On the morning of Nov. 10, Robert Covington had no idea the 76ers were finalizing details to package him in a trade for Jimmy Butler. From Sam Hinkie to Bryan Colangelo, from tanking to playing in the second round of the playoffs, Covington had been through it all in Philadelphia, and it was about to end.
He was scrolling through his phone. Covington was in Memphis and in less than an hour he was supposed to be at a game-day team meeting. Then he clicked on a link that included his name.
“I found out on social media,” he said. “It was like five minutes before the team meeting, then Brett [Brown, the Sixers' coach] called me and EB [general manager Elton Brand] called me, but I already knew. By then it was already out there. That’s how I found out.”
The Sixers sent Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a future second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Butler and Justin Patton.
Trades are a part of the NBA. It’s a business that often uproots people in an instant. Covington doesn’t have any hard feelings about being traded, though he admits he was blindsided by the news. The way the news was presented to him, the way it was handled, and how it’s been handled since, is what has left a bitter taste in his mouth.
He said that when Brown called him, the conversation was cold and simple. He was told that he’d been packaged in a trade for Butler. That was all.
“It was really clear-cut and dry,” he said of the phone call. “As far as having that respect level, and for how much we’d been through, I would have thought it had to be completely different, but it wasn’t. Considering how much time relationship-wise and everything that went down. ... It was weird."
Upon learning of Covington’s comments, both Brown and Brand said they were going to reach out to Covington immediately.
“I text him,” Brown said. “I didn’t know that he was feeling this way.”
Everything that went down over the last five years was what Covington was thinking of. Being Hinkie’s diamond in the rough, being on a team that, by design, couldn’t win even when it tried. There were the losses, the hurt, the pain, the injuries that kept stars sidelined, the drama, the front-office turnover, all of the bizarre things that could only happen in Sixers land. Brown and Covington were there for it all.
Covington said that he has talked to Brown a couple of times, exchanged texts, but it’s not like it was before, and he hasn’t spoken to Brand since the day of the trade.
Covington has known Brand through several stages of the GM’s career. They were teammates whose lockers were next to each other. As Covington rose from undrafted, unknown D-League player to one of the best defenders in the NBA, Brand became the GM of the Delaware Blue Coats and then the 76ers.
They were close. But now, it’s different.
“It probably was cold,” Brand said of the split with Covington. “I would talk to those guys about anything and everything ... and now we don’t talk anymore. With my new role and my new job, it’s tough to make those decisions. The relationship is real, but it’s tough because it becomes transactional. I can see how he would think it was cold, for sure.”
Brand said he also hasn’t spoken to Bayless or Saric. In describing his role as GM, he uses the example of an ex-athlete who becomes a member of the media. That athlete is now tasked with reporting on his friends, or being critical of them and organizations they once played for.
The pendulum swings both ways, Brand said — it has been weird for him, too. Is that friendship severed?
“I don’t know if he hates me,” Brand said. “I’m rooting for him. It might make me look bad, but I am.”
It was the first time Covington had been part of big deal. He’d heard rumblings over the summer about possibly being part of a deal if the Sixers tried to land Kawhi Leonard. He tried not to read trade rumors, but he asked Brown about the Leonard trade.
“I was told over the summer that there was no chance that I would be traded,” Covington said. “But things happen. I talked to Brett numerous times. At the same time, you saw everything that transpired with Kawhi and DeMar [DeRozan, the main principles in the trade that sent Leonard from San Antonio to Toronto], so anything can happen.”
It’s not out of the ordinary for coaches and front offices to tell players they won’t be traded, knowing full well the opposite could be true. Why would you want to make a player feel unwanted before anything happens?
When it did happen, it was hectic, and it hasn’t really slowed down. Covington packed what he could into eight bags and headed to Minnesota. Two of his dogs are in currently in his hometown of Chicago with his mother, another dog is with a trainer in Philadelphia (the same person who trains Ben Simmons’ dog). After Covington left Philadelphia, his mom and his girlfriend were tasked with what was left behind, including his two snakes, Max and Elle.
Covington didn’t realize how much he had to pack, how rooted he was in Philadelphia, and what it would take to move his life. He thought about how he wouldn’t be around to see The Process to the very end.
“I definitely had that thought,” he said. “Being there through everything, the longest-tenured player, I would have liked to see it through. But the picture ended up differently and you just have to attack whatever opportunity is in front of you. That day I was just trying to process everything and I couldn’t believe it, my family couldn’t believe it. But life is about adapting.”
On Jan. 2 in Boston, Covington was sidelined because of a right-knee bone bruise that is still keeping him from playing. Though he was injured, he was looking forward to the next day because after weeks of living out of a hotel room, he was finally moving into his new home in Minnesota.
The move is big for Covington. He feels like he’s finally settling in and that the transition is over. The fans have welcomed him, he enjoys his teammates, and he feels valued. He is averaging 14.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in 34.7 minutes per game with Minnesota, up from 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 33.8 minutes with the Sixers this season.
Despite the way things ended in Philadelphia, Covington said he doesn’t hold any grudges.
“It’s unfortunate, but you move on,” he said. “I built relationships there that will last a lifetime. I’ve been through the trenches with them and still have the same respect for them as guys who I’ve gone through tough battles with. For the majority, there’s a good understanding and good relationship.”
For Covington, there’s just one more thing that he’s been looking forward to since the trade. As soon he found out he was traded to Minnesota, he looked at the schedule and made a mental note of Jan. 15.
The Timberwolves will be in Philadelphia and Covington will play against the Sixers for the first time. When asked what he expects the crowd to be like, he said he isn’t sure.