Is Robert Covington a Potential Trade Candidate?

Apr 5, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington (33) dribbles past New Orleans Pelicans forward Luke Babbitt (8) during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 107-93. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 5, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington (33) dribbles past New Orleans Pelicans forward Luke Babbitt (8) during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 107-93. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Things are looking up for the versatile sharpshooter. Should Bryan Colangelo and the Philadelphia 76ers be on the offensive to trade Robert Covington?

You remember the night. After a brief moment of mass confusion, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 top-five protected first round pick. It was an unexpected trade — Holiday, who had just turned 23 — was coming off the best season of his career. Yet Sam Hinkie saw an opportunity to reboot the franchise around in one fell swoop — a calculated risk that finally vaulted the Sixers into a necessary multi-year rebuild.

Holiday was ready to contribute now, and the marginally talented Sixers roster was stuck in NBA purgatory, doomed to early-round playoff exits and an abundance of Jiri Welsch and Arnett Moultrie-level draft picks. It’s not easy to sell a young asset at peak value, but Hinkie struck when the iron was hot—the result was a tremendous haul for Holiday, who, injuries aside, has yet to make the next jump in his game.

Hinkie was all too familiar with these fleeting moments of opportunity.

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When the Orlando Magic unsubtly fawned over Elfrid Payton, Hinkie held him hostage in exchange for the Sixers’ own future first round pick and the player he coveted all along, Dario Šarić. When the Sacramento Kings were desperately looking to dump contracts, Hinkie was there to accept a treasure trove of assets and Stauskases.

When 2014-2015 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams was putting up inflated numbers on a bad team, Hinkie went on the offensive, nabbing a protected first round pick from the Lakers. When the Nuggets were looking to unload JaVale McGee, Hinkie pounced on Chu Chu Maduabum.

For rebuilding franchises, pinpointing those moments of opportunity can be real difference makers in augmenting that future championship window. While Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel have been subjected to an incessant flow of trade rumors and hearsay, there’s another Sixer that could find himself on the trading block this upcoming season if the right opportunity comes along.

Robert Covington will become an unrestricted free agent in the 2018 offseason. At 25, he’s entering his prime on the mega-cheap Hinkie Special, earning just over $1 million (if the Sixers pick up his 2017-2018 option) in each of the next two seasons (or for perspective, about 1 percent of the salary cap). It just so happens he can shoot the ball really well. In a league that places a premium on shooting and defensive versatility, Covington’s combination of age, production, and contract is a veritable anomaly.

The Sixers have not cultivated Covington’s skill set well, to say the least. The 6-foor-9, 215 pound forward out of Tennessee State has been surrounded by non-shooters and uncreative ball distributors. He’s been forced to play up a position at the 3 to make room for a crowded frontcourt that’s about to double in size — even though he’s best utilized as a 4 in today’s NBA.

Still, Covington has put up high-efficiency 3-point shooting numbers alongside one of the worst rosters in league history. The percentage of Covington’s 3-pointers that were wide open (classified by as 6+ feet of space between the shooter and the closest defender) was a comically low 19.4 percent during the 2015-2016 season, where he shot 42.7 percent, per NBA stats. For a deeper dive into these numbers and why Covington may be poised for a breakout season, check out Derek Bodner’s indispensable primer on Covington over at Philadelphia Magazine.

In most cases, the Sixers’ flawed roster inflated individual counting stats — in a spot up shooter like Covington’s case, it deflated them. Covington’s already above-average career 36.3 3-point percentage with the Sixers isn’t truly indicative of his offensive value. It’s likely that we haven’t yet seen the true value Covington can provide an NBA offense—especially one with a competent roster.

That’s going to change this year.

With the addition of Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons, Covington will be flanked for the first time in his career by elite passing and capable shooting—two skills that are pivotal to boost a shooter like Covington’s efficiency.

The Sixers may still be bad this year, but they’re not going to be laughingstock-of-the-league bad. It’s not inconceivable they could double, even triple their win total from last year. If Covington plays well, there’s legitimate reasons to think his stock could soar alongside an improved roster.

There’s inherent value in what Covington can bring to the Sixers over these next two years—and that’s not something to dismiss. The offense breathes much easier when Covington’s on the court, and that’s invaluable for Ben Simmons and congested half court sets. We saw what happened when a semi-competent point guard came in to facilitate the offense for over half a season in Ish Smith. Noel and Okafor were able to make significant strides in their game. The gravity Covington draws to his side of the court makes life much easier on a young developing roster.

Unfortunately, Covington’s going to hit the open market at an inopportune time. The Sixers, now entering the fourth year of their rebuild, will eventually start to max out that precious cap space to pay their home-grown stars and potential free agents, whoever that may be. It wasn’t this year, it may not be next year, but by the 2018 offseason, Bryan Colangelo will open that wallet.

What made Covington such a rarity was the size and length of his contract—for a positionally versatile sharpshooter, Covington was an absolute steal. But when the Sixers are ready to allocate their cap space during their window of opportunity to compete, Colangelo will have to prioritize stars first. As fun as Covington has been during his two-year tenure as a Sixer, he’s still a specialized role player.

If Evan Fournier (5 years $85 million), Allen Crabbe (4 years $75 million), Evan Turner (4 years $70 million), and Kent Bazemore (4 years $70 million) received significant contracts this past offseason, Covington should be set to make even more in 2018 when the cap reaches new staggering heights. If just one team values Covington enough to make a significant offer, the Sixers might be better off letting him walk. Check out how Covington compared to his recently-paid peers during the 2015-2016 season:

Kent Bazemore13.4.551.421.2089.912.72.31.414.820.01.2
Robert Covington13.2.543.677.24912.
Allen Crabbe12.2.572.420.1675.
Evan Fournier14.6.587.420.2564.912.
Evan Turner13.6.513.110.2389.323.

Provided by View Original Table

Context is important here. It’s not surprising Covington had the highest usage rate of this group, and his efficiency suffered because of the overburdened role he had to carry for the team. It’s not inevitable that Covington will get paid like these role players, but it seems like a pretty safe projection. 

Locking up Covington to a multi-year contract at the price he’s going to demand in 2018 significantly reduces Colangelo’s short-term and long-term financial flexibility.

Here’s where taking the longest view in the room precipitates a potential trade — Covington, who’s essentially a finished product ready to contribute now, can help a playoff team much more than he can help the still-rebuilding Sixers.

Contending teams (or delusional teams) with limited cap space would be wise to take a hard look at Covington during the season. Sharpshooting stretch-4s that can defend multiple positions don’t come around very often, especially at Covington’s price. If Covington’s efficiency takes a major jump, Colangelo shouldn’t wander too far from the phone.

Of course, all of this is dependent on a high-demand market for Covington. If the right package isn’t there, Colangelo shouldn’t be in any rush to trade Covington. The value of draft picks has never been higher, and opposing front offices will certainly limit what they’ll give up for a year-and-a-half rental for a role player. Covington is still under contract for two more years—this isn’t the James Harden scenario, and the Sixers aren’t in the financial straightjacket that Sam Presti was — and Colangelo shouldn’t settle for a low-ball offer simply to get something back.

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However the situation unfolds over the next two years, there’s opportunity cost in all directions. Hold on to Covington, and you risk overpaying him in two years (while losing precious cap space and flexibility), or you risk letting him for walk for nothing. Trade him, and you lose a valuable floor spacer whose absence hinders the development of a young roster desperate for offensive space and stability. 

Next: Jahlil Okafor Will Take More Jump Shots Next Season

Keep tabs on Covington’s 3-point percentage throughout the year; if contending teams find a hole at the wing or stretch forward, Covington could find himself in high-demand. If Covington has a breakout year, there’s no doubt Colangelo will have to start listening to offers. Let’s just hope it’s an opportunity he can’t pass up.