The Philadelphia 76ers signed Robert Covington in November 2014, calling him up from the Grand Rapids Drive just before the D-League team's season opener. Philadelphia was nine games into its season, and it had lost every single one of them. It lost eight more before its first win with the 23-year-old Covington on the roster, but he needed little time to make an impression as a spot-up shooter. Over time, he became one of the league's best perimeter defenders and one of the poster boys of The Process. Covington outlasted the 24 other players who suited up for the Sixers that season until he was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Jimmy Butler deal early last season.
If Covington were to return to Philadelphia, the whole city would get the warm and fuzzies. And it seems like a possibility: The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania are merely the latest to report that Philadelphia has expressed interest in a reunion. My colleague Brad Botkin wrote last week that adding Covington would help the Sixers' spacing, even though he was having a poor shooting season by his standards before the new year.
The beauty of Covington's game is that he can fit on any team. He doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective, and in the words of Richard Jefferson, being able to switch on defense is coaches' porn.
"He's a 3-and-D specialist; in a way, something every team looks for," Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said in October, unintentionally foreshadowing recent trade rumors.
Unlike the Process days, Philadelphia ranks 24th in 3-point frequency, per Cleaning The Glass. Covington, who has an affinity for 30-footers, would surely nudge that number upward. The Sixers are already scary on defense when engaged; adding the king of deflections is almost unfair. Despite this, though, he is not necessarily the missing piece.
As nice of a story as it would be, a Covington trade would not solve Philadelphia's main problem: Its offense has hovered around league-average all season, as Brett Brown's coaching staff has had to work around a glaring lack of perimeter creators. In this free-flowing era, the Sixers' system stands out as clunky and disjointed, even with Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson doing what they're supposed to do.
Philly's foibles have been predictable. Richardson is not on Butler's level off the dribble, and when it traded Landry Shamet in the Harris deal, it lost its successor to JJ Redick, whose dribble-handoffs with Joel Embiid functioned like high pick-and-rolls. The Sixers have to cobble together points with their best players in imperfect roles, and if they don't find someone who can simplify things, they could have serious issues against elite defensive teams in the playoffs. Of Covington's many wonderful attributes, this is not one of them.
When Philadelphia traded Covington, part of the rationale was that the team needed someone like Butler to make plays when its system wasn't running smoothly. In the second round of the 2018 playoffs, Covington struggled in four out of five games against the Boston Celtics, who tried to run him off the 3-point line and liberally switched point guard Terry Rozier onto him. Boston took the series 4-1 largely because it exposed the Sixers' poor individual playmaking.
If Covington were to return, he would do so as a slightly improved driver. The environment would be different, too, with Harris and Richardson in place of Redick and Dario Saric. But he would essentially be another, more proven version of rookie Matisse Thybulle, rather than a transformative piece. His presence would not meaningfully ease the offensive burden on Harris and Richardson, which is the concern that Philadelphia should be trying to address before the trade deadline.
Covington would help the Sixers because he would help anybody. He just wouldn't fix them.