There are a lot of things that could have been going through Robert Covington’s mind on Friday night as he set his feet on an open patch of court and watched the ball swing in his direction.
The previous five weeks had been another one of the roller coaster rides that have typified the fifth-year forward’s career. While he’d shaken off a recent 16-for-60 slump by making 20 of his last 46, even this stretch had been interrupted by a memorable 0-for-5 in Miami. With Covington, performances like that seem to stick a little longer in the craw of the public consciousness. Barely six minutes into Friday night’s tilt against the miserable Nets at the Wells Fargo Center, he was standing near the sideline in the home end of the court when a shout of “TAKE OUT ROCO” tumbled down from the stands.
Yet three quarters later, there the Sixers were, staring down the barrel of a brutal late-season loss, a two-point deficit on the scoreboard, 39, 38, 37 seconds remaining, two Nets defenders charging at JJ Redick, a soft spot bubbling open deep on the right wing. And there was Covington, sliding into the void, and squaring his body, and thinking the only thing he could possibly think.
“You ain’t gonna know the outcome of a shot if you don’t take it,” he said later.
— NBA (@NBA) March 17, 2018
Nearly four years have passed since Covington first emerged on the scene as one of the less-publicized test cases in Sam Hinkie’s process. An undrafted four-man out of Tennessee State with an intriguing combination of athleticism and soft hands, he was the exact sort of flier a team in the Sixers’ position could take while tearing their roster down to the studs. After a seven-game stint with the Rockets ended on waivers, he landed in Philly and immediately began extending his rope. His first 27 games with the team saw him shoot 42.8 percent from deep while embodying the defensive identity Brett Brown hoped to instill in his team.
A lot has changed in the interim. Of the 25 players who saw action for the Sixers in that 2014-15 season, Covington is the only one that remains. There is a way to read his resilience as one of those underdog stories that the city in which he plays is supposed to embrace. Just a kid from Chicago who started with nothing and continues to show up to work with his hard hat each day. He is one of only three players on the roster to appear in at least 66 of 68 games for a team that is just one game away from owning one of the Eastern Conference’s top three playoff seeds.
Yet, he also wears a bull’s-eye: a tribute, perhaps, to the contempt that familiarity can breed. No doubt, he is a player prone to maddening stretches, one of which lasted for the whole first half of last season. He shot just 29.7 percent from downtown in those first 40 games, often to the accompaniment of a chorus of boos from a home crowd weary of four straight seasons of losing. He opened the season on a tear, connecting on 48.7 percent of his attempts in his first 15 games, but the last four months have been a gradual regression to the mean.
At the same time, Covington’s mean is a baseline that has increased in value as the weapons that surround him have continued to improve. The shot against the Nets — a 26-footer with 35.9 seconds left that gave the Sixers the lead for good in a game they would win, 120-116 —was emblematic of this. A defense that had sagged into the paint in preparation for a Ben Simmons drive, scrambled out with a kick-out pass to Redick setting up deep, which left Covington with a wide-open look, a situation where he has converted on 40-plus percent of his attempts over the last two seasons.
“I feel like he’s going to make it every time he shoots the ball,” Simmons said, “no matter where it’s from.”
Covington’s polarizing presence isn’t all that surprising given that his production itself tends toward the poles. Through 66 games, he had a .403 shooting percentage in the 37 wins and .341 in the 29 losses, a 62-point spread that is markedly higher than the splits of the teams’ two other regular long-range shooters (Redick is shooting 20 points lower in wins, Dario Saric 33 points higher).
Then again, that speaks to the importance of Covington’s presence on the court. After falling behind early against the Nets on Friday, it was their three-point shooting that allowed the Sixers to claw their way back into the game.
“If you pass up on shots, then you never know if the next one is going to go in,” Covington said. “If you still have that rhythm, you still have the shot, you still have to take it no matter what. A lot of times, I take shots that feel good but they don’t go in, but the next one might go in. You don’t know if you don’t take it.”
At 38-30, the Sixers are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 14 games remaining. While Covington’s most important role will always come on the defensive end of the court, his ability to knock down shots will play a critical role in how far they go.
“This is something we haven’t experienced in a very long time, the position that we are in,” he said. “So this next month is going to be crucial for us. It’s going to allow us to dictate if we are going to have home-court advantage or if we are going to be away. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Not a lot of people get to experience this.”
It’s a spot that any shooter would embrace.