Unless you spent your entire summer sheltering yourself under a boulder, you know exactly what the Minnesota Timberwolves’ new mantra was. They wanted to rid themselves of the prehistoric philosophy of the Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler era, the one that cast such a gloomy shadow over the entire organization. Instead of being glued to the start line, watching the rest of the competition stream ahead, they finally decided to catch up.
After the rise of the Golden State Warriors juggernaut, the blueprint was set. Teams now accompany the same ball and player movement that made Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs championship regulars with a penchant for 3-point-jacking and a laser-focus on getting to the rim and free throw line that’s unrivaled in the annals of NBA history.
With so much change to the concept of what a winning team looks like, there is still one thing that remains the same: Teams need to be rugged defensively. Take the reigning champion Toronto Raptors, who finished fifth in defensive rating in the regular season and fourth in the postseason, as a perfect example.
In Minnesota’s case, they don’t have the personnel to rival those legendary squads. However, they do have one player who suits the modernized game like a hand in a glove: Robert Covington.
He isn’t a star in the traditional sense. He isn’t going to rain buckets or play the part of the unflappable floor general. What he is going to do is provide the sturdiest of bridges between star and role player. He is going to play the right way; the way coaches and organizations alike implore their players to play.
His prowess defensively isn’t a new headline. Being named in the 2017-18 All-Defensive First Team was proof of that. His change of position from combo forward to full-time power forward has taken the bloom off some of the eye-popping steal and block numbers he has boasted before, but that hasn’t changed how much he can impact a game on the less flashy side of the hardwood.
Even with a minor drop-off from the gargantuan standards he’d previously set with his defensive counting stats, he is still one of just five players who are averaging at least 1.5 steals and a block per game. His presence provides a calming effect on the Timberwolves and their franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns. The team’s 16th ranked defensive rating is currently the best they have posted since the 2013-14 season and Towns, the much-maligned superstar, has taken Olympic-sized leaps when it comes to quarterbacking that improved defense.
Thanks to his self-confessed ‘best hands in the league’ Covington is able to swipe down on drivers and knock the ball away habitually. In fact, he might be the best in the league at it. Even on the rare occasion he doesn’t slap the ball onto the leg of his opponent and cause a turnover, he almost certainly saves an easy bucket every time he pulls off one of these beauties.
He isn’t a one-trick pony, though. Trying to isolate on him is a death wish. He regularly meets would-be scorers at their shot’s apex. And he stalks passing lanes like a hungry cheetah waiting in the grass for its unsuspecting prey.
Combine that defensive mastery with his ability to launch from deep and Covington really is the gold standard of 3-and-D role players. After 15 games, he is jacking up 5.6 triples per game and making a tick under 36 percent of them. Those numbers aren’t elite, but it’s worth more than face value considering the extra attention he gets from long-range on a Minnesota squad that is completely devoid of shooting.
With the new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas bringing the Morey-ball game with him from Houston, Minnesota are shooting the third-most 3-pointers per night. Unfortunately, they are only converting a meager 31.3 percent of those shots, the third-worst in the NBA. Having Covington, who can get his shot off in any situation with enough accuracy to keep any defender honest, is a huge coup for the Wolves and another reason he suits Ryan Saunders’ refurbished offensive scheme so snugly.
Since he rose through the then D-League ranks with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the soon-to-be 29-year-old has always had the defense and shooting packed safely in his toolbox. However, he has added some new hardware this season to further improve his new-age game. He is no longer involved in the offense as just a spot-up shooter, he is becoming more adept at getting to the rim and the charity stripe.
So far this season, Covington is boasting a sizzling 71.1 percent shooting clip from within three feet of the rim, which beats out his career-best 67.7 percent from last season. He also is getting to the line at the second-highest rate of his career and converting a career-high 86.1 percent when he gets there. The 3-pointer is obviously a powerful weapon in today’s NBA, but there is still no substitute for getting to the rim and collecting freebies at the line.
According to the chart that is emblazoned on the Timberwolves’ practice court at Mayo Clinic Square, detailing the average points per shot attempt from each and every zone, inside the restricted area (1.30 PPS) and the free throw line (1.57 PPS) are the most efficient spots on the court. That’s where Covington has sharpened his already cutthroat game.
Nobody wakes up one day with that sort of refined finishing ability in their arsenal. It took a bunch of work over the summertime as RoCo recovered from the knee problems that obliterated the final 47 games of his 2018-19 campaign. He frequented Instagram with workout videos at the All Around Game training facility in his native Nashville. Instead of his usual 3-point bombing, they focused more on tightening his handle and softening his touch around the tin.
The results have been immediately noticeable. As late as last season his handle was far too high and he struggled to weave his way through traffic. When he did manage to get past his defender, he witnessed far too many of his close-range shots clang off the rim. Now, that ball is being dribbled lower and with softer hands. He looks calm and under control when he is going at the basket. And his skying percentages tell the tale.
With his dangerous outside stroke always lingering at the back of an opposition coach’s mind, teams are fiercely closing out on Covington. At a recent shootaround media scrum, coach Saunders talked about how teams focus on and plan for his new system’s poster boy.
“What does [Covington] do? He’s a very good 3-point shooter,” said Saunders. “So teams are trying to take him away. He’s been getting more drives to the basket because teams are running him off the 3-point line. That’s standard in the NBA when a guy is of his caliber from beyond the arc,”
He is making the most of those hard closeouts and freedom to play downhill more often. Plays like this just simply weren’t regularly existent over his first six seasons. Now, they seem to be happening multiple times each night. Notice how the quick, piercing crossover that leaves Rui Hachimura in dust and the tough finish through traffic.
Sprinkling this rich vein of form around the rim into a delicious pie that includes scrumptious defense and mouth-watering shooting ability and you can see how Covington provides the trifecta of modern basketball expertise. To make that dessert even tastier, he will be playing this season and the next two on an average annual salary of $12.1 million. Yum.
He isn’t going to get the plaudits of the superhuman Karl-Anthony Towns or the reinvigorated Andrew Wiggins, but what he does is just as important to any success that this surprisingly decent Timberwolves squad will have. He personifies the way Saunders and his coaching brass want to play and want to win.
He is the New Wolves Order.