Our exit interview series of the 2023 Clippers moves along with a look at the most underutilized Clipper of the season, Robert Covington.
Weight: 210 pounds
Position: Power Forward/Center
Years in NBA: 10
Key Regular Season Stats: 6.0 points, 1.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, and 0.7 turnovers in 16.2 minutes per game across 48 games played (zero starts) on 44.5/39.7/75.0 (2.8 3PA and 0.8 FTA attempts) shooting splits (58.4% True Shooting)
Postseason Stats: 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, and 0 points (0-3 shooting) in 12 minutes across two games played
Everyone knew that the quarter-season Robert Covington had in 2022 for the Clippers could not be replicated in 2023 from a shooting standpoint, but there was great optimism that the rest of it could be. Robert Covington has always brought elite off-ball and help defense, solid rebounding, and high-volume three-point shooting while hitting at least an acceptable rate, which combines to make for a very effective role player. There was no real reason to think Robert Covington couldn’t continue offering those things to the 2023 Clippers.
From a roster perspective, there was some worry that Robert Covington would be squeezed for minutes alongside the Clippers’ two longer-tenured veteran forwards, Marcus Morris and Nic Batum. But the thought was that RoCo would serve as the Clippers’ backup center (as they didn’t roster a traditional backup big man), and that the age of all three forwards plus the load management of other players such as Kawhi Leonard would result in a good allocation of minutes for all guys. The logjam seemed to be more at guard rather than forward, especially with Moses Brown as the only other “true center” on the roster behind Ivica Zubac.
Things did not go according to plan. Robert Covington did start off as the backup center for the 2023 Clippers, and did well enough in an individual perspective in that role to start the season. The Clippers, as a whole, however, were not playing well, especially on offense. Then, in the sixth game of the season, Robert Covington was put into health and safety protocols, missing four games. The Clippers went 3-1 in his absence (albeit against the Rockets twice and Spurs once), and Terance Mann played very well as the backup power forward. Thus, RoCo abruptly found himself out of the rotation, and played minimal minutes or received Did Not Play, Coaches Decision (DNP-CD) marks for most of November.
At the end of November, with the Clippers wallowing in mediocrity and dealing other injuries, RoCo was put back into the rotation, and again, while his individual play was fine, in an eight game stretch where he received real rotation minutes in six, the Clippers went 3-5, with two of the wins coming in games he didn’t play. And thus, RoCo exited the rotation once more for most of December.
Finally, in early January, with the Clippers struggling mightily, Ty Lue shook up the rotation, moving Terance Mann back to the starting unit and RoCo back into the lineup. RoCo played in 10 of 11 games between January 6 and January 26, including nine straight, and was quite effective. The Clippers went 6-3 in that stretch, which considering the density and opposition quality was fairly solid. RoCo himself had a positive +/- in nine of those 10 games in which he played.
At that point, the Clippers got healthier, then made moves at the trade deadline, and RoCo faded out of the rotation once more. In fact, Covington would not fully gain a spot back until the tail end of the regular season, when Marcus Morris was mercifully benched after a dismal showing against the Pelicans. RoCo then played in six of the last seven games of the season, and was a massive contributor to maybe the Clippers’ best win of the entire year on the road in Memphis without Kawhi or Paul George.
The playoffs rolled around, and RoCo was once again nowhere to be found. He played less than four minutes in Game 3 in an all-bench unit, recording a rebound, a block, and a missed three. He then played just over eight minutes in Game 4, with two assists, a rebound, and a couple missed threes (and some rough one-on-one defense on a sizzling Kevin Durant). He then ended the season on a DNP-CD, a fitting conclusion.
Unfortunately, Ty Lue’s coaching of Robert Covington for the 2023 Clippers season is one of the most inexplicable of any player in recent Clippers history. Covington, a veteran who had started 460 of the prior 537 NBA games in his career, received zero starts. His 16.2 minutes per game was also by far the lowest since his rookie season in 2014, with his next lowest being his 2022 season where he averaged 27.3. He logged dozens of DNP-CDs, and 15 of his 48 games played he received fewer than 10 minutes. If you discount garbage time, that number would be a bit higher. He played in over 30 minutes in just three games.
Nor was Robert Covington bad in the games he did actually play. On the contrary, his help and off-ball defense remained as good as ever, with a ridiculous 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Despite some streakiness, RoCo also ended the season shooting 39.7% from three. He attempted 8.6 threes per 100 possessions, more than Marcus Morris and just under Nic Batum. RoCo averaged 10.4 rebounds per 100 possessions, 5th most on the team and most of any non-big man, pulling in 1.8 more than Nic Batum and an astonishing 3.5 more than Marcus Morris. Every advanced metric had him as a better player than Morris, and most had him as a more impactful player than Batum.
Taking a wider approach, for his career, there’s really not much an argument that Morris has ever been a better player in any season than Covington (outside of his abbreviated rookie campaign). And, considering the main argument in favor of Morris was “three-point shooting”, Covington had made 1190 threes coming into this season to Morris’ 1140, with percentages being very close as well.
Look, there’s no question that Marcus Morris is a better shot creator than Robert Covington. Robert Covington is also not a particularly good on-ball defender at this point in his career. He’s by no means a perfect player. But Morris was awful at both creation and on-ball defense this year, so even though he was relatively better at shot creation, his doing it hurt the team more than having someone who would have just moved the ball. Covington is a better rebounder and help defender, and equal as a three-point shooter. Funnily enough, Covington actually looked quicker with the ball in his hands attacking closeouts than Morris, getting to the line at a higher rate and having a higher assist percentage with some surprisingly nice dimes.
In the end, do I think playing Robert Covington a lot more would have “saved” this season? No, I don’t. There were much deeper issues to this Clippers’ team than that. However, Robert Covington was a (much) better player than Morris this year, yet played around 40% of the minutes that Morris did. The Clippers never really even attempted to work Covington into their rotation outside of the beginning of the season and a stretch in January, and considering Covington’s pedigree, that’s simply inexcusable. The most glaring indictment on RoCo’s usage this season is that we don’t even know if RoCo would have worked on this particular team with the Clippers’ stars – because he was never really tried.
The Clippers could excuse RoCo’s playing time all they want with “wanting offense” or “wanting shooting”, but the answer is that Ty Lue played favorites with “his guy” in Marcus Morris, and it cost the team wins. For a coach noted for experimentation, Ty Lue did not do so with a player that everyone thought would be a key piece to this team, and there remains no good reason why. To quote Succession: “Alas Ty Lue, alas vanity.”
Bonus Succession quote: me to the 2023 Clippers, “You are not serious people”.
Future with Clippers
It’s hard to imagine Robert Covington being on the Clippers’ roster next season with Ty Lue as the coach and with a mostly unchanged roster. If the Clippers are going to run it back and pick around the edges, trading a player with an expiring contract that other teams will value more than you is a logical move. If the Clippers do try to make big moves, Covington’s contract is a great filler piece to add. Really, the only way RoCo might come back is if the Clippers move both of their other veteran power forwards and/or if Ty Lue is no longer the head coach.
If RoCo is moved, he will probably always be fondly remembered as a Clipper, even if he didn’t log a full season’s worth of games played with the franchise. He’s at a point in the aging curve where relying on him to be a key starter is probably unrealistic, but all the evidence is that he can still help a good team win games. Again, he played so sparingly this season and in such an inconsistent role that we don’t even really know how good he still is. Hopefully he actually gets a chance to play next season, regardless of what team he’s on.