Now seven years into his NBA career, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Robert Covington is stuck in a peculiar situation.
After providing a glimmer of hope for the Philadelphia 76ers during the height of their rebuild, Covington was cast away in what was seen as the completion of ‘The Process.’ He was shipped off to the Timberwolves—another franchise clawing its way out of a hole it had dug for itself—along with forward Dario Saric in exchange for All-Star wing Jimmy Butler.
Though it seemed like the Timberwolves were constructing a well-rounded core around cornerstone No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs since. (They were the 8th seed and a first-round exit in 2017-18 during Butler’s lone full season, their first appearance since 2004.) Covington was plagued by injury during his first run with the team and appeared in only 22 games as the T-Wolves finished 36-46 for the 11th seed last year.
Minnesota started this 2019-20 season hot but couldn’t continue that push and sit in 12th with a 12-20 record through just-under forty percent of the season.
A career 35.6 percent 3-point shooter, Covington hit just 31.7 percent through his first 10 games of the season before coming back to life with more acceptable shooting averages in November. That consistency didn’t last as he dipped back down another 3.7 percent from the field and 4 percent from behind the arc from then to the completion of December.
Even more surprising than his offensive struggles, however, has been his erratic play as a defender. His defensive output declined with the team around him, as all have seemingly fallen into bad habits. Regardless of if this was a matter of effort, behind-the-scenes issues, health, coaching or a combination of the lot, the numbers indicate that Covington hasn’t played up to the standards that took him from fringe D-League prospect to top-flight NBA defender.
In fact, Covington has been considered the ideal model of a 3-and-D wing. The 29-year-old doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, yet he can handle the ball decently and does a good job of finding teammates when their movement is cooking. His shot release is quick and with a high arc, allowing him to fire away over most opponents.
Most importantly, Covington’s teammates in Philadelphia and previously with the Houston Rockets could rely on him to make heads-up plays on defense and inject energy. His eyes seemingly light up on defense and his awareness goes through the roof, resulting in intercepted passes and weak-side blocks in between close-outs and contests near the basket.
However, these traits can only be put to good use if the rest of the team is doing their job, and the Timberwolves have been wildly unpredictable on the defense in 2019.
They rank 24th in Defensive Field Goals Made (41.9) and 24th in opponent field goal percentage (45.7 percent). It doesn’t help that they’ve suffered a multitude of injuries and illnesses to key players this year, but that’s a normal issue for any team vying for a playoff spot in the West.
Individually, Covington is allowing his opponents to shoot 46.1 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from deep this year. He’s playing his fewest minutes since the 2015-16 campaign. But even when adjusting per 36 minutes, Covington is averaging his fewest steals per season since he was a sophomore. Considering his talent and specialties as a defender, it’s impossible for this to persist.
Tides seem to be turning, however. Covington is producing a much stronger defensive output very recently.
The 6’7” forward is averaging 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks during his last 10 outings despite the team notching a 2-8 record in that span. He’s making it clear that, in spite of his difficult circumstances, he is an exemplary talent that any contending team should be glad to have.
It’s then no surprise that his name is being tossed around to be moved before the league’s February trade deadline. A report by staff writer Kevin O’Connor of TheRinger.com mentioned that the Houston Rockets, among other playoff teams, are keeping an eye on Covington in hopes that Minnesota will opt to trade him in favor of assets for their future.
Covington has a team-friendly contract that’ll earn him an average of $12.1 million per year through the 2021-22 season. That, combined with his history and skill set, is enough to make him a hot commodity on the open market.
Minnesota’s President of Basketball Operations, Gersson Rosas, stems from the staff of Daryl Morey in Houston—a team known for its tendency to make trades on the fly and the organization that established Covington originally. That connection could prove powerful should he choose to dangle Covington on the open market, although he may solicit more than the Rockets can offer for him.
Should Covington’s name be listed on the trade block, a variety of teams could inquire, ensuing a bidding war for a highly-touted wing in his prime playing years—though there’s a lot riding on Covington’s ability to prove he’s still a difference-maker.
Thus, perhaps there’s a strong connection with his recent uptick in production and engagement: This may be Covington’s chance to abandon ship before things go off the deep end.
All signs point toward the Timberwolves heading back to the draft lottery yet again, implying a younger team. By the time those individuals are ready to compete in the postseason, Covington will be into his mid-thirties and likely won’t fit their timeline.
A return to Houston makes a lot of sense: He made his NBA debut there after starting their affiliate Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Rockets have former-MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook in their backcourt to command a lot of attention, opening up three-point shots for the rest of the surrounding cast.
However, they have a lack of frontcourt depth and sorely need someone besides an aging P.J. Tucker to pick up the slack on defense, especially after allowing similar forwards like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute depart this past offseason.
However, other teams in the playoff hunt like the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets would benefit from Covington’s two-way presence as they compete down the stretch. TBW’s Adam Spinella recently outlined a plan for the Golden State Warriors to strike quickly and re-open their title window.
So much will depend on the price of course, but you can bet that he will have multiple suitors.
Things haven’t been ideal for Covington lately, but that’s not to say he won’t turn it around if back on a contender. The West is as close as it’s been in some time, with six teams within three games of the eighth seed. Even the Timberwolves could certainly rally behind a refreshed lineup to secure its second playoff berth in 16 years.
Of course, that’s if they’re able to get Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns back in time while also figuring out their shaky depth problem, and Covington just might be the answer to reshuffling the deck.
Trading away both Covington and Saric wouldn’t look great in terms of their return on the Butler trade—where they moved Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the draft rights to Lauri Markannen to the Chicago Bulls—but at least the Wolves would commit to a specific direction instead of piecing together players of all stages and backgrounds without a clear vision in place for the future.
Covington and Saric were intended to be steady veterans who would show the young Wolves how to win. But now that the latter still isn’t happening either, it’s only a matter of time before Towns is sick of losing.
Moving Covington may be the next step in outlining a different winning direction for Minnesota’s franchise star.
Dylan Hunter Carter is a freelance sports journalist contributing to The Basketball Writers. He also currently covers the Spurs for Air Alamo and is a digital reporter for Cronkite News: Phoenix Sports covering the Phoenix Suns, ASU athletics and other local topics.