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Robert Covington’s Bargain Deal Keeps the Sixers’ Core Intact

Plus: the Spurs’ latest overseas find, the Raptors go back to the future, and more takeaways from across the NBA

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Robert Covington just got paid, got him a pocket full of change. The Sixers forward will sign a four-year, $62 million extension before the weekend, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Covington will receive a $15 million bump on top of his current $1.6 million salary this season, plus an additional $44.9 million through the 2021-22 season. The money is a boon for Covington, an undrafted free agent in 2013 who made just $3.2 million in his first four NBA seasons. Once the deal is signed, he is set for life.

But Covington still isn’t getting paid what he deserves. The 26-year-old is scoring 16.5 points per game while draining 49.5 percent of his 3s. He emulates everything you would want in a 3-and-D player. He strokes 3s on the move and splashes basic catch-and-shoot triples at a high volume.

He hustles in transition and plays elite defense at multiple positions.

Covington is better than T.J. Warren, who in September received an extension of $50 million over the next four seasons. Covington is arguably better than Gary Harris, who received $84 million over four seasons last month. Covington is also arguably better than Otto Porter Jr., who received a max contract last offseason worth $107 million over four seasons. So why would Covington agree to the deal?

Timing is everything. Unlike the past two summers, most teams won’t have the cap room to splurge next offseason, when Covington was set to hit the unrestricted free-agent market. Only six or seven teams are projected to have max cap space in the summer of 2018, and there are bigger fish in the sea than Covington. Waiting would have come with significant risk, and not just because of the limited number of suitors. He could have gotten hurt, or his production could have fallen off.

Covington made the right choice, and so did the Sixers. It would’ve been a risk on their end to let Covington go into unrestricted free agency. Even with funds evaporated across the league, all it takes is one team to spend big and steal a player away. Now Bryan Colangelo and the Philly front office retain financial flexibility moving forward and one of the most promising young cores in the league. Covington won’t spawn headlines or hot takes like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, or Markelle Fultz, but he’s a crucial component of their team, and one of the biggest success stories of the Process.

Philly can now create more than $20 million in cap space next summer to chase other free agents. If the team stays healthy, keeps getting better, and makes the playoffs this season, Philly will be a top destination, along with the Lakers. Other teams with space, like the Hawks and Nets, likely don’t have the same appeal as a rising Philadelphia roster. Embiid and Simmons are becoming the type of cornerstones that other players would want to join forces with, and Covington is a necessary harmonizing force who is still getting better. Signing the deal ensures that the Sixers will have an opportunity to build on top of their solid foundation.

Have the Spurs Found Another Diamond in the Rough?

San Antonio rookie Brandon Paul has gone down a long and winding road to get to the NBA. Paul was a high school star who was named Mr. Basketball in Illinois in 2009, putting him in company with the likes of Shaun Livingston, Derrick Rose, and Jabari Parker. Paul then spent four seasons at Illinois before going undrafted in 2013. He has since played for Canton (G-League), Nizhny Novgorod (Russian), FIATC Joventut (Spain), and Anadolu Efes (Turkey), and has appeared in summer league with the Timberwolves, 76ers, Hornets, Cavaliers, and Mavericks.

Nearly one-quarter of the NBA has had Paul on an affiliate roster at one time or another. But San Antonio is the only one to give the now-26-year-old rookie an NBA opportunity, and Paul is running with it. The 6-foot-4 guard has become a bench spark for the Kawhi Leonard–less Spurs, shooting 44.4 percent from 3 (second-best among rookies) while playing high-energy defense in 15 minutes per game. Gregg Popovich has occasionally entrusted Paul with taking on difficult matchups against an opponent’s go-to scorer, and he’s typically done well.

Paul consistently displays excellent lateral quickness to keep in front of the opponent, like he does in the clip above by drawing a charge against Devin Booker, and in the clip below by forcing DeMar DeRozan to step out of bounds.

Man-to-man defense was never an issue for Paul in college. He’s quick, and he’s unusually long for his height, with a 6-foot-10 wingspan. The difference now is how engaged he is off the ball. The only reason he’s in position to force DeRozan out of bounds in the play above is because he correctly weaved through the screen maze. Athleticism goes only so far; now Paul is developing the nuances to routinely defend at a high level.

Paul showed flashes of becoming this type of player in college, but he was knocked for his shot selection and inconsistent defense. His time overseas helped to turn him into a more complete player, which speaks to the importance of pro personnel scouting. The evaluation process doesn’t stop once a player declares for the draft. Some players must bounce around the basketball world like a pinball before they’re ready for the league. There will be more Brandon Pauls. Teams just need to find them.

The Capricious Raptors

Head coach Dwane Casey has installed a new brand of Raptors basketball this season. Well, sometimes. Toronto is playing at a higher pace than last season (101, up from 97.1). They take the fourth-highest share of 3s, but they’re 18th in 3-point percentage. They’re making a concerted effort to pass the ball more frequently, too. One big problem: Their modernized style lasts until about halfway through the fourth quarter. Then it’s back to caveman ball featuring isolation …

… after isolation.

After starting so promisingly, with more creative actions, side-to-side ball movement, and player movement, it has to be disconcerting for Raptors fans to see their team fall back into bad habits in endgame situations. Check out the following numbers, per Synergy Sports, which detail the percentage of possessions that end with an isolation through the first 42 minutes of the game and then in the final six minutes.

Raptors Isolation Play Frequency

Year First 42 Minutes Final 6 Minutes (and OT) Increase (in pct. points)
Year First 42 Minutes Final 6 Minutes (and OT) Increase (in pct. points)
2017-18 7% 16% 9%
2016-17 8% 12% 4%
2015-16 8% 11% 3%
2014-15 10% 12% 2%
2013-14 8% 11% 3%

They’re running slightly fewer isos through the first 42 minutes than they did over the past four seasons. Then their iso frequency catapults to 16 percent. They’re still winning games (9-5 overall) and have the league’s second-best offensive rating, so it’s not a pressing issue now. But it can go one of only two ways from here: The Raptors will either learn to diversify their offense in critical moments or they’ll meet a familiar fate in the playoffs.

Tuesday’s 129-113 win over the Rockets was encouraging. The Raptors extended a five-point lead late in the fourth quarter by running the same offense that helped give them a lead in the first place—dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls, rather than stagnant isolations:

More offensive movement makes the defense rotate, like in the play below, when penetration by DeRozan leads to James Harden closing out on the much larger Serge Ibaka:

More play like this could translate into postseason success. The credit or fault isn’t all on Casey, but it is mostly his responsibility to maximize this talented, deep roster.

T.J. Warren Is a Bright Spot for the Suns

In my 2014 NBA Draft Guide, I wrote, “If T.J. Warren had a reliable jumper, he'd have borderline superstar potential.” That stands. The NC State forward, who came to the NBA with a ready-made skill set, has turned himself into a 20-point threat, even without a jumper. Warren has a knack for creating space and making high-degree-of-difficulty shots look easy.

The floater was a staple of Warren’s offense in college, and it still is in the NBA. It’s not a particularly efficient foundation for his game, but it’s pretty. Only 8 percent of Warren’s attempts come from 3, which ranks in the lowest percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass. If Warren isn’t pulling up from 16 feet, or tossing up a floater in the paint, he can throw down yams at the rim.

Warren denies pick-and-roll screens at a high rate, largely because he’s far more comfortable dribbling and finishing to his right. Warren is essentially the same player today that he was at NC State, when he scored 24.9 points per game and won ACC Player of the Year as a sophomore.

For better or for worse, Warren’s jumper hasn’t gotten much better, he still leans on the midrange, and he still doesn’t draw a lot of fouls. With a reliable jumper, he could be so much more. But in a league where the 3 reigns, it’s cool having Warren to turn to when you need a midrange fix.

Pick-and-Paul Millsap

It’s been fun watching Denver head coach Mike Malone use Paul Millsap’s talents as a pick-and-roll playmaker.

Over the last four seasons in Atlanta, no more than 2.4 percent of Millsap’s possessions came as a pick-and-roll ball handler. This season, 8.3 percent have. Nikola Jokic typically screens for Millsap, in a 4-5 setup similar to DeAndre Jordan setting picks for Blake Griffin. Except, in contrast to Griffin throwing lobs to DJ, Millsap is bouncing passes to Jokic.

Millsap is still finding his way in Denver. But the early indicators of a promising offensive partnership between him and Jokic are there.

Rebounding Rozier

There are 102 players who have logged at least 100 minutes this season with a defensive rebounding percentage of 18 or higher (as of Wednesday morning), per Basketball-Reference. Six of them are Celtics: Al Horford (24.8 percent), Marcus Morris (24.2), Daniel Theis (21.8), Aron Baynes (19), Terry Rozier (19), and Jaylen Brown (18.2). No other team has more than five. It’s not abnormal for a team to rely on gang rebounding since not every team has a vacuum like Andre Drummond or Hassan Whiteside. The odd part is Rozier’s inclusion on the Celtics’ list.

No player Rozier’s height or shorter has ever posted a higher defensive rebounding percentage than he has so far this season, per Basketball-Reference. We’re working with a teeny sample of 15 games, but Rozier nearly grabbed this completely arbitrary “record” last season, with a 16.3 defensive rebounding percentage. Rozier is just a weirdly awesome rebounder for a guard, and he’s a blast to watch.

The X’s-and-O’s implications are important, too. As Zak Boisvert‏ points out in the above tweet, guards don’t box out, so Rozier is able to fly in from the perimeter and snatch boards away from big men. He’s so good at tracking the trajectory of a rebound; it’s like he’s magnetic. Having a guard rebound can also help turn defense into immediate offense. Though the Celtics enable virtually all their players to bring the ball up the floor, it can be a boost when a guard grabs and goes. That’s one reason Russell Westbrook crashes the boards so hard, rather than wasting time waiting to get the ball from a bigger player. Rebounding is the period to a defensive possession, and Rozier has been a big part in delivering them for the league’s best defense.

To the Moaning and the Groaning of the Bell

The Warriors play the Celtics on TNT on Thursday, so for many fans, it’ll be their first exposure to Golden State rookie Jordan Bell. He’s going to dunk. He’s going to block shots. He’s going to make you say, “How’d the Warriors get this guy?” People will joke about how Chicago sold the no. 38 pick to the Warriors for $3.5 million. What a silly mistake. Prodding the Bulls front office for their error might be fun, but it’s a bit misguided.

John Paxson, the Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations, explained in October on 670 The Score why Chicago sold the pick. Paxson said that the Bulls had five players they were targeting in the second round, and none were on the board at no. 38. So instead, he thought about the future—just not the future of the roster. “Sometimes you have to take an opportunity where you build equity within the organization for future decisions,” Paxson said. “It was a roster spot we knew we could use in a different way, and it was something that we thought, ‘Hey, down the road, there will be a time and place where we can use money to our advantage.’”

Feel free to knock Paxson for not having Bell on his board, but his comments can be translated as: We sold the pick because ownership is cheap. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf is a notoriously conservative spender. By saving him money now, Paxson and general manager Gar Forman essentially bought “equity” with Reinsdorf, which they can maybe use to buy a pick down the line.

GarPax isn’t fortunate enough to have an owner like Joe Lacob, who willingly splashes money around to give the Warriors an edge. (It also helps that the Warriors have cashed in on their recent success.) Maybe the Bulls will get to buy a pick in the near future and take a player like Bell. Paxson and Forman better hope they’re still around to make that decision.