Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr.’s Hidden Impact: Defense
Just two seasons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers fought their way to the Western Conference Finals with Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu as their starting wings. Harkless and Aminu were a decent defensive tandem during the regular season, however they both lacked reliable offensive games, which hurt the team come playoff time, when they faced more sophisticated defensive schemes in the latter rounds of the playoffs and Lillard and McCollum couldn’t continue to carry the offense. Ahead of last season, Portland let the pair walk, and their perimeter defense suffered the consequences, finishing the season ranked 24th in “wide-open” (no defender within 6-feet) 3-point shots conceded, which led to them giving up the second-highest opponent 3-point shooting percentage in the league – which shows that they weren’t necessarily conceding the “right” 3-pointers either à la Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks (a great read if you have the time).
This offseason, Olshey clearly made wing defense a priority – as evidenced by him giving up Trevor Ariza and two first-round picks to Houston for Robert Covington, as well as spending the entire mid-level exception on Derrick Jones Jr., inking “Airplane Mode Jones” to a 2-year/$19 million deal. Though both players took a little time to adjust to their new environment, in the minutes that they’ve shared the court this season, the Blazers defense rating has improved by a healthy 6 points per 100 possessions per cleaning the glass. Teams are shooting less frequently and less accurately from three-point range in these minutes, and the athleticism and defensive instincts from Covington and Jones Jr. are a huge reason why. Covington is currently tied for 4th in the NBA in steals per game, averaging just under 2 a game. His defense continues to pass the eye test as he finds ways to affect a high percentage of defensive possessions without fouling. Though we do have to be wary of the fact that we’re barely over a third of the way through the season and we’re looking at small sample sizes here, the defense from the Blazers new starting wings has started to look encouraging, which is a welcome sight for the Blazer’s and their 28th ranked defense.
Speaking of Covington, I have to highlight an interesting statistic from Ben Falk’s website, cleaningtheglass.com, called efficiency differential, which is basically a more sophisticated plus/minus number (more on efficiency differential here). I ranked all players who have played at least 400 minutes this season by their efficiency differential’s and was ecstatic to see Robert Covington 7th (right between Kawhi Leonard and Seth Curry) with an efficiency differential of +16.9 in over 700 minutes of action on the season. To be clear, this number is not just a reflection of Covington’s play but also the players on the floor with him when he’s on the court, meaning he largely has Damian Lillard to thank for his offensive efficiency rating being so high (RoCo is only averaging 7.5 points per game yet has +12.6 offensive efficiency rating thanks to Dame’s offensive firepower). Still, there’s generally a positive correlation between a player’s value to their team and their efficiency differential, making Covington an exciting player to watch as the season progresses.