Robert Covington Right at Home With Small-Ball Rockets

Michael Shapiro

It didn’t take long for Daryl Morey’s gamble to look like a no-brainer. 

The Rockets are 7–3 since swapping Clint Capela for Robert Covington on Feb. 4, sporting the NBA’s No. 5 net rating. And the recent hot streak hasn't been a mere coincidence with Covington's arrival. The former 76ers and Timberwolves forward has been Houston's defensive catalyst over the last month, and he's emerged as an effective floor spacer, too. As the Rockets chase the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, head coach Mike D'Antoni has a valuable new weapon at his disposal.

"[Covington] is always coming up with a big block or rebound or steal or something," D'Antoni told the media at the Toyota Center on Wednesday. "He's a real good defender, he can hit big shots. He's been playing really, really well."

The 6'7" forward has been far more than a satisfactory rim protector in place of Capela. Covington has 25 blocks in his last 10 games, trailing only Myles Turner for the league lead. And Covington's effectiveness extends far beyond simple block numbers. The Tennessee State product has emerged as an elite rotational defender, and his energy and effort has proved infectious as Houston tries to survive with a swarming collection of wings. Covington is the ultimate team defender. His versatility and instincts near the rim have proved invaluable.

Covington's defensive style isn't completely unique to Houston in the D'Antoni era. He profiles similarly to Trevor Ariza, using his wingspan and weak-side prowess to anchor a previously-inconsistent defense. But Covington is more than an Ariza copy. He's the new edition.

"Robert is a longer defensive version of Trevor Ariza," Rockets assistant coach John Lucas told InsideTheRockets on Wednesday. "Trevor could defend multiple positions like Robert, but Trevor couldn't rebound quite at the level Robert does."

Covington's defense gets plenty of acclaim for his defensive excellence, and rightfully so. He leads all Rockets' rotation players with a 103.9 defensive rating, and he and P.J. Tucker are allowing a paltry 102.9 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. But Covington isn't just a defensive stopper. He's emerged as a valuable offensive asset for D'Antoni and Co. 

The Rockets' trade deadline addition is averaging 13.4 points per game since coming to Houston, sporting a 36.5% mark from beyond the arc. Covington dropped 20 points (and six threes) in Monday's loss to the Knicks, and he provided a similar offensive spark in Boston on Saturday. 

The same traits that make Covington a valuable defender help his effectiveness offensively. Covington's wingspan allows rim to rise up over closeout defenders. His nose for the ball proves valuable both on the offensive and defensive glass. Plus, playing alongside James Harden and Russell Westbrook isn't exactly complicated. Covington's directive is simple: spread the floor and let it fly. 

"The way we play, it's easy to fit in," Covington said on Wednesday. "I try to take some pressure off [Harden] and [Westbrook] and our other scorers. This is the system I started in, and I thrive here. Do the little things that help us win." 

Houston was met with wide skepticism after dealing Capela for Covington. Being undersized in the postseason can be a death knell, especially if Nikola Jokic or Anthony Davis (Rudy Gobert is a different conversation) roll through the Toyota Center in April and May. Those concerns may still rear their ugly head in the playoffs, but the Rockets are presently unconcerned. Houston is playing its best basketball of the season. Covington has fit like a glove. And with six weeks left in the regular season, he still has room to grow. 

"There's so much potential in Robert on both sides of the ball," Lucas said. "He's really become such a valuable guy for us."