise sure to lead to two easy points. It’s even less evident when a defender slides his feet to force an elite offensive player into a contested long jumper, but that shot goes in anyway, because world class offensive players such as James Harden and Andrew Wiggins tend to make great plays, as they have done recently against the Sixers.

But just because those defensive contributions might not be as readily evident doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable. If you have any confidence whatsoever that Covington’s shooting will return, or any concern at all that Stauskas might hit a dry spell, the decision to keep Covington not only in the rotation, but in the starting lineup, becomes much easier to justify. Missing a couple of shots that he normally makes, as frustrating as it may be while going through it, doesn’t change that.

The lineups with Covington compared to those with Stauskas offer fascinating contrasts. With Covington in the lineup, and with Joel Embiid anchoring the defense down low, the Sixers as a team shoot just 31 percent from three-point range, but hold the opponent to 98.2 points per 100 possessions. That defensive improvement is in spite of relatively weak defenders at point guard (starting Sergio Rodriguez) and at power forward (some combination of Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova), and despite spending more time against the opponents starters, whereas Stauskas gets to feast on weak benches.

Lineups with Stauskas and Embiid, by contrast, give up 116.3 points per 100 possessions, according to nbawowy.

The key for Brett Brown isn’t to decide which side, Stauskas’ offensive production or Covington’s defense, is more valuable, or more consistent. The key is to get Covington’s shot back to where it has always been in the past, and thus get the best of both worlds.

3 Random Thoughts
Weekly Lakers Check-in
Last week we told you not to worry too much about the Lakers hot start, and they have lost two of their three games since, albeit against tough opponents in the San Antonio Spurs and the Chicago Bulls.

The Lakers continue to have success offensively, but their defense is coming back down to earth in a big way. They’ve given up 113.7 points per 100 possessions over the past week, the second-worst total in the league over that span. On the season their 107.2 defensive rating ranks 5th worst in the league, and it may be worse than that in practice because of the wide open shots teams missed against the Lakers to start the season. The Lakers have a bad combination of undisciplined perimeter defenders and little weakside help, and it’s starting to cost them.

My advice for Sixers fans worrying about the quality of draft pick the Sixers will receive from the Lakers (top-3 protected) is to give it time. That pick still has the chance to be really good.

Sacramento going to small-ball lineups
Next up on the draft-pick-tracking trail we have the Sacramento Kings, who recently made a change to their starting lineup in order to go small around star center DeMarcus Cousins.

The Kings are sort of like the Sixers in that they have a coach who prefers to play small, but who has four natural centers on his roster in Cousins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kosta Koufos, and rookie Georgios Papagiannis. That caused head coach Dave Joerger to play two big men together frequently, even if that wasn’t his natural inclination to do so.

It appears as if that’s changed now.

“I’ve seen enough, I’m going to play small. DeMarcus is going to play center. I don’t know who else is going to play with him, but it gives us more zip, more life, more experience,” Joerger told CSN recently.

That could be bad news for the Sixers, who have the right to swap picks with the Kings in the upcoming 2017 NBA draft.

The Kings defense has been virtually the same when Cousins has been paired with another big vs when they’ve gone small, with the Kings giving up 110.0 points per 100 possessions with Cousins as the only big compared to 110.3 when there’s been another big on the court.

The big difference has come offensively, where the Kings offensive output jumps from 104.4 to 116.2 points per 100 possessions when you remove Koufos, Cauley-Stein, and Papagiannis from lineups with Cousins.

Embiid’s defensive dominance
We’re still in the portion of the season where the sample size is too low to gain all that much from on-court/off-court numbers, but the consistency of the Sixers’ defensive competency with Embiid on the court should certainly grab your attention.

The Sixers give up just 100.6 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the court, per That’s a drastic difference than the 109.5 they give up when Embiid is on the bench, and would rank favorably (5th in the NBA) league-wide.

The interesting development isn’t so much that the opponent shoots a lower percentage at the rim when Embiid is on the floor — they do, dropping from 55.3 percent on shots in the paint with Embiid on the bench to 53.2 percent when he’s in the game — but it’s also the threat of Embiid’s shot blocking allows the perimeter defenders to play up on their man more, while also improving the Sixers’ pick and roll defense.

Just wait until he really figures out what he’s doing.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.