Think back to the flagship genes of recent Defensive Player of the Year winners. Rudy Gobert is the NBA’s premier rim protector. Draymond Green can literally defend every position, is brilliant both on and off the ball and boasts unparalleled IQ and intensity. It’s why he’s an all-time great on that end. Kawhi Leonard engulfs the most prolific perimeter scorers with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and catcher’s mitt paws. Peek even further back and Gobert’s ancestors of the paint, Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard, wave hello.
If that pantheon were to usher in another member just past the quarter pole of the 2018-19 season, Robert Covington should be the selection. And he’d be remembered for his atypical defensive acumen, crafting a reputation rooted in off-ball artistry and instincts.
This isn’t to imply Covington is a subpar on-ball defender. While he struggles to contain zippy and shifty guards in spurts, he’s collectively above average and can range from floor maestros to power forwards. But he’s arguably the best off-ball defender the Association has to offer.
He leads the NBA steals at 2.3 per game — it’s up to 2.8 since joining the Minnesota Timberwolves 10 games ago — and is 16th in blocks at 1.5. The only other players who sit among the top 20 in both categories are Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol, fellow Defensive Player of the Year Candidates. Covington morphs into an octopus away from the action, with two swirling limbs feeling more like eight tentacles, always seemingly in the correct position to make offenses uncomfortable.
If the thesis was “Robert Covington wields an uncommon blend of length, savvy and instincts,” the clips above would serve as corresponding evidence. Few players are able to match those traits. Covington’s faculty to identify passing lanes or read plays before they materialize and promptly explode their core is a consistent display of defensive IQ that makes him such a vaunted roamer.
Per 100 possessions (providing a level playing field for those who existed in slower eras pace-wise), he’s totaling 3.1 steals and 2.0 blocks, benchmarks only met by Michael Jordan (2x), Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Gerald Wallace (30-plus minutes per game to weed out low-usage players). In essence, Covington’s degree and type of activity have been matched in history by three former Defensive Players of the Year and Wallace — once a valuable Swiss Army knife stopper and 2009-10 All-Defensive First Team member.
Not only is he stapling shiny box-score numbers to his game, but he also ranks third league-wide in deflections (3.7). If Covington isn’t nabbing the steal, he’s triggering hellish offensive possessions for opponents that drag on late into the shot clock. That is valuable. It cuts down on the time teams have to execute actions and places an emphasis on crisp sets. If one play doesn’t work, the likelihood of there being ample time remaining to execute another shrinks. When that’s the case, fewer points are produced, contributing to Covington’s status as a defensive metrics deity.
He’s first in Jacob Goldstein’s Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (plus-3.30), second in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (plus-4.40) and since coming to Minnesota, he’s manufactured a 97.0 individual defensive rating.
Individual defensive rating can be noisy and reliant on surrounding personnel but the Timberwolves’ defense is 8.0 points better with him on the floor — Minnesota’s third-best on-off split over that span. The only players with wider chasms are Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng, who have played fewer than half as many minutes as Covington since his arrival. He isn’t leaning on the talents of others; he’s sparking a revolution in the Twin Cities as the Wolves have the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (100.4) in his 10 games.
Jimmy Butler was brought in to do that very thing but it quickly became apparent Tom Thibodeau’s unimaginative offensive scheme — largely dependent on Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns’ talents — wouldn’t enable the All-Star to approach his full potential on defense every position. Playing nearly 37 minutes a night, Butler’s body broke down and he was sidelined for 17 games with a torn meniscus late in the season, which likely relegated him to All-Defensive Second Team behind Covington, who was a First Team honoree. Covington, a complementary scorer, can’t commandeer an offense the way Butler does. He does not have to reserve gas in the tank; he has free range as to expend energy as an off-ball defender.
Covington’s start to the season isn’t fluky. He finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting two seasons ago, holds the aforementioned First Team ribbon and has been in the top five of DRPM each of the past three years. It’s also clear he’s a portable defender. He excelled with the Philadelphia 76ers and is doing the same in Minnesota. Playing alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could cloud some of his individual impact but that’s no longer the case.
What makes him elite beyond the gaudy steal and block totals are the nuances of his game. Expect Covington to handcuff top-tier scorers on the ball and you might be disappointed, left wondering why he’s so revered. While on-ball defense is flashy and important, that’s only a portion of the grunge-work pie. It can be easy to miss many of his effective plays, though specifically tracking him for a single game provides a newfound affinity for his craft.
Ask him to stunt on a drive and wall off a path to the rim or dig down into the post and force a kick-out pass, and he’ll do those with precision. When Covington is within reach of opponents’ dashes inside, not a soul is safe from his cruel, ball-snatching tendencies:
On a night-to-night basis, he soaks up messes as well as anyone in the league — even if Draymond Green has a higher ceiling in that realm. Those are not characteristics singular to him. Where he distinguishes himself from defensive peers is that he’s a wing whose off-ball awareness and activity are the foundation of his award candidacy, not his one-on-one shut-down skills. Flanked by a dearth of capable on-ball stoppers in Minnesota, Covington’s team defense holds even more gravity.
In an era swept up by switching, Covington can battle four positions and consistently turn a profit. That’s not even hyperbole. He ranks fourth in Krishna Narsu’s versatility metric and has spent at least 10 percent of his time guarding every designation this season, aside from centers.
There are certain subtleties and unconventional vibes to Covington’s defense that isolate him from traditional molds. That shouldn’t serve as reasons for exclusion from the Defensive Player of the Year locker room, though. Perhaps in the coming years, we’ll look back and laud Covington as the pioneer of another heralded defensive archetype: an off-ball zealot with a nose for chaos.
He rode that brand to establish an elite unit with the Sixers last season and now, he’s doing the same in new threads. Wherever he travels, the footprints of a lockdown infantry follow closely behind. Soon, he should be carrying a new trophy for his efforts on this journey.
All stats are accurate before the start of games on Dec. 4