Bulls

Could Robert Covington, Bulls be a trade match?

Bulls

Twenty-seven games into the 2021-22 season, the Chicago Bulls are 17-10 – the franchise’s best start since 2014-15, and, as of this writing, a record that has them second in the Eastern Conference.

Could that further motivate a front office that has proved its boldness on multiple occasions to act again in the interest of cementing their contender status?

Time will tell, but rumorous winds have already begun howling across the league. In one development that surely piqued the interest of Bulls fans, Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer recently reported that the Portland Trail Blazers "have Jusuf Nurkić and Robert Covington available” in trade talks and are gauging interest in them around the league.

Given their need at the power forward spot, could Covington’s availability pique the interest of the Bulls as well? 

Let’s examine:

Why Covington fits

The Bulls’ need for frontcourt help, particularly at power forward, was apparent before Patrick Williams went under the knife to repair torn ligaments in his left wrist. With Williams now expected to miss most, if not all, of the remainder of his second NBA season, that need has become an essentiality.

Covington fits the bill – at least positionally. Since being traded from the 76ers to the Timberwolves during the 2018-19 season, he has transitioned full-time to power forward during stints in Minnesota, Houston (where he also played some uber-small center) and now Portland, becoming a “3-and-D” poster child in the process.

 

In fact, let’s break that label (which denotes a player who primarily focuses on shooting 3-pointers and defending) down.

Covington has always been a bit overrated as an individual defender; even at his height, he was no on-ball stopper. But as a helper and off-ball disruptor, he would fit the Bulls’ aggressive defensive style, which is producing 14.6 deflections per game (12th in the NBA), 7.8 steals per game (12th) and turnovers on 15.2 percent of opponent’s possessions (10th). His 7-foot-2 wingspan and preternatural instincts made him one of the more impactful off-ball defenders in the league in his prime.

Robert Covington ranks – Steals and Deflections per game

 

Steals per game (NBA rank)

Deflections per game (NBA rank)

2016-17

1.9 (4th)

4.2 (1st)

2017-18

1.7 (9th)

3.9 (1st)

2018-19

2.1 (n/a*)

3.7 (2nd)

2019-20

1.6 (10th)

3.4 (8th)

2020-21

1.4 (14th)

3.6 (2nd)

2021-22

1.1 (44th)

2.9 (14th)

Covington has also been a plus rebounder and exceptional rim protector for a forward throughout his career — both traits the undersized Bulls could use — and standing 6-foot-7, would immediately become the team’s third-tallest regular rotation player behind Nikola Vučević and Tony Bradley (Alize Johnson at 6-8 and Marko Simonović at 6-11 qualify among deeper reserves).

While no elite 3-point marksman, Covington is also a career 35.8 percent 3-point shooter that takes the vast majority of his shots from that distance, and, even in a down season, is shooting 34.4 percent from deep on 4.6 attempts per game (44-for-128 total) in 2021-22. Those 128 3s hoisted make up 73.1 percent of his total field-goal attempts. He is who he is.

But the Bulls' power forwards are what they are from a shooting perspective, as well, and Covington would provide more spacing from that spot than the internal options currently at the team’s disposal.

Javonte Green, who has started for the Bulls at power forward since Williams’ injury, is shooting 38.5 percent from distance this season, but on only 26 total attempts (1.1 per game). Derrick Jones Jr., meanwhile, is at 32 percent on 25 attempts (1.1 per game). And while DeMar DeRozan (33.3 percent, 2.6 attempts) and Alex Caruso (34.7 percent, 3.8 attempts) have spent time at power forward, Covington provides a tad more volume for a group that ranks 29th in the league in 3-point attempts per game.

Is Covington attainable?

Well, according to Fischer, the Trail Blazers are open to moving him. So the possibility is out there.

Working in favor of a relatively asset-depleted team in the Bulls, too, is Covington enduring to this point his worst statistical season of his career. 

Excluding the seven games he appeared in for the Rockets in 2013-14, Covington’s averages of 27.4 minutes, 6.5 points, 6.3 field-goal attempts and 1.1 steals all represent career lows. His field-goal percentage of 38.9 is decimal points away from the same, and before Portland’s Dec. 12 game against the Timberwolves, Chauncey Billups pulled Covington from the starting lineup in favor of Larry Nance Jr. 

Covington has averaged 35 minutes in the two games since that demotion, and tallied five steals and four blocks against Minnesota. But considering he turned 31 on Dec. 14, it’s reasonable to wonder if his career is on the downslope.

 

That makes him more of a buy-low – and potential change-of-scenery – candidate than one of the pie-in-the-sky variety. Still, there is potential for him to be helpful, especially if energized by a new team in a contending situation, and he profiles as gettable.

Building the package

Covington is in the final year of a reasonable contract, another appealing aspect of him as a trade candidate. Spotrac pegs his salary as $12,975,471 for the 2021-22 season, meaning a package structured around Coby White ($5.8 million) and Troy Brown Jr. ($5.1 million) would work financially.

White’s trade value is nebulous at best, but he could appeal to Portland in a rebuild or retool scenario; and while it may sting the Bulls to ship him out at a low point for a risky rental, the team is short on matchable salaries, especially considering Derrick Jones Jr. ($9.7 million) can't be reacquired by Portland after they traded him to the Bulls in August. Using the $5 million trade exception generated by this offseason's Daniel Theis sign-and-trade could allow for one of those two players to be left out, but, barring an additional move, taking on that salary without fully offsetting it would likely push the Bulls over the luxury-tax line.

Should the Trail Blazers require draft capital to part with Covington, the Bulls would be limited there as well. Because of future protected picks owed to the Magic (2023) and Spurs (two years after the Orlando pick conveys), the Bulls are not able to send out a future first of their own – though they could send Portland back the lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick that changed hands in the Lauri Markkanen sign-and-trade. That pick remains owed to the Bulls as a lottery-protected first every year until 2028, or until it conveys.

That's not to say the Trail Blazers would automatically consider some combination of the above assets worthy of Covington. But it's what the Bulls have to offer.

December 15 marked the unofficial opening of the NBA’s trade season, but we remain nearly two months from the league’s Feb. 10 deadline. Surely the Bulls have countless contingencies in the chamber, but Covington represents a realistic option that could potentially bolster their frontcourt.

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