The rebuilding effort going on in Philadelphia is much maligned, for obvious reasons. Even the people who understand that the best way for the 76ers to get a star is to bottom out and draft one can’t reconcile that with the franchise’s apparent disdain for doing anything else — like holding on to solid players — in the meantime. The best example of it were the trades that sent out Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels for picks and Isaiah Canaan. Even though those guys weren’t stars, they could have been good complementary players. That the Sixers didn’t wanted them suggested an extreme focus on top level talent at the expense of pieces that can fill out a winning roster.
That line of thinking, however, doesn’t seem to be taking Robert Covington into account.
Covington went undrafted but earned a contract with the Rockets during summer league. He was largely a part of the experiment Houston is running on its D-League franchise, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, a team that’s breaking records for the sheer volume of their three-point shooting. Covington excelled there but never found a place with the Rockets, was waived and quickly picked up by Philadelphia, where he signed a multi year contract worth barely above the minimum and with two non-guaranteed years.
Covington is averaging a very solid 13.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 27.8 minutes a game. His field goal percentage is low and the 76ers’ up-tempo style can inflate numbers, but the only stats that matter when judging Covington — the ones that relate to three-point shooting — show that he’s unique. Only 10 players are taking over six three-pointers a game (minimum 100 attempts), and Covington is not only one of them, but he ranks fifth among them in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. Getting a volume outside shooter who’s any good at converting his chances is rare. Getting one for close to the minimum when that skill is more valuable than ever is almost impossible and yet Philadelphia did it.
Covington and to a lesser degree Hollis Thompson represent the perfect mold of role player for a 76ers team that, like almost all the contenders, is embracing the pace and space era. The Sixers rank in the top 10 in three-pointers attempted despite ranking 28th in three-point shooting field goal percentage because they’re committed to a style of play. “I feel like what you see in Robert in doses, imagine if you had, you know, a few more shooters like that,” Brown said to the Philadelphia Inquirer in January. “We have to focus our energies on the others improving their shooting because it is all about space.”
In Covington, Philadelphia isn’t only getting a marksman, but also someone who matches the other two criteria the front office is focusing on in the asset accumulation stage: he’s cheap and he’s long. Carter-Williams was expensive and McDaniels was about to be at the end of the year and neither could shoot, so they were sent out while Covington as well as Thompson and Jerami Grant remain. They might not be as exciting as the Rookie of the Year and a highlight machine but they, as well as Caanan, fit what Brown is trying to do much better than the players that were sent away. The 76ers are smartly looking for fit and flexibility when it comes to the non-essential talent instead of raw potential, something Covington lacks.
At 24 years of age, Covington isn’t as tantalizing as a younger prospect, although he could still develop some. He’s far from a great defensive player, but he does have decent physical tools. His lateral quickness isn’t ideal for a perimeter player, but he has a good wingspan and length. All he needs to do to become a neutral defender is improve his focus and effort level. Even with this version, the 76ers are better on defense with Covington on the court than off and he has the best net rating out of anyone who has suited up for Philadelphia for more than 500 minutes this season. Only minimal improvement is required for him to be a solid rotation player.
The stated goal of general manager Sam Hinkie is winning a championship. It’s unclear if Covington will be good enough to get 20 minutes a night for a contender, but the early results are encouraging. In any case, Philadelphia has nothing but time to find out, and because he’s on such a cheap contract, he can be moved the second Brown or the front office lose their faith in him. McDaniels brought back Canaan and a second rounder. If Covington continues to show his ability to hit three-pointers, he could provide a similar haul. For now, however, it seems like he’s in Philadelphia to stay, and his value to the franchise should increase exponentially next season, as spacing will be at a premium with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid sharing the court.
There’s understandable skepticism surrounding the 76ers and their personnel decisions, which is expected when a team employs 25 players in a single season. Yet there clearly is a plan which isn’t singularly focused on attaining elite talent through the draft, but also finding the type of complementary pieces the roster needs. The 76ers are looking for young, cheap shooters who can space the floor, and they got one of the best that was available in Covington. If they can continue to plug in underrated players who fit well with what they are trying to do while they also look for that superstar player they covet, respectability could come sooner than many expect.