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Robert Covington is the NBA role player every team needs

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Why Covington’s 3-and-D skill set fits anywhere.

Robert Covington celebrates for the Timberwolves.
The Wolves are a different team with Robert Covington.

With a dry understanding of his new team’s offensive plays, defensive concepts, and no expectation to even start, Robert Covington played 41 minutes in his first game with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “I thought that I was gonna ease my way into it and learn the system,” he laughs. “But Thibs wasn’t having that.”

As teammates shouted instructions from the bench, Covington scored 13 points in a seven-point win. There was no pressure to finish plays that were designed with him specifically in mind because those didn’t exist. Instead he played off instinct and adrenaline, confident in a skill-set that can fit just about wherever it goes and take advantage of opportunities that materialized organically.

A knee injury ended Covington’s 2018-19 season on New Year’s Eve. But in 22 games he played before that the Wolves were 12-10 with a top-five defense. He’s still confident they would’ve made the playoffs had he never gotten hurt. It was an experience that sums up what Covington is, and why, assuming he can stay healthy, very good teams won’t think twice about trading for him this season. This is the NBA’s most amicable role player, someone serviceable enough to nudge one championship contender ahead of the next, a neat complement on both ends who’s seemingly more useful in games played at the highest level than for an organization that — 3-0 start and all! — is more focused on incremental growth.

Last year’s Wolves expected to see the postseason. This one does not. The only player with more NBA experience than Covington — who turns 29 in December — is Jeff Teague. There’s a new front office, too, one that insists they view him as a part of their present and future.

His on-court influence hasn’t hurt. Covington has spent almost every minute of this season at the four beside Karl-Anthony Towns, providing Minnesota’s franchise player with all the spacial benefits he’s never really had. It’s early, but the combination of that shift — away from bigs like Taj Gibson, Gorgui Dieng, and Kevin Garnett to someone who’s both more comfortable behind the three-point line and a great defender — plus Ryan Saunders’ new five-out offense has turned Towns into the MVP candidate he’s destined to be. That’s what Covington does: let superstars be great.

He’s a streaky outside shooter with a green light from 30 feet who drilled 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot tries last year. Covington knows his team isn’t winning a bunch of games if he’s the one taking a majority of their shots, though. He’s more like a necessary threat who opens everything up for Minnesota’s actual first and second options. But when the ball isn’t coming his way, Covington is also smart about making himself available. He finished in the 95th percentile on cuts with the Timberwolves last year. In Minnesota’s new offense, he’ll have plenty of opportunity to hit gaps when the defense doubles Towns.

The other end is his bread and butter. Covington is long, smart, and pesky enough to disarm the league’s most explosive scorers. Three years ago, he finished fourth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Two years ago, he made First-Team All-Defense. He pressures offenses into feeling like their entire goal is to escape his team’s vice grip instead of executing a plan to score against it. A big test this year will come against teams with bulky frontcourts, your Indiana’s, Detroit’s, Philly’s, and Los Angeles Lakers’ of the world. Covington needs to battle bigger players, then slide out onto quicker guards without experiencing the fastball-to-knuckleball vertigo that such immediate change can cause. On a team that wants to switch one through four as much as they can, Covington flashed his worth in a recent game against the Miami Heat.

This seems minor, but the result isn’t a coincidence. The goal of every defensive possession is to keep the offense from doing what it wants to do, and in snuffing Tyler Herro out as he curls around a DHO (dribble hand-off), that’s what Covington does. “He has a defensive component and is a defensive identity guy,” Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders said. “And so guys can’t help but come with it a little more when he’s out there.”

There are limits to Covington’s game. He doesn’t handle the ball, create for teammates, or draw fouls. But all that is fine so long as his surroundings allow it to be. In a league that’s drifting from specialists to generalists — those who can defend multiple positions, shoot threes, and extemporize off the bounce when a situation calls for it — Covington’s on-court value is steady. Off the court, it blooms.

In a universe full of iron-willed ego and self-belief that borders on fantasy, no locker room is always happy. A never-ending battle between altruism and greed is at all times set on a low boil. Some players are content with what they have. Most want more. They drain energy from others instead of adding to the greater good. Covington is more part of the solution than a problem. He organizes card games, understands and acknowledges his spot on the team’s pecking order, and knows how to negotiate with strong personalities without stepping on toes. Covington says what needs to be said, and people listen when he does.

“He’s a guy who comes into the locker room and has an energy and an aura about him that everyone loves,” Towns said. “It helps a lot, all of us, just pick up our energy, pick up our intensity.”

But until the trade deadline passes, there’s an unspoken dilemma Covington faces every day. It’s difficult to settle into a new environment, invest time, and develop chemistry with teammates when the possibility of a move looms overhead. Covington dealt with it two summers ago, when the Sixers were rumored to involve him in several blockbuster deals, be it for Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler. That, plus a knee injury that wasn’t getting better, sent Covington into a dark place he’s just emerging from now.

His focus today, understandably, is on the Wolves. He doesn’t discuss trade rumors with anyone in his private life, and spends his free time with a book instead of a cell phone or television. “I’m just trying to train my mind to do something different,” he said. “I don’t want to be just sitting on the couch in front of the TV all the time. I want to be learning stuff.”

So far, the organization and him are on the same page. Privately, they believe Covington can help point them in the right direction. The front office and coaching staff has told him how much they admire his personal story, and appreciate what someone from The Process 76ers can bring to a young, impressionable roster that needs to know how to attack every day. He matters in Minnesota.

But if/when this team starts to struggle, offers for Covington will be made. He’s “only” guaranteed $36.4 million over the next three years, which makes him all the more attractive, and there aren’t many players with his skill-set that could be available in February. “In a way,” Saunders said. “[Covington] is something every team looks for.”

Again, he fits just about everywhere. Pick a contender, or even a team that wants to make the playoffs. Guys who don’t need the ball to positively impact games are increasingly important in a season where so many stars are spread around. He would help Houston, Los Angeles, Utah, Denver, Portland, Dallas, Golden State, Boston, Toronto, and several other cities I’m forgetting to mention.

Even if the Wolves fall out of the playoff race, though, moving Covington won’t sit well with the most important person in the organization. “He’s probably one of my closest friends,” Towns said before a season-opening win over the Brooklyn Nets. The days of upsetting a franchise player like Michael Jordan by trading Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright are long over. Moves like that are no longer made without careful consideration from the star it affects. Unless Gersson Rosas is willing to bet he can win a championship before 2024, when Towns’ current contract expires, placating his star at every turn is a top priority.

As one league source put it: “Towns is looking at a productive 3-and-D guy who can help him win games and you’re saying ‘Oh yeah, well we’re gonna get this young unproven guy or future first-round pick, or both,’ and he’s kind of like...that’s a tricky balance.”

None of that may ultimately matter if Minnesota is somehow able to sustain its hot start, but assuming they slow a very complicated situation is on the horizon. Either Covington digs in and becomes a key part of a franchise that’s desperate to move in the right direction, or a contender makes an offer Rosas can’t refuse, even with the risk of alienating his superstar. It’s a tough decision that reflects how fickle the NBA truly is. For this season’s landscape, it also shows how pivotal Covington can be.