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Robert Covington and the Fastest Hands in the West

The veteran defensive stalwart has helped the Clippers maintain pace in the playoff race by being quicker than a hiccup.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

“I probably got the fastest hands in the league when it comes down to it.”

With a sheepish grin, Robert Covington laid claim to something gunslingers in Old West movies have argued over for years.

If you listen to Covington, who stands 6-foot-7 with a wingspan topping at least 7-foot-1, you’ll come away believing every word about how fast those hands truly are. You often will hear athletes claim they’re the best at something, but with Covington you truly accept that he might in fact be correct.

The journey to those quick hands started years ago in Philadelphia, back when Covington was working with Todd Wright, the 76ers’ former head of strength and conditioning as well as an assistant coach. Wright is now with the Clippers operating as the team’s vice president of player performance. Covington, who the Clippers acquired in a trade in early February, is back with a familiar face and producing familiar results.

During their time together in Philadelphia, Wright would run Covington through a drill with strobe lights wherein the player has to read and react to a randomly flashing light by swiping their hand across the face of it, and so on and so forth. It’s a reactionary test that allows players to slowly train their eyes and hands to move in unison even while the mind might be focused on other things.

The results soon arrived.

According to the NBA’s tracking data, Robert Covington has finished in the top-five in deflections each season since 2016-17, except for 2018-19 when he was limited to only 35 games played due to a bone bruise in his right knee that eventually ended his season. It’s those quick hands that allowed Covington to make the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team in 2017-18.

Covington racked up 283 deflections in 2016-17, good for a fourth place finish. He then led the league in both 2017-18 and 2020-21 while being second in 2019-20. Covington currently sits third this season with 173, trailing only San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet.

It’s not just in sheer deflections where Covington has shown his defensive value, either. This season, albeit in only six games, the Clippers have been 21.5 points per 100 possessions better with Covington on the floor ever since his arrival. Prior to Portland trading him, the Trail Blazers were 3.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Covington on the floor, the second-best mark on the team among players who logged considerable minutes for them.

This hasn’t been a one-year thing. In fact, according to Cleaning The Glass, only once in his NBA career has Robert Covington, 31, not seen the team he’s on be better defensively with him on the floor as opposed to off. That came in the 2019-20 season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Covington was traded to the Houston Rockets that season after spending the first 48 games with Minnesota. Houston, you might recall, then heavily leaned into a five-out small-ball system that effectively placed Covington as the team’s starting power forward and, at times, center whenever P.J. Tucker was off the floor.

After his arrival in Houston, Covington logged 726 minutes over 22 games during the regular season. Houston’s defense, which ranked 15th prior to the acquisition, jumped up to ninth after he started playing there. With him on the floor, the Rockets possessed a 105.9 Defensive Rating. That was 9.6 points per 100 possessions better than when he sat.

Those quick hands and even quicker instincts were a large part of the reason, and you’re starting to see why that turned out to be the case, even in a very short period of time with the Clippers. Covington has notched a steal in all six games with the Clippers and presently sits with the longest active streak of games with at least one steal, at 12.

But it’s the variety of ways that Covington can get those deflections and steals that really, well, steals the show.

On this play, Covington is initially guarding Khris Middleton as the Milwaukee Bucks decide to run Middleton off of a double drag with a handoff. The Clippers, as they are known to do under head coach Tyronn Lue, switch the action by having the no-longer-on-the-team Serge Ibaka jump out to meet Middleton when the handoff is made. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is operating as the player handing the ball to Middleton, will dive to the rim, but the Clippers will switch this action by letting Norman Powell ride Antetokounmpo off his path.

This leaves Covington, who got screened by Jrue Holiday, to actually switch onto Holiday. It’s a great set by Milwaukee because if the read by Middleton gets made properly, he might be able to hit Antetokounmpo on the roll to the rim since the Clippers only have Luke Kennard and Terance Mann operating as the low men defensively, thus meaning, most likely, an easy Antetokounmpo dunk. But Middleton swings it to Holiday who has Covington there to greet him.

Holiday has made a living the last couple years of taking players into the mid-post and battering them into submission with his physicality. That’s hard to do with Covington, and when Holiday begins to attack, Covington’s length plays a major factor. Holiday mishandles the ball initially and when he tries to regather, Covington swipes in with his fast hands to deflect the ball away and force a turnover. It was Covington’s first game with the Clippers but already he was playing a major role in affecting one of the game’s premier guards.

Blitzing pick-and-rolls—or “firing” as you’ll often hear Lue call it—has become prevalent across the league in recent years because of how good ball-handlers have become at being able to rise-and-fire if defenses attempt to play drop coverage. It forces ball-handlers to give up the rock while making others—players who normally don’t have to make such advanced reads—operate within the realm of quick-twitch nanosecond reads and reactions.

In this play, we see a little bit of that play itself out. As the Clippers switch the initial ball screen by Golden State, Stephen Curry is going to run into a screen being set by Gary Payton II. While the Clippers did switch that initial screen, this one comes with a caveat: center Isaiah Hartenstein would be the defender that gets switched onto Curry, and the Clippers, under no circumstances, want that to be the case.

Hartenstein and Amir Coffey are going to “fire” at Curry to get him off the ball. Curry hits Payton on the roll, and right now you might be realizing this is exactly the play design that the Warriors would use if Draymond Green was active for them at the moment. Payton is operating in that role on this play. He gets short-roll responsibilities and must decide the correct course of action to take against a Clippers’ defense that is going to attempt to force him into the toughest decision possible.

Terance Mann darts off Jordan Poole on the wing, and we can see that Robert Covington is anchored at the mid-post. The reason for that is because it will allow him to defend two players at once. He can closeout to Poole on the wing should the pass be made there, and he can cover the pass to the shooter in the corner should the ball find its way over to that area.

When Covington realizes that Mann has stifled Payton’s drive, he starts to cheat up to Poole on the wing since everything that Covington has ever seen and learned about basketball tells him the pass is going there. But he doesn’t race out there. The reason for that is because he still has to occupy the passing lane to the shooter in the corner. He can only cheat to the wing when the pass is made there. No sooner, no later.

Payton anticipates Covington darting up to the wing and leaving Nemanja Bjelica open in the corner, and he tries to quickly thread his pass there. But Covington’s quick hands get to the ball before that can happen, and then the veteran forward races to retrieve it, saving it before it goes out of bounds and earning the Clippers a steal in the process.

It’s that level of thinking and mastery of playing this role for so long that has made Covington as good as he is in passing lanes. He knows he has the length to disrupt things in both passing lanes and on closeouts. It’s that knowledge, that level of understanding, that makes him one of the game’s best disruptors on the defensive end.

This ultimately might be the coup de grâce in what makes Robert Covington so special on the defensive end. On the second night of a back-to-back in Phoenix, the Clippers found themselves in a game they had no business having a chance in. Regardless, Covington was playing out of his mind defensively and this play shows quite a bit of the things that he can do.

Phoenix, thanks to having played them in last season’s Western Conference Finals, knows how much the Clippers love to switch, especially down the stretch of games. And the Suns, as we also know, love to run their “Stack” action—sometimes referred to as the “Spain pick-and-roll” or “Snap pick-and-roll”—under the guidance of head coach Monty Williams and the steady hand of point guard Chris Paul.

This play begins with Deandre Ayton setting a cross screen for Cam Johnson at the elbow that Johnson will flare off of to the left wing. That specific action is designed to get the defense reacting on the weakside and keeping one defender occupied while “Stack” takes place in the middle of the floor. Ayton is going to then set a screen for Paul and immediately roll to the basket as the Clippers attempt to switch the action.

Because of the switch, Isaiah Hartenstein is thrown onto Paul while Ayton dives to the rim. But Devin Booker is looking to set a screen on Ayton’s man, thus allowing the big man to roll unimpeded to the rim for a potential alley-oop. However, the Clippers switch this in such a way that Booker isn’t able to actually screen anyone, and part of the reason this works so well for the Clippers is that Covington is sagging back at the dotted line in an attempt to deter the pass over the top to Ayton.

For a very split second, it appears that Ayton might be open for the lob as Covington and Coffey get hung up momentarily in their switch recognition, but Paul isn’t able to make the read over the much taller Hartenstein. Coffey is then switched onto Booker up top and now the Suns have to go into their secondary action, which really isn’t too bad of a thing considering Paul has the mismatch advantage with Hartenstein defending him and, theoretically, Ayton is down low against Covington.

Hartenstein does a very admirable job moving his feet and keeping Paul from getting to the sweet spot in the mid-range, and Paul becomes infatuated with feeding Ayton down low. However, Covington is doing a good job of being physical with the much taller Ayton and effectively neuters this entire possession for Phoenix by using his length and hand speed to deflect and steal the entry pass from Paul.

Being able to utilize Covington as the back line protector against a big man like Ayton is no small thing, especially when realizing that his ability to play stout defense down low and use his agility to knife his way around a deep seal is something that could see him garner more playing time over the coming days and weeks as the Clippers look to maintain their spot in the Western Conference playoff race.

While it’s still early in Robert Covington’s Clippers’ tenure, the impact he’s made in a limited sample size is quite impressive, and with him slated to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, the chatter from fans as it pertains to retaining his services will surely reverberate through the social media halls. To be fair, it’ll be understandable.

Covington is still only 31 years old, and while he has played just under 16,000 regular season minutes since his debut—good for 58th amongst all players in that time—his role has been that of a very malleable hybrid forward-center that can fit in almost any situation. Finding that level of player, chiefly for a team like the Clippers that will be without cap space, is tough. Thankfully, the Clippers will have his Bird Rights and will, in all likelihood, look to retain him.

There’s never such a thing as “too many wings” in this era of the NBA. And while the team has been without Kawhi Leonard for the entirety of the 2021-22 season, as well as Paul George ever since Christmas, they still have Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris at their disposal alongside Covington. Not to mention the minutes that Terance Mann and Amir Coffey have soaked up in a hybrid guard-forward role themselves.

On the flip side, should all those players return next season, we’re looking at the possibility of having to find minutes for at least seven wings. Two of them, obviously, are your stars. But the other five are going to have to get minutes, as well, and that’s going to be a tough sell for some of them. Ultimately, one or more could find themselves in a new environment. But what makes Covington intriguing beyond just this season is his versatility at different spots on the floor and the way that he embraces the intricacies of his role.

“I take pride in being the disruptor and that’s what I’m here for,” Covington said after Monday’s game against Golden State. “To be the disruptor in all aspects throughout the game.”

Being able to play the four and five while providing switchable defense as a back line protector and disruptor is something that should endear Covington to the front office as the team makes a push to the postseason. The defense that he’s played, thanks to those fast reflexes and hands, make him a likely candidate to find himself back in Los Angeles for next season.

And, who knows, like those gunslingers in the Old West films, maybe those fast hands will fetch him a pretty penny for his services.

The Gunslinger wouldn’t have it any other way.

You can find Justin Russo’s daily content on the LA Clippers by subscribing to his Patreon feed, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @FlyByKnite.

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