By Brent Gomer
In light of the recent events surrounding Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers lack of veterans because of their unwavering faith in “The Process”, talked ad nauseum by everyone, has been even more exacerbated. Aside from Carl Landry, who has yet to play a game with the Sixers in his eighth professional season, the player with the most experience is Kendall Marshall, who also hasn’t appeared due to an ACL injury last season. The basic pro-veteran argument is that experienced players teach young players how to be a professional, both on the court and off the court. Many point to Minnesota, who acquired Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, and Tayshaun Prince to mentor their coveted number one picks Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins, as a model for a successful rebuild.
Yet while the upside to acquiring veterans is quite clear, the Sixers have decided to ignore veteran players. Their rational is rooted in mathematics, relying on simple probabilities that eventually the Sixers must find a superstar with a lottery pick.
The Sixers have instead elected to use those roster spots reserved for veterans for fringe NBA talent with high-upside, and if they don’t pan out, they’ll lose and position themselves well for another top draft pick. Players like Glenn Robinson III, Casper Ware, Brandon Davies, and Tim Frazier all played minutes for the Sixers at one point before being released. There is a very small chance that second round picks and undrafted players make it in the NBA, but when a team tries to develop many players year after year, there is a good chance that one or two end up being NBA-caliber players. If not, the Sixers play terribly, end up with a top pick and try again for a superstar.
Only three of the twelve players that have seen minutes for the 2015-2016 Sixers were drafted in the first round, and undrafted players have accounted for 41.3% of minutes played this season.
And amidst this unabashed tanking, every once in a while giving players who no team gave a chance meaningful minutes will work out.
Since his return from a sprained MCL on November 16th, Robert Covington has been the 76ers most important player. While losses are still losses, when Covington plays 24 minutes or more the Sixers point differential is -4.8 compared to -12.5 when he doesn’t (he played 3 games on a minute’s restriction).
Covington is a true two-way player. At 6’9, 215lbs, he can guard positions two through five. In the five games he’s played over 30 minutes this season, he has a Defensive Rating of 88. For reference, Hassan Whiteside and Kawhi Leonard have a DRtg of 87 and 91, respectively. This is remarkable compared to his teammates. Nerlens Noel has the second lowest DRtg at 102. Since his minutes restriction was lifted, Covington has averaged 5.2 steals per game and recorded 6+ steals in each of his last three games. This hasn’t been done since Alvin Robertson in 1986, per Adam McGee on Twitter. In addition, he has a Defensive Box +/- of 3.6, which ranks 13th among players with more than 100 minutes played and 6th among forwards.
The difference between an injured and healthy Covington has also been drastic on the offensive end.
From three-point range, Covington is 0 for 18 in games which he had a minute’s restriction (he has only played less than 30 minutes in games where Brett Brown made it known he was limited). Since then, he’s shot 44.4% from three at 7.2 attempts per game. The only players averaging greater than 44% shooting from deep on six or more attempts per game are Steph Curry, Paul George, and Kevin Durant. It was clear that he wasn’t feeling 100% during his tune-up games, and it still remains to be seen how much, if any, his three-point percentage will regress to his 37.4% from deep last year.
Covington is the most “Morey-Ball” player on the Sixers because of his versatility. Against the Rockets, the Sixers were able to go on a 20-5 run in 3:30 with Covington playing center. It’s even more impressive considering that he was playing defense against Dwight Howard. Since the Sixers also have Noel and Okafor, it won’t be often that he plays the 5. He has only played limited minutes with Noel due to injury, but all three man lineups that include Covington and Okafor are above team average in Net Points. How well Covington fits with Okafor and Noel, both in two-man lineups and when all three share the court, will impact General Manager Sam Hinkie’s decision making in the long-term.
Finding a “diamond in the rough” like Covington comes with an added bonus; a cheap, team-friendly contract. He’s set to make just over $1 million each season until the 2017-2018 season when his contract expires. Whether the Sixers are thinking of moving him or not, a player with Covington’s skills at that price for the next three seasons is a huge asset. He’ll be an interesting player to keep an eye on this season and see whether these few weeks are an outlier, or an indicator of great things to come.
All stats per ESPN.com, basketball-reference.com, and basketballinsiders.com