This week has been somewhat of a mixed bag if you’re a fan of a chaotic NBA offseason. There have been great moments, like the drama in Houston with James Harden and Russell Westbrook and some relatively boring nights like the NBA Draft.
The most exciting thing to happen if you’re a Trail Blazers fan is the trade that brought Robert Covington to Portland. The 6’7” forward is now a Blazer after Neil Olshey offered the Rockets Trevor Ariza (who’s off to who knows where) and their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks. It was a move that was mostly praised around these parts because Covington theoretically is the kind of wing Portland has needed alongside their score-first backcourt.
So what does Covington really bring to the Blazers? Let’s take a look.
When it comes to offense generated from the wings, Portland doesn’t need much. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have proven that they can carry the Blazers to the top of the offensive leaderboards. The return of Jusuf Nurkic should only bolster their pick-and-roll dominance. With that setup in place, all Portland needs from the wing is someone who is comfortable in a low-usage, floor-spacing role.
That is a billing that Robert Covington can meet. Last year wasn’t great from a shooting standpoint — he only made 33.5 percent of his three-pointers last season in both Minnesota and Houston. But the year before he made almost 38 percent of his shots from distance and he is a career 35.6 percent shooter. The overwhelming majority of his three-point attempts from last year were in catch and shoot situations (89 percent), and while his percentage wasn’t awesome in 2019-20, he’s shown he’s capable of making them. In 2017-18, with Philadelphia, he made those shots at a 38 percent clip.
It shows that Covington doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, and that’s perfect for the Blazers. His usage rate last season was just 16.9 percent, which was 270th among qualified players. Granted, that’s what happens when you play in an offense centered entirely around James Harden, but it’s still important to note if you’re Portland.
Offensively, the main hope with Covington is that he gets back to his three-point numbers from 2018-19. If he does that, then he becomes a valuable part of this offense. Lillard and McCollum will take up most of the attention, and that should open things up for Covington.
This is the main reason you go out and get Covington. It cannot be emphasized enough how bad the Blazers were defensively last season, as they were ranked 27th in defensive rating. A huge part of that was tied to not having Jusuf Nurkic available for the majority of the season, but another was the lack of solid defense on the perimeter. Trevor Ariza was fine and Gary Trent Jr. was a revelation in Orlando, but that doesn’t change the fact that the dearth of quality perimeter defense hurt this team.
That’s what Covington can change. He’s not a one-on-one defensive specialist, but he’s a first-class team defender and is extremely smart on that end. Eric Griffith summed it up perfectly when he noted that he’s tailor-made to be the perfect roamer with his 7’2” wingspan. He hasn’t averaged under 1.6 steals per game since his second year in the league. He was first in deflections in 2017-18 and he was second in total deflections this year. The only player to crack the top 40 in deflections on the Blazers was Ariza.
No, he’s not a ball-stopping isolation guy, but that’s not necessarily what the Blazers needed. They needed players that help elevate the squad and won’t let easy buckets happen in bunches. Too many plays happened where a Portland defender would lose track of his man in the shuffle of halfcourt sets. You can only see that so many times before you realize your team defense is horrible.
Covington doesn’t solve a problem like “Who’s gonna stop LeBron from obliterating everyone as he drives down the lane” (but honestly, no one has found the solution after 17 years), but he instantly elevates the team on the defensive end. Him combined with a hopefully 100% Nurkic and the newly acquired Derrick Jones Jr. should make Portland at least respectable on this end.
Fitting with the frontcourt
Thinking about how Covington reconfigures the frontcourt is interesting because there’s plenty of questions remaining. What are Portland’s plans with Carmelo Anthony? How does Hassan Whiteside’s expected departure and Enes Kanter’s arrival change things? What are fair expectations for Zach Collins and Rodney Hood when they return from their respective injuries? Does Derrick Jones Jr. now impact Covington positionally?
Here’s what we do know: Covington is a versatile player who you can feel comfortable playing the 2-4 spots. He even played center for the micro-ball Rockets. He probably doesn’t need to do that with Nurkic, Kanter, and Collins all filling the need there, so the question really becomes whether he’ll be used as a 3 or 4.
In my opinion, Covington is best as a 4 in Portland. Theoretically, that allows the Blazers to have a starting lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Covington, and Nurkic. That’s an offensively potent and defensively competent lineup. You can even replace Hood with Trent or Jones Jr. if you feel so inclined. And if you even still think it’s happening, insert Melo as the 3 here (his situation is still somewhat of an unknown). Either way, Covington as a starter is best as a 4.
Covington at the 4 is ideal for a couple reasons. First, it takes Collins out of the starting lineup. That’s something I’ve personally advocated for as he’s struggled to reign the fouls in and also really seems more suited to be a backup 5. Second, he has the best length of any wing on the team. I love the bulldog that is Gary Trent Jr., but he still lacks some size. Hood is long, but is coming off the notorious achilles tear. Nassir Little could be something and can be a 4, but I’m expecting him to still be a raw player. Jones Jr. theoretically could do it defensively but isn’t skilled enough offensively to do so. All signs point to Covington sliding into that position best.
So in conclusion, Portland did well. They got a guy who really fits what they need and should be rewarded for it. Olshey rarely makes significant trades like this, and the fact he did so seems to show a renewed commitment to striving for more than just a playoff appearance. Covington was the first good move, and subsequent moves have been adequate at least. Now we just have to see if it translates into wins.