Portland Trail Blazers add transformative defender in Robert Covington
During their seven-season playoff streak, the Portland Trail Blazers Blazers have never had a defensive presence like Covington.
Scoring has never been an issue for this Portland Trail Blazers lineup with Damian Lillard at the helm. A one-man-army with limitless 3-point range and the confidence to match, Dame is adept at finding shots for himself or others in dire situations. Despite an injury-riddled season, Portland finished third with the third-best offense (113.2 offensive rating) in 2020.
What this team truly needed last season was defense. The Blazers gave up 116.1 points per game — The fifth-worst mark of the NBA’s 30 teams. Players who were implemented to bolster Portland’s defense failed to meet expectations, forcing the Blazers into an uptempo playstyle that damaged their chances of stopping their opponents from scoring.
With this in mind, Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey traded Trevor Ariza and two first-round picks for Houston Rockets forward Robert Covington. Now on his fourth team in three seasons, Covington is a hot commodity amongst NBA circles for his unfaltering defensive effort and relentless physicality.
During his 22-game stint in Houston, Covington was relegated to an unusual role. The 6-foot-7 forward was forced to become a small-ball center, matching up against 7-footers in the paint and battling for rebounds. While this experience proved that Covington can be effective in a high-octane system, his shooting percentages suffered because of it.
Unlike in Covington’s previous situation, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts caters to the strengths of his players when crafting a gameplan. Covington brings an antiquated approach to defense that’s both cerebral and animalistic in that his quick reflexes and physicality are exemplified on every play. Using his stout frame, broad shoulders and surreal 7-foot-2 wingspan, Covington sticks to his assignment like glue as they dribble. While off the ball, Covington pesters his competition by swiping at the basketball, intercepting passes and pinning unsuspecting adversaries’ shots off the backboard.
Statistics back the notion that Covington was the Rockets’ best defender by the time their season was over. His 105 defensive rating was roughly five points per 100 possessions better than the team’s average despite him spending 72 percent of his minutes at a center position where he never belonged.
Portland boasts a powerful frontcourt led by All-Star-candidate Jusuf Nurkic, who will lead the way at center. As Covington gravitates to a more natural fit at the small forward and power forward positions, he’ll return to a more familiar job description: Make life hell for opponents on defense and shoot as opportunities arise on offense.
Covington’s 105 defensive rating on a mediocre Rockets defense would’ve easily ranked as the highest on the Blazers last season. For the first time since Lillard has ascended to perennial All-NBA status, the Blazers have a definitive answer to the question ‘Who’s going to guard the other team’s best player?’
That’ll go a long way for a team with everything to prove in the postseason. The Blazers haven’t missed the playoffs since 2013, but they’ve been eliminated in the first round during four of those seven seasons. Most recently, they fell victim to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers — Most notably because they never had an answer for LeBron James. That’s not something to be ashamed of as only a handful of players have ever effectively negated James’ talents on a basketball court. However, Covington can certainly make an opponent of that caliber as uncomfortable as humanly possible during the process.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ franchise is no stranger to enforcers (physically brutish players who stand up for their teammates and aren’t afraid to do the dirty work on the court). Once dubbed the Jail Blazers, Portland knows it needs players who are mentally and physically tough to make an impact in the postseason. Covington isn’t an enforcer in the traditional sense, but he provides many of the intangible skills that an enforcer would as the team’s de facto leader on defense.
When push comes to shove, these are the kinds of players that separate pretenders from contenders. Building a championship team in Rip City feels all the more attainable with a transformative defender like Covington added to the mix.