After the Houston Rockets pulled off the deal for Robert Covington at this year’s trade deadline many wondered what the Rockets were doing. How would their team look, especially on the defensive end? In some respects, the Rockets performed as well after the trade as before, and one of the biggest factors in their defense has been the newest factor: Robert Covington.
Where did Covington come from? How did he land here, as a highly-prized trade target First, let’s go back to the beginning of Robert Covington’s career.
Early Days in the NBA
Covington went undrafted in the 2013 NBA draft, after which he played for Rockets in Summer League. They were pleased with him and signed him to an NBA contract. However, he spent most of his first NBA season in the D-League (now G-League) playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
He was named a D-League All-Star that season and became MVP of the All-Star Game. RoCo’s smashing performance continued through the second half of the season and he won the D-League Rookie of the Year award. Even then he displayed what he is best at – shooting and defending. Covington averaged 23.2 PPG while shooting 37% from three, to go with 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game, proving already that he is a complete defensive player.
Heart of the Process
At the end of 2013-14 season, Covington signed a 4-year contract with Philadelphia 76ers. Immediately in his first season, he surged into the starting lineup. He maintained a pretty similar role as he had in college and the D-League, playing largely as a small forward. He represents the heart of the 76ers’ Process, an undrafted player who wasn’t given a chance on other NBA teams but thanks to his constant hard work proved himself as a serviceable NBA player.
Covington earned respect as one of the prime 3-and-D players in the NBA. He was the ideal fit for the Sixers’ play style, as he could spread the floor on offense and cover anyone on defense, taking on the opposing team’s best opposing guard or forward. His defensive excellence was officially recognized in the 2017-18 season when he was named into the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team.
The chart above is RoCo’s defensive shot chart from 2017-18, which shows his success in defending opposing players based on the distance from the basket. He was mostly situated on the three-point line, defending either three-pointers or long mid-range shots. He was modestly effective at defending three-pointers, a bit below the average NBA player. It’s also worth mentioning that Covington led the NBA in deflections per game that season, which further attests to his relentlessness on the defensive side.
Move to the Timberwolves and Injury Struggles
As Philadelphia developed, there was unfortunately no place for Covington in the fully-Processed Sixers. He was shipped to Minnesota along with Dario Šarić. Covington struggled in Minnesota, and he struggled above all with injuries. Covington sustained a knee injury and mentioned he was struggling to cope with it as it was the first big injury of his career. In spite of the setback, however, he managed to successfully jump back into the action this year and post similar numbers as in the 2017-18 season. Now, we have finally arrived at this year’s trade deadline.
Change of Style in Houston
As stated above, Robet Covington was primarily a small forward with the 76ers. The undersized Wolves started his shift toward the power forward. With the Rockets, Covington plays mostly C/PF , despite his unorthodox stature for the role. To all appearances, he adapted to the new role gracefully.
Since the trade to Houston, he is 3rd in total blocks with 35. He managed to get that number of blocks in only 14 games – a small sample, but evidence of a change in his role and function.
Focusing on Paint Coverage
Once a top perimeter defender, Covington is now faced with a new role, as he or P.J. Tucker are often matching up with opposing centers. Houston sometimes mixes it up with a bit of a zone defense (Box and One or 3-2) where again Covington and Tucker stay low. Usually, though, the Rockets play man-to-man defense with one advantage over (most) other teams: They can switch ANYTHING. All of their guards are taller than average, so quite often a perimeter player (most commonly Harden) ends up in the middle of the paint guarding the opposing center. The result is a major difference in the areas where Covington most frequently defends shots.
Comparison of Defensive Charts
In Minnesota, RoCo spent most of the time on the perimeter, around the 3-point line. He was as good a defender in Minny as he was during his stint in Philly. However, his interior defense was rather lacking. The results could be attributed to the overall bad defense that the Wolves displayed, but it is still a poor profile for Covington near the basket.
Well, there is a big difference in the Houston chart from the previous one. First of all, look at how much happier Robert is! Secondly, Covington now spends a lot more time in the post and defending big men, hence the number of defended shots around the basket is a lot higher. The amount of shots defended on the perimeter also increased, perhaps surprisingly. Since that Rockets switch almost every screen, Covington often sticks to the offensive player until he shoots the triple. And while Covington regressed a bit in opponent three-point accuracy, he is still a very good defender. That regression may perhaps be tied with the fact than he can sometimes be a bit late to cover the three point shot when he plays on the low post in the soft-zones mentioned above.
Nevertheless, the really good defensive efficiency close to the basket, for a 6 ft 7 forward, is a huge improvement for him, as well as an enormous boon for the Rockets.
Hustle Remains, but in a Different Way
Covington is known for his high work rate on the defensive side. That has usually manifested itself in a high number of deflections, which would lead to a steal by either Covington or a teammate, or at least disrupt the offensive flow. With his move to the Rockets, however, that changed a bit. Covington’s rate of deflections took a bit of a hit but remains high. The positive news is that the number of contested shots attributed to him, especially 2 point shots, increased significantly.
Here you can see how he moved from the middle of the pack in contested shots toward the top. Covington has also registered the highest rate of contested shots per game in his career by a substantial margin (driven largely by a spike in contested 2-point shots).
I mentioned in the introduction that Covington led the league in deflections when he was selected for the NBA All-Defensive team in 2017-18. I did not he led the league the previous season as well. His 2018-19 season was shortened by the knee injury, and his numbers did take a bit of a hit, but they were still in the elite range.
Impact on the Team
Robert Covington’s impact can be plainly seen by looking at the advanced ratings, which calculate the number of points produced per 100 possessions (Offensive Rating or ORating) and points allowed per 100 possessions (Defensive Rating or DRating). While he generally doesn’t add anything special on the offensive side, he boosts the Rockets significantly on the defensive side.
When he is on the court, the Rockets have a better (smaller) defensive rating by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. However, as with all other stats and charts I’ve plotted, the results come from a 14 game sample. If anything, they provide positive indicators that Rockets pulled of a good trade.
Even though this is mostly a look at Covington’s defensive value, I’ll quickly touch on his offensive adjustment. Actually, he didn’t have to adjust much, as he was already playing a Moreyball-friendly role with his previous teams.
His shot chart from Minnesota was quite heavy on three-pointers and shots near the rim, though he did take a number of several mid-range jumpers.
With the move to Houston, coach D’Antoni found a willing practitioner of his offensive philosophy. Covington’s shot chart now features only from three-point range or the paint. Generally speaking, the volume of RoCo’s three-pointers increased in Houston. He shot 1.5 more three-pointers per game than in Minnesota, with even better efficiency. Covington was already a catch and shoot threat, as 82% of his shots were assisted in Minnesota. That number jumped to 94% in Houston.
Covington returned to the Rockets almost six years after they gave him his first NBA contract. Who knows how his career would have developed had Houston decided to keep him. He would likely have been an excellent fit for the Rockets system – a great wing defender, who is capable of defending big men AND switching onto faster guards, and who shoots the three-pointer solidly. For the Rockets, he is the total package.
Even if this micro-ball experiment doesn’t turn out great in the end, it is one of the more interesting features of the 2019-20 season. And given that the post game is in the slow process of dying, maybe the Rockets will turn out to be the crazy and misunderstood geniuses and come out on top?