Don't Blame Robert Covington For The Trail Blazers' Toothless Defense

The Blazers have one of the least disruptive defenses in the NBA this season. Just imagine where they'd be defensively without the singular contributions of Robert Covington.
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Easily lost for Trail Blazers fans amid frustration and finger-pointing gleaned from a third straight defeat was their team's integral role in setting a new NBA record. Portland forced just one turnover in its loss to the Nuggets on Tuesday, helping Denver make history by becoming the only team in league history to finish a game with fewer than two turnovers.

Jamal Murray, whose late-game scoring eruption helped put the Blazers away, couldn't quite believe it.

Shocking as that number was to Murray, some in Rip City probably weren't all that surprised. The Blazers' opponent turnover rate is 12.9 percent, fourth-worst in the league. They've even forced slightly fewer turnovers than that since Jusuf Nurkic was sidelined with a broken wrist on January 14. 

Terry Stotts' conservative defensive ethos has always made Portland a bottom-dweller with respect to opponents' turnovers, too. His team has ranked bottom-five in that category during every season of his eight-year tenure roaming the Blazers' sideline.

The personnel changes and subtle schematic adjustments Portland made coming into this season were, at least in part, to make its defense more disruptive. More aggressive ball-screen coverage means more backside defensive rotations, which means more sustained ball and player movement offensively. All that additional activity, the thinking goes, should naturally lend itself to an uptick in turnovers.

Here's the thing: It's working. Well, at least when Robert Covington is on the floor.

When Covington in the game, they force turnovers on a slightly below-average 13.5 percent of possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That number dips to 11.9 percent with him on the bench, equaling the Jazz's league-low rate – an almost intentional byproduct of a defensive scheme that directs everything to Rudy Gobert at the rim.

Covington, obviously, hasn't provided the same sweeping defensive impact of Utah's two-time Defensive Player of the Year. But the notion that he's even partially responsible for Portland's immense struggles on that end doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Covington's 3.5 deflections per game rank fourth in the entire league. Only four players in basketball have matched or exceeded his impressive steal and block rates, per data compiled at Stathead, with Matisse Thybulle the only wing. Filtering out garbage-time minutes, the Blazers' defensive rating drops 5.1 points with Covington on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – an easy team-best.

Covington, Portland fans know by now, isn't a typical stopper. Derrick Jones Jr. is definitely a superior individual defender. As effective as Covington is switching onto bigger players, it often doesn't take much for lead guards and playmaking wings to beat him at the point of attack.

But Covington's relative weaknesses defensively don't come close to outweighing his strengths. He has incredibly quick, strong hands; impeccable timing as a shot-blocker; and keen instincts in help defense that allow him to cover for teammates' mistakes.

Covington can't lead an above-average defense mostly by himself. As a cog in Portland's hopefully improved defense once Nurkic is healthy, though, his rare contributions are bound to get more of the credit they deserve.

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