December 10, 2017
Down Joel Embiid and T.J. McConnell heading into the game, the Sixers were at least partially prepared to suffer a loss against the surging Cleveland Cavaliers. But the team's loss on the scoreboard will end up playing second fiddle to another loss, following a scary fall from Robert Covington with just over a minute left in the game.
That is the story of the night, despite the Sixers putting in a pretty strong performance in a 105-98 loss to the reigning Eastern Conference champs. If you haven't grasped the importance of Covington to this team yet, you're about to find out in a hurry.
For those of you interested in what happened to Covington, here's the play that took him out of the game.
Alternative camera angles showed very little, but word on the ground from Alaa Abdelnaby and Molly Sullivan was that Covington's back landed on some sort of sharp, metal edge near the court. It is an extremely unfortunate play and one that has potential long-term ramifications for the Sixers. A Sixers team representative later relayed to PhillyVoice that Covington suffered a lower-back contusion, and will travel with the team to their next stop in New Orleans while his future status is determined.
The Sixers do not have any cover to protect against a Covington injury. The players who can shoot like him — that list is basically just JJ Redick — don't provide the same defensive cover, and if we're being honest, nobody except maybe Ben Simmons is equipped to handle his defensive load. Even then, Covington is eons beyond Simmons on defensive consistency, and his younger teammate is not someone you want to rely on to be a defensive anchor at this stage of his career.
Covington's performance against the Cavaliers on Saturday night was a prototypical game for him on the defensive end. He produced four steals on the defensive end, but it's the work that put him in position to make those plays that helps him stand out as one of the league's best wing defenders.
With the Sixers holding onto a slim lead against Cleveland in crunch time, Covington was tasked with picking up Dwyane Wade as he brought the ball up the court. After a switch forced Covington onto LeBron James, you saw exactly why he got consideration for Defensive Player of the Year last year. Covington flashes quickly to prevent a catch-and-shoot look for Kyle Korver, and then has the lateral quickness (and initial positioning) to prevent Wade's entry pass from ever reaching James.
There are not many players in the league, let alone on this Sixers roster, who are capable of making plays like this on a consistent basis.
Covington's defensive stoutness is as much mental as it is physical, and you can tell he's one of the longest-tenured players on the Sixers' roster. Regardless of whether he has one defensive assignment for a possession or three, he finds himself in the right place more often than not.
On this first-half play against Cleveland, Covington tracked Korver through multiple screens, cut off the area by the basket after Richaun Holmes was forced to switch out to the perimeter, and then made life miserable for Channing Frye on the possession's eventual shot, forcing a badly-missed fadeaway from the post.
If Covington's work on the defensive end isn't apparent enough on tape, his numbers scream the same thing. He consistently grades out as one of the most impactful defenders in basketball, and if you look at the Sixers' advanced metrics through the first quarter of the season, the drop-off from Covington to his understudies is bigger than the one for the two stars we talk about on a nightly basis.
|Player||NETRTG (On Court)||NETRTG (Off Court)|
|Robert Covington||+7.3 (108.8 ORTG, 101.5 DRTG)||-14.1 (94.6 ORTG, 108.7 DRTG)|
|Joel Embiid||+6.7 (106.9 ORTG, 100.2 DRTG)||-6.9 (100.9 ORTG, 107.8 DRTG)|
|Ben Simmons||+2.8 (105.6 ORTG, 102.8 DRTG)||-6.5 (100.0 ORTG, 106.5 DRTG)|
We often talk about how severe the drop-off is when Embiid is on the bench, but the Sixers at least have some adequate cover there in the form of Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes. Simmons at least has McConnell as a steady point man behind him, and will eventually be able to hand the ball off to Markelle Fultz with the second unit. Covington is basically the only guy propping the Sixers up on the wing.
For this season, some of that is by design. Had the Sixers wanted to, they could have easily thrown some money around to get Covington a proper backup. But their plan has always been focused on next offseason, and they were unwilling to add money on their books beyond the 2017-18 season. That inherently limited their options in free agency, and no one will fret too much if the Sixers lure a big fish in free agency next summer.
Having said that, the scare they got when Covington went down on Saturday night should be a reminder to the front office that this is a hole that needs filling at some point. Between the potential Lakers pick and their own draft selection, the Sixers have a chance to find another long-term contributor on the wing next summer. Unless they somehow luck into the No. 1 pick and can grab another premier talent, the No. 1 priority for their scouting department should be identifying players who can fill into a Covington-esque role long-term and take some of the pressure off his shoulders.
From what we know so far, the good news is the Sixers seem to have avoided the worst-case scenario with Covington. But everyone should use this opportunity to remember how important he is to the team's success.
• Trevor Booker had quite the journey to join his new teammates on Saturday. His flight path took him from Mexico City to Houston to New York, and after a drive down to Philly and another flight to Cleveland, Booker got to be a part of exactly one shootaround before playing in his first Sixers game. All he did once he got his shot was put up 12 points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes of action.
The box score numbers are not to be dismissed, but it was Booker's effort that will help win fans over quickly in Philadelphia. In a 20-second span during the second quarter, he got the best of LeBron at the rim, saved the loose ball from going out of bounds, and then got down the floor in a hurry, snatching an offensive rebound and earning free throws on the play.
You could tell Booker was still finding his way in a new defensive system throughout the night, and he was the culprit on a couple of broken defensive sequences throughout the night. But even the best incoming player would find it difficult to pick up a new system on the fly. The Sixers knew they were getting a player who would show up ready to go to work, and you already got a glimpse of that in his debut.
• Dario Saric busted out the Rec Specs on Saturday, and the goggles did nothing to slow down the nice run of play he has been on. Saric had a rough night from three-point land, but the difference between the beginning of the season and now was his ability to shake that off and make an offensive impact anyway.
Continuing a trend we've seen in recent weeks, Saric was excellent as an off-ball cutter on Saturday. It helps to play alongside a passer as good as Simmons, but part of the improvement is a credit to Saric playing with the proper urgency away from the ball. When he sees Simmons go into attack mode, he is making quicker decisions and providing the rookie with an outlet near the basket.
Saric may not have the catch radius of a Richaun Holmes, but he has soft, trustworthy hands that make him a dangerous player on the move. This is a great feed from Simmons — the equivalent of a quarterback hitting a wide receiver without having to break his stride — and a tremendous finish from Saric, who tosses it up gently despite looking like a freight train with no brakes.
As always, the three-point shot remains critical to his success, and the Sixers may have pulled that game out if he hadn't gone 1/6 from deep. That doesn't make his progression away from the ball any less encouraging, and it's a big reason why his shooting numbers continue to climb from 10 feet and in. After struggling in the paint to begin the year, Saric is now shooting 62.2 percent from within 10 feet, nearly seven points higher than where he finished last season.
• Seven turnovers make Simmons' line look a lot worse than it seemed in real-time. The Sixers got crushed in the first half without Simmons on the floor, and they desperately needed him to create for guys around him, especially with McConnell on the shelf.
One area that we need to continue to monitor, however: his performance (or lack thereof) at the free-throw line. Simmons did not attempt a single free-throw against Cleveland, and his numbers have lacked there ever since the hackfest we saw unfold against Washington last Wednesday. He has attempted just two free throws per game over his last five, and he has to make more of an effort to draw contact and pile up points from the charity stripe.
Short of being inside Simmons' head, I couldn't tell you if he's actively avoiding the free-throw line or not. It almost doesn't matter what the reason is because if he's not going to take jumpers, he has to be able to create scoring value in other areas of the game. The simplest path there for a guy his size should be at the free-throw line, whether it's on drives, cuts, or operating on the block against smaller defenders.
On the whole, he is still having a tremendous season. This is just not a pattern he can fall into.