Prior to Robert Covington finding his groove midway through the season with the Portland Trail Blazers, things had a tendency to get rocky. Never mind the failing to score in double figures in 15 of his first 17 games after perennially being a double-digit scorer in each of the previous six seasons; never mind the struggling to crack 30 percent shooting from the field over that said stretch. It merely appeared Covington didn’t appear at ease as he once had.
One play in particular from his first road trip as a Blazer sort of encapsulates that most effectively: Covington found himself quarterbacking a 3-on-1 fast break, a godsend of an opportunity to score an efficient bucket in what had been a tough shooting stretch to that point.
The problem: he somehow managed to double dribble, travel, and carry all in the same five-second sequence.
You’ve got to see this Covington turnover pic.twitter.com/tLygrJk9aa— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) January 4, 2021
That situation didn’t come to define Covington’s 2020-21 season; with time, he pieced together a case for the team’s third most influential player last season. But he could’ve been slightly forgiven for forgetting how to dribble, particularly when you consider how seldom-used that aspect of his game was last season. Which introduces a new thought:
Over the past week, videos have surfaced highlighting Covington’s vigor and focus on creating off-the-dribble. It’s a portion of his game that he showcased in spurts early on before shifting towards becoming more of a catch-and-shoot specialist. In Chauncey Billups’ new system, just how much of a luxury can it be?
However you slice it, having Covington diversify as more of an off-the-dribble offensive threat in 2021-22 would certainly be a change of vibe in Portland’s offense. Last season, Covington ranked dead last on the Trail Blazers in average seconds per touch (1.54) and dribbles per touch (0.42), interesting only in that a player such as, say, Enes Kanter, was so effective at simple second-chance putback scores.
Among forwards that logged at least 1,000 minutes, that number placed at the No. 118 spot among 136 players. We’re talking rarified air in terms of him all of a sudden adding a couple of dribbles to his offensive moves.
Covington has showcased the ability to do so in small spurts, but for the most part his off-dribble game in a half-court setting has normally been in punishing overambitious closeouts or stepping into midrange looks, or with defenders overcommitting to the nail, where Covington could hit a right-shoulder fadeaway. For example:
He’s also put forth a few examples where he’s been able to use deceptive speed as a trailer, getting a head of steam and taking advantage of bigs. If the Blazers expand on those super small ball lineups with Covington at center, something they did 18 percent of the time last season per Cleaning the Glass, those opportunities will present themselves.
Earlier this month, Billups mentioned that the Blazers would be working to resist the urge to come down and jack 3-pointers unconsciously, which necessitates the need for efficient scoring looks inside the arc. Midrange shots are essentially sacred ground for non-star players — of the NBA’s 32 most frequent users of said shot, 25 were a past or present All-Star — but if Covington can put the pressure on the defense when slightly more frequently, it’s not difficult to imagine the positives that come out of it.
In looking at Covington’s shot profile, pull-ups made up only 11.6 of that selection, but volume be darned, his numbers were actually better than on catch-and-shoot attempts. In each of his last five seasons, he’s taken at least 50 pull-ups, and he has three seasons with an eFG of higher than 50 percent.
He’s also produced some quietly excellent numbers when tasked with taking two or more dribbles. Last season, he was only 34-of-85 (and 6-of-16 from 3-point range) on shots requiring 2+ dribbles. But in the four seasons prior, he was a combined 184-of-354 (51.9 percent). A considerable portion of that comes from invading passing lanes, getting out into the open floor, and dribbling into fast break opportunities.
But there’s half-court potential, too; he was 23-of-51 from deep on said measures, a 45.1 3-point percentage. It’s a skill he had slightly more success with in Philadelphia, but, if fine tuned, could be an effective, sparingly-used counter to the Blazers’ offense.
It makes sense that Covington, in a contract season, would be seeking to broaden or re-broaden the scope of his skillset. Personally, it appears to be a hidden positive that he, along with fellow star Jusuf Nurkic, will in essence have even more motivation to enter 2021-22 with a heightened sense of urgency.
In whichever case, it makes sense to trust Covington given his work ethic. Recall that at the start of his career, coaches challenged him to become a better defender in order to stay in the league. Within mere years, he was a First Team All-Defensive Teamer. He’s also never had a negative on-off swing at any point in his career, signifying his feel for what betters the teams he’s a part of.
If there’s one unassailable takeaway from last season, it’s that every added source of offense that gives Damian Lillard a chance to rest is a welcome sight. His teammates have the chance to put the ball in their court and improve. And hopefully this time they don’t step out of bounds, double-dribble, travel, or carry on the way there.