MINNEAPOLIS – When the Minnesota Timberwolves agreed to the trade to send Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to Philadelphia for Robert Covington, Dario Šarić, and Jerryd Bayless, it was in an effort to remain competitive in a tough Western Conference, rather than enter a period of rebuilding.
The early returns have done just that. Since the deal was made the Wolves are 3-1 and a much looser team. There’s no question that the Butler situation was weighing on the team, as a few players admitted. It’s a cloud in the locker room that affected the way the team played on the court, no matter how adamant Butler was in saying that it wasn’t a distraction.
That alone has improved the team, but the tangible reason that the Wolves have improved as much as they have as quickly as they have may be Covington.
Since he arrived in Minneapolis, he’s been everything the Wolves have wanted and more on both ends of the floor. He was acquired with the reputation of being one of the best ‘3-and-D’ guys in the NBA, and he’s been just that for the Wolves.
“He’s very disruptive,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of Covington. “When he spreads out, and his ability to read what’s going on, and great anticipation, he’s a hard guy to throw [the ball] over. You may think there’s something there, but he’s got great length and he gets so many deflections. It’s very instinctive, I think that’s helpful.”
Throughout his career he’s been a streaky shooter from deep, but he’s consistent at the defensive end. In his short time with the Wolves he’s been able to change the defensive culture rather quickly.
Prior to the debut of both Covington and Šarić on Nov. 14, the Wolves were dead-last in the NBA with a defensive rating of 113.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. Since those two stepped on the court for the Wolves, Minnesota has the fifth-best defense in the NBA with a rating of 97.7.
What’s made it more impressive is that two of the three teams they’ve faced have been high-powered offenses as both New Orleans and Portland are top-10 in terms of offensive efficiency.
Things are happening defensively for the Wolves that simply didn’t happen prior to the move being made. The biggest area where Covington has helped this team on the defensive end is with his off-ball help defense. Yes, he’s an above-average on-ball defender, but his off-ball defensive skills are truly elite.
This play is one that illustrates perfectly a little thing that Covington does that won’t show up on the stat sheet — but it doesn’t happen without him. His length and determination creates a turnover. He’s able to poke the ball loose, leaving Damian Lillard unable to recover and it bounces out of bounds.
Little things like that have made Minnesota’s defense that much better. Sure, Butler was a very good on-ball defender, but he wasn’t the same caliber of help defender that Covington is.
In this clip, Marc Gasol catches the ball and believes he’s in good position against Karl-Anthony Towns on the block. He never sees Covington coming from his backside and Covington snatches the ball. There have been a few instances in the three games he’s played for the Wolves that’s this been this case.
The same thing happens here where Omri Casspi catches the ball in a very similar position that Gasol did. Covington is a little bit quicker in his rotation here to front Casspi and gets his hands on the ball and is credited with a blocked shot.
Covington just flat-out sees the ball as his in this one and takes it. There’s really not much more to say other than at a certain point it’s about wanting it more than someone else, and Covington possesses that defensively.
While the help defense is certainly the most impressive part of his game. He’s a good on-ball defender as well. Covington is incredibly versatile in the fact that he can guard 1-through-4 and 1-through-5 against small-ball lineups. He’s by far the best suited on the Wolves’ roster to do that. Thibodeau has spoken a few times that it’s where the biggest advantage of having him on the floor comes.
Prior to his arrival the Wolves didn’t switch much defensively, but that’s changed. That alone creates less confusion on the defensive end and far fewer easy baskets.
There was no switch on this play, it simply was Covington picking up Portland’s Myers Leonard in transition, but his athleticism to make this play is something that may not have been there before.
The play above ultimately results in a Minnesota turnover, but Covington covering his own man that closely creates a steal and what could have been an easy basket for him had Towns’ pass been on target to the other end.
Covington and Wiggins make the easy switch on that clip. CJ McCollum is one of the better off-guards in the league and a tough assignment for anyone. Covington rides him all the way to the baseline, taking away any space he had before McCollum steps out.
These things have transformed the Wolves on the defensive end. The best part for them is that as Covington grows comfortable with his teammates, plays like these will likely come more frequently. He’s a perfect fit at that end of the floor for Minnesota.