Of all the bizarre, implausible NBA happenings that still bubble out of Philadelphia on a regular basis—the string of DNP's for Jahlil Okafor, Sauce Castillo moonlighting as a point guard, everything Joel Embiid Tweets/does—nothing is harder to explain than Robert Covington's season-long shooting slump.
An effective spot-up threat for his entire adult life—Covington shot 42.2 percent behind the arc in a four-year college career, and is one of 13 players to drain at least 300 threes over the past two seasons—he's arguably the worst high-volume outside shooter in the entire league this season, and hearing boos from a notoriously impatient fan base.
However, a closer look at Covington's skills and situation suggests that those same fans shouldn't panic. The Sixers certainly aren't.
"He has been in a little bit of a slump, but to me the best way to get out of it is to shoot," said Philadelphia coach Brett Brown. "And to challenge him to shoot. And not read stuff, and not hear stuff. Shoot. That's what he does, and that's what I want from him offensively."
What's wrong with Covington's outside shot? Some believe his undeniably atrocious 28.2 percent mark from beyond the arc is a result of Philadelphia's front court logjam. After spending nearly three quarters of his total minutes as a small ball power forward last year, Covington has been handcuffed to the wing in 2016-17, playing just seven minutes at power forward beside Embiid.
Spotting up while defenses collapse on the likely Rookie of the Year could leave Covington with a ton of open looks, the thinking goes—only the Sixers' roster doesn't allow that to be a regular thing, not with Nerlens Noel, Okafor, Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova, and Richaun Holmes all vying for time.
Thing is, 47.2 percent of Covington's threes this season have been taken with no defender within four feet of him, which is actually an improvement from last season. So it's not that Covington can't find open shots at small forward; it's that he's missing the ones he gets.
Nevertheless, Brown said he isn't concerned.
"I actually want him to shoot more," he said. "I want him to understand the difference between good and great shots, but I want him to catch and shoot it when he's open."
Like Brown, teammates are in Covington's ear, massaging the understandably fragile psyche of a man who isn't getting the results he's used to. They know how valuable he is to this particular team, inside an organization that's ready to build around a low-post monster and Ben Simmons, the reigning No. 1 overall pick whose main weakness is a lacking jump shot.
Those guys will need space to be at their best—and when Covington is at his best, he can provide it.
"He hasn't been making shots lately, but I've been telling him to keep shooting," Embiid said. "They're gonna double team me, I'm gonna pass the ball, just keep shooting. I don't care if you miss it."
Despite those misses, opposing defenses aren't treating Covington any differently than they were when his percentages were above league average. At least not yet. For now, his presence still provides space, thanks to a hard-earned reputation around the league that forces coaches to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"I don't even care what his percentages say," Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said shortly before Covington went 2-for-3 beyond the arc last Friday night. "He's a guy that's hit five in a row against us in the past ...You can throw the percentage out the window."
Covington echoes that sentiment, and Philadelphia has outscored opponents by a team-high 45 points whenever he shares the floor with Embiid and Ilyasova—the closest Philly gets to uncluttering its logjam.
"A lot of [defenses] are treating me the same because at any moment I can get hot, and then that can alter our whole offense," he said.
Standing 6-foot-9 and able to defend multiple positions, Covington isn't isn't Troy Daniels or Steve Novak, a one-dimensional catch-and-shoot statue whose overall impact can be erased by a defensive adjustment. He thrives in other areas, which motivates Brown to keep him on the floor despite a shot chart that currently looks like a shattered ketchup bottle.
In a league that prioritizes versatile defenders who can slide from man to man on the perimeter without getting burned off the dribble, Covington is ideal. His instincts have unexpectedly caught up to the necessary physical gifts that are required to stop primary scorers of all shapes and sizes.
"When you study defensive efficiency ratings, he's always amongst the top two to four small forwards in the NBA," Brown says. "I can almost just stop right there and say 'that's the value.' He guards. He really guards. And so he becomes valuable for us ... And it's the holy grail now that as we search the evolution of NBA basketball, two-way players are elusive."
Nobody saw Covington turning himself into an elite wing defender, But he's been an undeniable plus on that side of the ball for a Sixers team that needs as much help as they can get. The 26-year-old does an excellent job eluding screens and bothering pull-up jumpers from behind. He really fights.
Covington also leads the entire league in deflections, and can be the sort of perimeter pest who holds Minnesota swingman Andrew Wiggins to a 2-for-15 shooting performance three days before he slows down increasingly unstoppable Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas.
"I don't know how much [Thomas] scored on me," Covington said afterwards. "But it was a lot of times where my length and my hands really disturbed him and made it uncomfortable for him ... I know I'm going to guard the best players on each and every team, I just want to go out there, give it my all, and continue to make it tough on other players."
Given his career numbers, it's hard to imagine Covington's shots eventually won't start falling. Once they do, the booing will fade, and the conversation around him will take a more meaningful turn: What's his monetary value?
The rare flier who successfully developed inside The Process, Covington has quietly emerged as a solid NBA player. Currently, he is also the 13th-highest paid player on his own team, and Philadelphia almost certainly will pick up his measly $1.08 million option for 2017-18.
After that, however, Covington will be a free agent, and in line for a contract that could be upwards of $80 million. Players with Covington's defensive versatility are just as valuable as Brown claims, provided they can shoot.
"Whenever I get good looks I still gotta take them," Covington said. "You can't get discouraged if the previous one hasn't fallen. You have to have that mentality that the next one will fall in."
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