By: Dan Slaubaugh
Whether you have seen Robert Covington play for two minutes, or watched every single o.ne of his defensive highlight tapes on YouTube, his impact on the court is obvious. When Covington was traded to the Timberwolves on Nov. 10, minds started racing about what this new era of Wolves would look like. Well, Minnesota fans, we are 13 games into the new era, the Wolves are 9-4 in those games, and things are trending upward.
So what is it that Covington does so well to help the Wolves win? Let us dive in.
Covington the spot-up shooter
Need a spot-up bucket? Covington has you covered. The 6'9" sharpshooter is hitting a career-high 39.8 percent on catch-and-shoot triples.
A below average three-point shooting team for much of their existence, the Wolves are experiencing a renaissance from downtown this season and Covington has been a big part of that. Since the trade, the Wolves are shooting 38.3 percent from deep - second best in the league. Before the trade, the Wolves ranked 16th in three-point percentage (35.7).
Effective spot-up shooters are a premium in today's three-point obsessed league. Covington has helped transform the Wolves offense to a more modern-looking one with his knock-down touch and gives the Wolves exactly what they needed - a three-point sniper who doesn't need the ball to be effective.
Covington the all-world defender
What we knew after the trade: Wolves were getting an All-NBA wing defender.
What we didn't know after the trade: Wolves were getting a top three Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
His ability to guard defenders one-on-one, switch, generate deflections, and help defense awareness has transformed the Wolves defensively. Before acquiring Covington, the Wolves ranked 29th in the NBA with a 114.3 defensive rating. Since acquiring Covington, the Wolves rank fourth with a 102.1 defensive rating. In that time frame, Minnesota has faced enough quality offenses (Blazers, Pelicans, Rockets, Celtics, Nuggets, Grizzlies) to the point where it's reasonable to suggest it sticks.
With Covington on the bench, their defensive rating drops to 116.8 -- 1.7 points lower than the league-worst Cleveland Cavaliers. Basically, the Wolves are elite defensively when Covington plays and dreadful when he's doesn't.
When dissecting what makes Covington so good defensively, it's not just his length, lateral quickness, and instincts, but also the contagious energy he brings. And the team is feeding off it. Karl-Anthony Towns - who's 12th in blocked shots this season and trails only Rudy Gobert in contested shots - and Andrew Wiggins have been noticeably more engaged defensively, as has the rest of the team. That engaged energy has propelled Covington to the top of the leaderboards in both steals and deflections.
"Robert makes plays. That's what he does. He's First Team All-Defense for a reason," Towns said after Minnesota's comeback victory over Houston last Monday. "He does things that a lot of people in this league can't do, not from a physical standpoint, just an IQ standpoint. He has that itch for the ball, especially on the defensive end."
Everyone has stepped up their game on defense, and while it's important to give credit to the entire team because basketball is a team sport, Covington's charisma and leadership was the oil change Minnesota's engine needed to excel. Just imagine how motivating it is to watch your teammate meet centers halfway in the air and rip away potential dunks!
Given Minnesota's defensive transformation defensively with him, there's a case to be made he should be the leader in the Defensive Player of the Year race.
The domino effect of Covington
While the team boasted a top-five offense last year, they weren't gelling through the team's first handful of games. Towns deserved more touches. Wiggins looked uncomfortable as ever. Rose provides a spark but sometimes can get a little shot-happy. With Jimmy gone, there's a clear hierarchy now, and it starts with Karl-Anthony Towns at the top.
We're back to witnessing how elite Towns can be offensively on a nightly basis. The man can just take over games at will. Since the trade, he's averaging 22.5 points and 12.9 rebounds on 51.2 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three. Reiterating from above, part of what makes Covington valuable offensively is his ability to contribute without having the ball, which allows for more touches for both Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Per NBA.com, the Wolves have been more efficient offensively since the trade -- averaging two more points per 100 possessions. Towns has especially benefited in a post-Butler era, as his workload AND efficiency has increased - averaging 16.4 attempts per game on 51.2 percent shooting compared to 14.9 attempts on 45.9 percent pre-trade.
The Wolves ceiling over the next five years rests on the shoulders of Towns and Wiggins. It's those two who will be making a combined $54+ million/year through 2022-23. It's those two who have the most upside. So, putting them in the best environment possible to reach that upside seems only rational, right? Right. At that, Covington and Saric are more than willing, and capable, of helping them reach it. "We've got so much love for each other", Towns said after the Rockets win. Figuring out how to make Towns and (especially) Wiggins tick is crucial to the team's future. "Love", aka great chemistry, is a good start.
I don't think I could actually run out of good things to say about RoCo. He allows Tom Thibodeau to sleep peacefully again free from nightmares about constant defensive lapses. He's made Towns a happy man again.
To the Wolves franchise, he has injected life.