Playoff Lessons: Robert Covington’s shot selection
Episode 2 of
this series looks at how Covington can improve his game to be more reliable for
the Sixers’ offense.
Process Philadelphia 76ers can learn a lot from their first playoff
experience. This series will look at key takeaways for different players, and
what they should develop moving forward.
Besides Ben Simmons’
lack of a jumper and too many late-game breakdowns to remember, the
Philadelphia 76ers had another glaring problem as they were eliminated from the
playoffs by the Boston Celtics:
two-way wing play. Marco Belinelli and
J.J. Redick in particular can both provide quick offense, spread the floor and
hit tough 3s to keep defenses scrambling, but they were liabilities on defense.
Whether it was an Al Horford mismatch
out of a pick-and-roll or Marcus Smart bullying
in the post, Belinelli’s and Redick’s lack of size was attacked.
While he obviously couldn’t
cover completely for the weaknesses of Redick and Belinelli, this is
where Robert Covington should
thrive, as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D wings. That’s what he is at his
The playoffs weren’t for
Covington, though. He had some solid outings against Miami and shot 37.5
percent from deep in the first round (close to his 36.9 percent stroke from the
regular season, including good volume with 2.5 makes per game), but he fell off
a cliff by his typical standards in round two against Boston. His 3-point
percentage dropped to 25 percent for the series, accompanied by just 6.8 points
per game and far more lackadaisical defensive breakdowns than you’d expect.
When Covington can’t find his shot and he’s falling asleep on simple Jayson Tatumbackdoor
cuts, it’s not surprising that he had the ninth-worst playoff net rating out of
the 11 Sixers who played in at least three games.
Let’s not focus on defense,
though. After earning an All-Defensive First Team spot this season for
maximizing his disruptive length and versatility, that’s not a problem.
Instead, I’m going to look at what Covington should be thinking about this
summer as he looks to learn from his first playoff run, which was a perfect
microcosm of an issue that's always hurt him and contributed to his nature as a
streaky shooter: shot selection.
Shooting too early
Covington’s playoff shot
chart isn’t pretty. Despite looking very Morey-ball-esque with a wave of 3s, a
sprinkle of layups and only a handful of mid-range attempts, the vast majority
of his shots were way below league-average efficiency. Not a single speck of
orange looks about right after watching him.
You can also see that
Covington took plenty of 3s from well beyond the arc. Which, despite being a
good way to keep defenders on their toes and pull them even further away the
the paint to open up lanes for teammates, isn’t so great when you’re missing
and launching shots at unwise moments.
It’s easy to say Covington
just missed shots in the playoffs, and that’s certainly part of it. “The NBA is
a make or miss league” and all that. But there are more specific problems with
his shooting, one of which is firing too early in the shot clock.
A fair amount of those
non-corner 3s came with a lot of time left on the clock, with Covington
ignoring the idea of waiting for a better shot or looking for teammates. And
when you’re in a cold streak, as Covington was throughout the playoffs (he only
had four games where he shot above 33.3 percent from deep), these generally
aren’t the shots that snap you out of it.
Just look at the attempts
in the clip below if your eyeballs aren’t too sore from watching the bricks
see on the first play that Covington could have easily pump faked, kept the
attention of both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and hit Ersan Ilyasvova in space
along the wing. Or on the second play, where Covington could have made an extra
pass or done literally anything else to find something better for the Sixers’
offense with 19 seconds left on the clock — in a situation like this, down 12
points with only six minutes left, Covington needs to be know how to cherish
possessions with more composed play.
The Sixers do need
Covington to take 3s early in the clock if he gets an open look. It’s just
knowing when to hold back in tough, contested situations and making extra
passes to relocate to space off the ball that Covington needs to work on.
Shooting out of rhythm
It’s important to take some
pull-ups and quick-trigger 3s when curling around screens or on the move. Those
are the shots that keep defenders on their heels. Unlike his teammates Redick
and Marco Belinelli, though, it’s not Covington’s strong suit. And even with
that mindset, he does like to make life difficult for himself. Shooting when
contested, off-balance, or over pump-faking his way out of space can all bother
him at times.
Here, Covington actually
had a great open look early in the shot clock after bringing the ball up the
court, giving the ball to Ben Simmons, and shifting to space on the wing. With
only three Celtics back on defense, he had a ton of space to take an open shot.
This was a time when he should have fired without hesitation. Yet he threw himself out of rhythm,
pump faking unnecessarily to gave Terry Rozier enough
time to close out:
This play couldn’t be a
better example of Covington shooting himself out of rhythm — it’s like there’s
no comfortable middle ground between being overly cautious and chucking. In
these instances, you have to shoot immediately, to both take your attempt in
one fluid motion and to avoid letting the defense recover.
Of course, it’s important
to note that Covington did miss some easier shots, too. In the playoffs, he
shot 26.3 percent on open 3s and 27.3 percent on on wide open 3s. That said,
some of those shots were so open because he shot them from so far beyond the
arc. Tightly contested 3s also accounted for 1.6 of his 4.8 attempts per game.
His opponents (primarily the Celtics) deserve some credit for that, but
Covington not always knowing when to hold back is part of it as well.
Similarly to Joel Embiid (whose
passing got a lot of attention in my first episode of this
series), the Sixers' offense could really benefit from some
improved playmaking from Covington. Even though he never will (and never
should) be required to create for others out of pick-and-rolls or crossover
fuelled drives, looking to attack closeouts more and keep the ball moving would
be an ideal way to improve. Cutting down some of his ugly 3s in the process
wouldn’t be bad either.
This is a perfect example
of what Covington can do when he puts his mind to it. He lets Rozier flail out
to contest the shot, waits for Aron Baynes to help away from Embiid, then hits
his man for a dunk:
It just doesn’t happen
enough. You can see this from the shots above and when looking back at
Covington’s assists from the playoffs (there are far more simple swing passes
to shooters, rather than driving and kicking past closeouts). 65.8 percent of
all his field goal attempts this season were 3s and Covington is seriously
limited when using his dribble.
The threat he poses from 3,
though, especially as someone so willing to shoot, does force defenders to
close out hard and should create opportunities for more plays like the one
Covington will never be the
smartest offensive player. He’ll probably never be a 40-percent 3-point shooter
either. But he still has all the tools to thrive at both ends of the floor with
this growing Sixers core. If he stays (as in doesn't get sent away in a trade
for, oh, I don't know, Kawhi Leonard),
his potential improvement comes down to mental adjustments and sharpening what
he can do with a few dribbles. As he approaches his fifth season as a starter,
that shouldn’t be too much to ask for.