It stands for Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) June 23, 2017
This nickname is stupid for many reasons, but most of all because it ignores the player that makes the whole team work: Robert Covington.
It’s easy for Covington to get lost in the shuffle between the two number one overall picks, the runner up in Rookie of the Year voting last season, and another guy who does stuff like this:
Easily my favorite dunk of Embiid's last season. Only needed two dribbles from the arc. Crazy. pic.twitter.com/9sAYKGZHgI
— sixerhive (@darienhoops) August 19, 2017
The young guys have limitless potential and were brought to the Sixers with great fanfare. Covington, meanwhile, was an undrafted free agent plucked from the (then) D-League by Sam Hinkie.
All he’s done since then is turn himself into an above-average shooter and a lockdown defender, and it’s those skills that will unlock the potential of the Sixers’ young core.
Robert Covington is the Sixers’ glue guy: the player who holds the whole team together.
Glue guys typically have a few attributes in common.
They are generally good at defense and have a couple offensive skills. Most importantly, though, glue guys know their shortcomings and stay within themselves.
Covington is a great defender; he placed fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year (although he was fourth by a humongous margin).
One elite skill of Robert Covington: 2.9 steal% ranked 10th. Active hands, instinctual off ball, jumps passing lanes. pic.twitter.com/qVl0bv8XHS
— Joshua Riddell (@Joshua_Riddell) July 18, 2017
Notably, Covington led the league in deflections per 36 minutes. There were also only two players to record at least 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per 48 minutes last season: Defensive Player of the Year winner Draymond Green and Covington. He ranked 4th in the NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
The flexibility Covington brings to the defense, with the ability to effectively cover every position except the biggest centers and the fastest point guards, could help unlock the most potent Sixers lineups.
He’ll likely be covering small forwards in the starting lineup, but if the Sixers want to go big with Simmons, Saric, and Embiid, Covington can slide up to the shooting guard.
If they want to go small, with JJ Redick, Fultz, and Jerryd Bayless, Covington can slide down to power forwards. He can take the toughest defensive assignments to help ease Simmons and Fultz into the NBA or to cover up for Redick’s athletic deficiencies.
He will be the glue that keeps the team together.
There’s no disputing Covington’s defensive prowess, but a few people I talked to expressed skepticism that Covington is indeed an above-average shooter.
Last season he shot just 33.0 percent from three-point range, compared to the league average of 35.7 percent.
However, before last season, Covington was a career 36.3 percent shooter from three, and after a terrible start to the season, he shot 36.5 percent once the calendar flipped to 2017.
And even those numbers undersell Covington’s true shooting ability. You may have noticed that the Sixers have been terrible for the past three years. In fact, they’ve had the worst offensive rating in the NBA in each of the past three seasons.
— John Clark CSN/NBC (@JClarkCSN) April 14, 2016
Covington, by nature of being even remotely a threat, was the biggest offensive threat on the team for a lot of that time.
Consider that last season, of the 10 players Covington shared the most minutes with, only two shot three-pointers at an above average clip: Nik Stauskas (shared 43.1 percent of his minutes) and Joel Embiid (shared 24.6 percent of his minutes).
And in the 178 minutes those three were on the court together, they outscored opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions.
The overall lack of spacing is why you’d often see Covington taking three’s like this:
Sixers' Robert Covington drills deep game-winning three over Blazers' Evan Turner, delighting Joel Embiid (all angles) pic.twitter.com/vqB74vnwN4
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) January 21, 2017
There was little in the way of offensive creation to ease his burden and get him some open shots.
In that way, Covington reminds me a lot of Jae Crowder, the former Celtic recently traded to Cleveland. They’re similar in size: Covington is about three inches taller, but gives up 20 pounds to the beefier Crowder.
More importantly, though, their roles are similar.
Crowder is also a versatile defensive stopper who is asked simply to jack three-pointers on offense: the quintessential 3-and-D guy. When you look at Crowder’s 2015-2016 season, you see a player extremely similar to Covington. He took 5.0 threes per game and hit them at a 33.6 percent clip.
Last season, Covington took 6.1 threes per game and hit them at a 33.3 percent clip.
In those seasons, about 25 percent of their threes were considered “Wide Open” according to NBA.com, compared with the league average of 41 percent. That means that there was no defender within six feet of them when the shot went up.
Then last season Isaiah Thomas went supernova, Crowder took more of a backseat on offense, and he wound up taking slightly more threes, 35 percent of which were considered “Wide Open”, and he hit them at a 39.8 percent clip.
This season, Covington won’t be playing alongside non-shooters like TJ McConnell, Sergio Rodriguez, and Jahlil Okafor.
He’ll be in the starting lineup with sharpshooters like Redick and Fultz. He’ll be receiving passes from Simmons, while defenses worry about Joel Embiid, himself an above-average shooter, rampaging in the paint.
In other words, he’ll be “Wide Open” a lot more. And in turn, Covington’s shooting will give Embiid room to work and will open up driving lanes for Fultz and Simmons. During a media day interview, Brett Brown reiterated the importance of Covington to the team.
Brett Brown says he does see Robert Covington starting, and ending, games for the #sixers
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) September 20, 2017
It’s easy to see why.