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The Impact of Robert Covington’s Absence

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A quick look at some numbers.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of discussion about how injuries have hurt the Wolves over the second half of the season, and how that should affect how we judge this team, what it needs going forward, and especially what it means for our judgment of interim coach Ryan Saunders.

Robert Covington came to the Wolves like a breath of fresh air after the rotting, fetid start of the season before the Jimmy Butler trade. The Wolves won eight of their first 11 games with Covington in the fold and he was seen as the key driving force behind the surge. Things slowed, as they do, and the Wolves went 12-11 overall with RoCo prior to his injury. Since, they have gone 12-13.

Net rating tells a somewhat more nuanced story: With RoCo, the Wolves had a +3.3 net rating (per NBA.com,) which suggests their 12-11 record was a bit unlucky—it was the ninth best in the league over that period and yet they still managed only one game to the good side of .500. Since, their net rating has been +0.1, which more closely befits their 12-13 stretch.

The difference has been entirely (and more) on defense, which is not surprising given Covington’s deserved reputation on that end of the floor. His ability to hound opposing wings and disrupt sets made a huge difference for a Wolves team that has been deficient in these areas in recent memory.

From his arrival through his injury, the Wolves sported a better-than-average 107.2 defensive rating. Since he went down, the offense has actually been better, but the defense has collapsed to the tune of a 111.9 rating, good for 22nd in the league.

There have been other injuries along the way, most notably to the point guard core. Tyus Jones missed 13 games leading into the All-Star break, and the Wolves went 6-7 in that stretch, though they had a positive net rating. (Five of those losses were by five points or less, it was a key disappointing stretch of the season.) Jeff Teague has been out for two stints, first in late December during which the Wolves went 4-5, and then in late January and early February, coinciding with Jones’ absence, when they went 3-5.

So what can we take from this? Are the Wolves basically a .500 team with or without their secondary players, with their overall record hurt by the disastrous Butler-inspired start of the season? Has the absence of RoCo and others been merely a small nuisance, not a significant detriment?

Let me suggest a cup-half-full take instead: The offensive improvement since Covington’s injury (from 110.5 to 112.0 in offensive rating) is due to non-RoCo factors, while the defensive collapse has much to do with his absence.

It’s hard to construct an argument that the Wolves have been scoring better because Covington has not been on the floor. While not a dynamic ball-handler or shot creator, Covington served as an effective floor-spacer (37 percent from three on 6.7 attempts per game) who didn’t try to do much else.

Many of his minutes have been taken by Josh Okogie, a promising and energetic rookie but one who is shooting much worse and turning it over more without doing appreciably more to create for others.

There are some smaller factors, Dario Saric’s hot stretch into the All-Star break, the return of Anthony Tolliver to the rotation and his hot shooting among them, but the biggest factor by far has been the otherworldly play of Karl-Anthony Towns. The Wolves are getting him the ball more (usage over 30 percent over January and February) and he’s responded by dominating as much as any big man in the league. He’s averaging 27.3 points per on 56/41/83 splits since the New Year and dragging the Wolves offense with him.

Defensively of course is where RoCo’s absence has been most keenly felt. The Wolves are turning opponents over significantly less (nearly two fewer per game) without him; They badly miss his 2.3 steals per game and his disruptive capabilities. They also miss his smart rotations and shot contesting, particularly when others get beat off the dribble. Opponents’ points in the paint are up from 45 per game with RoCo to 49.5 per since his injury.

So the suggestion here is that this roster is capable of the best of both worlds: With a Towns centered offense, they can be strong on that end of the floor, and with a healthy Covington they can return to the acceptable level of defense they were enjoying when he arrived.

This is not to say that changes aren’t needed to the roster as we head toward another off-season, they certainly are. But perhaps things are not quite as dire as they might seem. While not a title contending group, it’s not unreasonable to think a healthy season from Towns and Covington could lead this team to a 50 win season in the right circumstances.

That’s something to hold on to.