Let Robert Covington Be Weird
Though Robert Covington initially received the bulk of the playing time from Nurse after being traded to Philadelphia, he has been slowly supplanted by Marcus Morris Sr. in the rotation.
Daniel Olinger is a writer for the Rights To Ricky Sanchez, and author of “The Danny” column, even though he refuses to be called that in person. He can be followed on X @dan_olinger.
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Against my better judgment, I posted a poll on Thursday to gauge how Sixers’ fans felt on a certain subject matter:
Though Robert Covington initially received the bulk of the playing time from Nurse after being traded to Philadelphia, he has been slowly supplanted by Marcus Morris Sr. in the rotation. It was one thing when Morris started in Joel Embiid-less games to maintain rotation integrity. But it’s another when Covington received a mere four minutes in Washington last Wednesday, and has yet to see the court since, getting a full DNP against the Hawks while Morris’s role in the rotation went unchanged.
Even with the potential selection bias and lack of ball knowledge that could have hampered my poll, it seems universally agreed on by Sixers fans that RoCo should be the rangy wing coming off the bench. Which begs the obvious question, why does Nurse prefer Morris to a Process favorite and an analytics darling of years past?
My theory — it’s because Morris is normal, and Covington is weird, and most coaches like normal over weird.
Think back to that home stretch of the 2021-22 season, when Doc Rivers played DeAndre Jordan over Paul Reed time and time again, even though Jordan’s play resembled something of a Weekend at Bernie’s scenario by that point in his career. Fans couldn’t understand why a center five years removed from his prime was getting run over the fun second round pick that had won G-League MVP, and the playoffs were a reminder that the fans were right once Bball Paul finally got similar playing time to Jordan. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers outscored their opponents 73-71 during 63 possessions with Paul Reed on the court in the postseason. In 60 possessions with Jordan on the court in the 2022 playoffs, the Sixers got outscored 91-57, which essentially means 2021-22 D.J. turned the Sixers into the 2023-24 Detroit Pistons just by stepping off the bench.
So why on earth was Jordan playing over Reed in the regular season? Because Jordan was a normal, aging center who tried to execute Doc’s plan without deviating from it, while Bball Paul was as likely to be in the right spot in drop coverage as he was to start auditioning for an AND1 mixtape halfway through a possession.
NBA coaches are control freaks by nature. There are only 30 of these jobs in the world, and in order to get one and hold on to it, you have to design an intricate scheme and believe, if implemented, it will succeed against the other best basketball players and coaches in the world that you face every night. A coach can cope with a large center who just can’t move his feet anymore, because the center still knows what the coach wants him to do, he just doesn’t have the physical capability to execute it anymore. Coaches struggle to cope with a weirdo like Bball Paul because their mistakes often feel like a rebellion against the “perfect” plan that was instructed on the whiteboard.
Now apply all of that to Covington, Morris, and Nurse in the year 2023.
It’s not a perfect one-to-one comparison because almost no one can be as weird as Reed, almost no one can be as washed as Jordan was that season, and almost no one can be as rigid when sticking to preferred veterans as Doc Rivers. But look further, and the paradigm applies.
Marcus Morris is what you’d get if you asked an A.I. to make an early 2010s NBA power forward. He’s plenty tall and strong enough to bang in the post like the more interior-minded 4’s of the 2000s, but he has the three-point shot needed space to the corners as the league gradually grew more willing to play true 4- and 5-out offense. He’s nothing special by NBA standards, but he’s 6-foot-8 and can shoot threes, which will get you millions of dollars and a decade-long career. Even if he’s a significant minus on the court now due to his reduced speed and poor reaction time (not to mention his brutal decision making on the offensive end), Morris can still give off the feel and vibe of the typical backup 4 and small-ball 5.
Robert Covington, meanwhile, has one of the weirder career arcs in recent history. RoCo earned his stripes at Tennessee State, and went undrafted in 2013, only to wind up in Houston with Morey and a G-League team that was instructed to shoot as many three pointers as possible each game just to see what would happen. From that experiment, Covington developed enough of a shot to pair with his bizarre defensive skills that he was signed by Sam Hinkie in November of 2014, and got free run to grow his game while playing for another team in the midst of another basketball experiment. Hundreds of threes and deflections later, RoCo was signed to a 4-year, $62 million extension, only to be traded for Jimmy Butler a year later, lose his groove in Minnesota, then get it back once he returned to Houston again and played center for the most aggressive small-ball experiment the league had ever seen.
None of that even gets into some of the weirdest things about RoCo, namely that he just barely clears Danny Green on the ability to functionally dribble a basketball. The only thing that Morris has on him in the year 2023 is three-point accuracy, and even then, it’s not like Covington’s shot has abandoned him. Between LAC and Philly, Covington has hit 17-of-46 threes this year, good for 37%, while Morris sits at 48% from behind the arc, though on significantly lower volume at 12-for-25 in 14 games. Both players are career 36-37% three-point shooters, so given time, I’d bet money that Morris regress while RoCo keeps hitting at that same rate.
In the spirit of the normal vs weird debate, Morris is taller and stronger than Covington, and would probably look far better in any shooting or ball handling drill you could run them through. But those traditional and static ideas of what makes a good forward in the NBA don’t account for all the great and weird things RoCo does so well. As any Process truster knows, the 11th-year forward is the undisputed king of deflections.
The top 10 in Deflections/75
1. Robert Covington
2. Matisse Thybulle
3. Alex Caruso
4. Paul Reed
5. Dyson Daniels
6. Andre Drummond
7. Cam Reddish
8. De'Anthony Melton
9. Jalen Suggs
10. Nikola Jokic
🗃️250 minute min
— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) December 5, 2023
There’s nothing quite like watching RoCo unleash his 7-foot-2 wingspan and bear trap hands on the rest of the NBA. He’s just everywhere all the time, getting a finger on the ball when he’s at the point of attack or digging in from the side. It’s weird that a player is better known for just tipping the basketball more than actually stealing it, but Covington is inherently a weird player.
And though steals are better, deflections bring a ton of defensive value too. Sometimes they lead to forced turnovers, other times they just disrupt an offense’s flow and force the opponents to shoot with time winding down on the shot clock. Most importantly, the threat that RoCo can always get his hands on the ball makes other players weary. They need to be knifing through lanes on the court whenever No. 33 is out there, because he’s always thinking about how he could knock the ball out of their hands. Contrast this to Morris, who just reacts to everything too slowly to ever make anything happen on the defensive end.
Another game, another Robert Covington deflection kickstarting a fastbreak for the Sixers pic.twitter.com/OnD7RRqaEC
— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) November 9, 2023
One theory that’s floated out besides the one I’ve presented here is that Nurse has been instructed by Daryl Morey and the front office to play Morris in order to boost his trade value as the deadline approaches. I’ll echo what Mike said on the latest Ricky: “Marcus Morris could be a $17 Million piece of fruit and he would still have the same trade value.”
Not a single contending team in the NBA is trading for 34 year-old Marcus Morris Sr. with the expectation that he can push them over the top. They saw how bad he was in Los Angeles last year, and they’ve seen how bad he’s been in Philly this year, even with his three-point shot falling. His entire trade value revolves around 1) his mid-tier salary, that makes matching money in trades much easier, and 2) his contract is expiring after this season. His on-court play has zero impact on his trade value.
This is what I believe ultimately happened — the Sixers started the second quarter of their December 6 game in D.C. with a lineup of Pat Bev, Morris, Covington, Oubre, and Paul Reed. Though that specific unit hardly got shredded (RoCo finished as a pretty standard -2 in his four minutes of play), Nurse did not like what he saw from the offense, which sputtered without either of their two superstars on the court.
One play that stuck out toward the end of the Maxey-less and Embiid-less minutes was a turnover from Covington, who tried to freelance and drive off a sideline-out-of-bounds play, only to get immediately stripped. It didn’t help that the Wizards quickly turned his turnover into three points on the other end.
Meanwhile, Morris did his usual, standard aging NBA veteran thing. He hit a tough mid-range jumper to bail the offense out with the shot clock winding down (very good!), but he also forgot to tag the roller as the opposite corner defender, giving up a wide open dunk to Washington (a mistake so bad that I definitely threw something at my TV).
Not liking what he saw on Wednesday, Nurse decided that Maxey needed to start the second quarter with the four bench players moving forward. However, because Morris does more easy to understand power forward-like things, Nurse kept him in the unit, while RoCo was exiled to the bench, cast out for his weirdness. That’s a huge mistake if it persists.
I think back to how Spike and Mike always asked Doc Rivers and the Sixers to, “Let him be weird,” in reference to the the beloved Bball Paul. It didn’t matter that Jordan followed Doc’s instructions to a T, because he just didn’t have the juice left to survive on an NBA court. Reed colored outside the lines so much that it bothered Doc, but it also bothered other teams! Being weird is a good thing in the NBA, especially as a role player. You’re not going to be better than any star player is at shooting, handling, or playmaking, so you might as well have a unique outlier skill, like Reed’s offensive rebounding prowess and funky footwork, or RoCo’s knack for getting deflections and shooting threes with someone’s hand directly in front of his eyes.
It’s still early, and Nurse said on Friday that after the solidified top eight of the five starters, Oubre, Pat Bev, and Reed, he’s still trying to see what he has from the other players at his disposal, particularly Covington and Morris. But there’s really not much more to figure out with this one. Morris is the much, much worse player, but he looks and performs like a normal NBA forward, while RoCo has a game that resembles few other players in the sport.
I agree with the 95% of you who voted for him in my poll last week. Nick Nurse needs to let go and just let Robert Covington be weird.