Robert Covington trade grades: Trail Blazers add defensive star; Rockets signal more to come?

The Trail Blazers got better defensively late Monday, and the Rockets might’ve signaled the beginning of the end.

As of Tuesday morning, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are still members of the Rockets. But Houston’s reported trading away of Robert Covington to Portland could be a sign that the Rockets’ window of contention is closing quickly. Trevor Ariza and two first-round picks moved back to Houston in the deal, which at least ensures that there’s something in the cupboard if everything soon gets blown up. 

Portland makes a move to go all-in on supporting its superstar backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. After “Dame Time” temporarily took over the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, the Blazers have added one of the league’s top complementary pieces in the hopes of keeping up with the best teams out West.

Here are the reported details of the trade and a breakdown of the short- and long-term ramifications for each side.

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Robert Covington trade grades

Trail Blazers: A

The Trail Blazers of recent vintage have never inspired doubts about their ability to get buckets. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have a strong case as the best offensive backcourt in the NBA. Jusuf Nurkic looks to be the long-term answer at center as long as he can stay healthy, and he too is a highly skilled offensive player. It’s on the defensive end of the floor where Portland’s biggest question marks have always been.

The Blazers have tried over the years to bring in lanky wing players to overcome Lillard and McCollum’s defensive deficiencies, including Ariza and guys such as Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. But when you play two guards nearly 40 minutes per game and neither is especially good at defense, that makes it tough to reach a title-level ceiling.

Enter Covington. He’s got two years left on his contract for an affordable $25 million, and he’s one of the league’s best defenders. At 6-7, Covington can line up across from nearly any perimeter player and hold his own. He even played small-ball interior roles for the Rockets in 2020. Both on the ball and away from the ball, Covington is a strong, athletic, intelligent defender who instantly makes Portland better.

Covington’s active hands showed up in a big way after joining Houston, as he blocked 2.2 shots per game and stole the ball 1.6 times per contest. Offensively, Covington doesn’t need the ball in his hands very much to be effective, which is crucial for role players in Portland’s guard-dominant offense. Covington shot relatively poorly from deep in 2019-20, but at his peak he’s been between 37 and 38 percent from 3-point land in his pro career. 

This ends up being a low-risk trade for the Blazers. They get a proven defensive stalwart to improve their active roster, and they give up a pick not likely to grab anything better than a worse role player than Covington. If Portland has designs on winning the Western Conference, there are a few big-name forwards who’ll need to be slowed down, and Covington is the guy to do that.

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Rockets: C-

Ariza might’ve been a good acquisition half a decade ago when Houston picked him up for the first time, but now he signals something else entirely: The Rockets are staring a rebuild right in the face. 

This deal isn’t about Ariza at all. He matches salary with Covington, and he’s still a half-useful wing defender if the Rockets don’t blow things up. But with Russell Westbrook and James Harden involved in trade rumors left and right, trading away Covington likely signals Houston’s awareness that its core won’t be together for much longer.

The 16th pick in this draft isn’t likely to return a player as good as Covington, but how Houston uses it could be telling. If the Rockets pick a player with a relatively high floor, such as Isaiah Stewart or Desmond Bane, they might still be looking at contending in 2020. But if they go the high-risk, high-upside route at 16 with someone such as R.J. Hampton or Aleksej Pokusevski, it’s just one more signal that Houston knows more change is coming. 

The protections on that 2021 pick could be key to the long-term outlook of this trade, too. If it’s heavily protected and bounces out another year, it’s got a better chance to be a high pick for the Rockets than it does in 2020-21, when the Blazers would possibly line up to pick outside the top 20.

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