Robert Covington Thriving as Rockets Rim Protector in Small-Ball Era

Michael Shapiro

The Rockets assumed they received one of the league's top wing defenders when they acquired Robert Covington in a trade with the Timberwolves on Feb. 4. Covington was a member of the 2017-18 All-Defense team while playing for the 76ers, and he's averaged over 1.5 steals per game in each of the last five seasons. 

But the Rockets didn't just acquire a quality 3-and-D wing after shipping Clint Capela in a four-team deal. Houston also received a dynamic rim protector.

The 6'8" forward has manned the middle of the Rockets' defense with ease in his first seven games with the franchise. Covington has tallied 18 blocks since joining Houston, trailing only Blazers center Hassan Whiteside for the league lead. And Covington's dominance isn't just evident by individual metrics. The Rockets are allowing just 41.4 points in the paint per game since Covington joined the team, tied with the Spurs for the fewest allowed in the NBA. Daryl Morey acquired even more than he bargained for in one of the trade deadline's riskiest deals.

"[Covington] gives us a chance to use our small lineup and be athletic at the same time," Russell Westbrook said before the Rockets' practice on Tuesday. "His length, his ability to stay down in the lane and defend, it helps all of our rotations."

Covington's stellar defensive start hasn't come against a slate of perimeter-oriented teams. The Rockets defeated Anthony Davis and the Lakers in Covington's debut, and they've faced Rudy Gobert in two of their last five games. Covington has held his ground in all three matchups, bothering the All-Star bigs with a sturdy torso and 7'2" wingspan. 

It isn't just Covington's physical skills that set him apart from other large wings. He's made a reputation as an elite weak-side defender in recent seasons, disrupting offenses with an uncanny knack for rotating onto opposing players. Covington often operates as a free-safety in Houston's defense. He'll leave a non-shooter open, roving around the lane as he watches a play develop. If a free body approaches the rim, Covington is ready to make a play.

"Some of it is the natural talent that he has and the athleticism and all that," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said on Tuesday. "But the rest of it is uncoachable. He has an innate sense of where to be and when that a lot of other people don't."

Houston relies on playing without a prototypical center, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Rockets are slight inside. Covington pairs with P.J. Tucker in Houston's starting lineup, giving D'Antoni a pair of strong frontcourt bodies. Both players are quality post defenders. They each have elite off-ball instincts. In a playoff series against the Clippers or Lakers, the Rockets have a pair of smart, switchable frontcourt players. It seems as though Covington is happy playing alongside a new partner-in-crime. 

"I mean, I've seen what people have been saying on social media," Covington said with a laugh on Tuesday. "But overall, we're taking this challenge upon ourselves. We have a lot of guys that are good post defenders. To the naked eye it might not show, but statistically we have a lot of good post defenders."

Houston remains undersized to a degree in the Western Conference playoffs, and a slate of behemoths potentially await. The Rockets could square off against Gobert or Kristaps Porzingis in the first round, while Davis and Nikola Jokic await down the line. But the concerns over Houston's lack of a center appear increasingly overblown. Covington is far more than an effective wing defender. He's emerged as an impact paint deterrent. Pair Covington with Tucker (as well as Jeff Green), and the Rockets could very well survive a slate of seven-game series in the spring.