When the Portland Trail Blazers acquired Robert Covington from the Houston Rockets, it was their premier offseason move. Covington is the exact type of player that the Blazers have needed for years now, theoretically providing top-notch defense, solid outside shooting, and high-IQ basketball on both ends of the floor. They’re the kind of qualities that every NBA team desires from their wings.
But the results have been mixed to start the season for Covington, most notably on the offensive end. He’s averaging his lowest point total since his rookie season and is shooting an abysmal 31.4% from the field, including 30.1% from three. On top of that, he hasn’t exactly solved Portland’s defensive woes, as the team is 26tth currrently in defensive rating.
Covington wasn’t going to solve every problem the Blazers had, but after a month or so of basketball, it certainly hasn’t been the start most had hoped for from Covington. So should Blazers fans be worried about the wing, or will he be able to right the ship? Let’s break it down.
The most concerning thing has been the offense. He’s earned a reputation as a low-usage catch-and-shoot guy who rarely makes the wrong play. He’s a near-36% shooter from three for his career and at several points he has ranked towards the top of the league in made threes off catch-and-shoot attempts.
This year, it has been just plain bad. Most of Covington’s shots are of the catch-and-shoot variety — 65.7% of his attempts have been logged as such — but he’s not making them at a high rate. He’s made only 30.3% of his threes in those situations and is just under 30% on all his catch-and-shoot attempts.
When you have a player as talented as Damian Lillard, his gravity is so great that he naturally draws defenders with his mere presence on the court. Anyone who has watched the Blazers has seen opponents double-team Lillard as high up as halfcourt, so having guys who can consistently knock down shots when open is key. If Covington and company aren’t making those open shots, then it’s just another Aminu-Harkless situation. Teams are happily going to send the house at Lillard and CJ McCollum in the playoffs if Covington continues bricking threes.
The problem isn’t just that Covington is struggling from three; it’s that he’s struggling from everywhere. Covington notoriously shoots almost exclusively from three, but he’s not taking advantage of his opportunities up close when they come up. He’s only made 32% of his shots from within 10 feet.
One of the great things about Covington is that he’s a low-usage guy who throughout his career has been able to capitalize on the few opportunities he gets throughout the course of a game. If he’s not doing that, he’s not an efficient low-usage player; he’s just a non-factor. Covington has to start capitalizing on those open threes that he gets.
Since we’ve talked about all the really bad stuff with Covington on the offensive end, let’s talk about one good thing he does: he’s an excellent reactionary playmaker. Covington rarely makes the wrong decision when the ball is in his hands. He’s averaging only 1.7 assists per game, but he’s capable of making solid passes to guys while on the move.
This is the kind of action I’d love to see more of from Portland, even though apparently NO ONE can throw a decent lob pass on this team. Still, Covington does a great job of wrapping that ball around Marc Gasol to find an open Derrick Jones Jr. for the easy dunk. When Portland has guys cutting from the baseline while the ball is in a good playmaker’s hands, good things usually happen.
Covington not only uses his quick hands to get the steal, but he is comfortable enough with the ball in his hands to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. He makes a slick bounce pass to Lillard for the bucket. It’s a huge benefit — especially for a team without CJ McCollum for at least a month — if Covington can bring the ball up and make plays.
Here’s one more play that follows the familiar formula of (solid defensive play) + (Covington making the correct read to Jones) = easy money for Portland. When Covington is on the move, he’s smart with the ball. He’s still been a negative overall on offense, but this is one positive takeaway from his first month in Portland.
Notice how the last two transition plays were initiated by heads-up defense. While the team hasn’t exactly been stellar defensively, Covington has done pretty much exactly what he always does. Covington is an extremely smart help and team defender who almost always happens to be right where you need him. There’s a reason that Covington ranked at top of the league in deflections in 2017-18 and that he was second in total deflections last year. This year, he’s eighth right now in total deflections and is averaging 1.2 steals per contest, more than anyone on the Blazers last season.
This compilation covers just about everything great that Covington has done on the defensive end. He uses his quick hands to swipe the ball out of opponents’ hands, consistently gets in front of defenders to protect the rim, and is an overall menace on the floor. No one on the Blazers last year outside of Gary Trent Jr. played with that kind of defensive energy, and Trent is more limited than Covington purely from a size standpoint.
Team defense was something this team definitely needed, but it was never going to solve everything. Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. are certainly defensive upgrades, but neither of them are really true lockdown defenders. He’s a great complementary piece, but not the stalwart that every team desires. How can Portland utilize him in a way that bolsters the defense?
One thing the Blazers should look into doing more is playing Covington at the center spot. Back in Houston with the microball Rockets, Covington became legitimately one of the best rim-protectors in the league. He averaged 2.2 blocks per game in Houston as a 6’8” center while also putting together 1.6 steals a game. Those are great blocking numbers for any center, let alone one playing with a team where you’re about three inches shorter than the average height of your position.
With Jusuf Nurkic out for at least eight weeks, options are limited at the center position on defense. Enes Kanter hasn’t been awful when playing alongside other solid defenders (he had five blocks against the Hawks!), but is still a pretty bad defender overall. Harry Giles is a highly energetic presence, but he also struggles defensively with that matador style of defense, just letting guys through as opposed to protecting the rim.
Putting Covington at the center spot would probably mean a lineup that looks something like Lillard-Trent-Hood-Jones-Covington. With McCollum and Nurkic out for the foreseeable future, that’s Portland’s five best players right now (assuming Hood can play like he did against San Antonio). Combining this small-ball lineup with new-found frenetic pace that Portland seems comfortable playing at seems like the best option lineup-wise for the Blazers.
No matter what Terry Stotts tries to do, it’s vital that Covington finds his stroke and starts contributing more on the offensive end. The defense has been solid from him individually. He’s done pretty much exactly what’s needed from him on that end this past month, and his impact can be even greater if Stotts toys correctly with the lineup.
But the thing that has killed Portland every year in the playoffs for what feels like forever is not having someone on the wing competent enough on offense to hit open shots when needed. Blazer fans don’t need to watch a rerun of what’s happened in years past; they’re ready for something new. Covington needs to step it up on that end if the Blazers are really going to do anything this year.