The Houston Rockets’ signing of Robert Covington created one of the NBA’s most versatile defensive duos, so how do they measure up with best in the league?
When the season first began, the Houston Rockets didn’t quite have an identity. The team was always toward the top of the league in various offensive categories and toward the middle or bottom on defense. Behind James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Rockets held their own but still didn’t have a calling card.
Sometimes Mike D’Antoni would have Danuel House in the starting lineup. Other times, Eric Gordon would get the nod. After some injuries, Ben McLemore even got some time as a starting guard. All along, Houston was playing a variation of small ball that was being partially canceled out by the talented, yet tall, Clint Capela.
The result was a jumbled lineup that could do a little bit of everything on both ends but not exceptionally well. The moves Daryl Morey and the Rockets made at the trade deadline, however, changed all of that.
By bringing in Robert Covington, DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green, the Rockets effectively tripled down on small ball and haven’t looked back since. By letting their 6-10 center go for a 6-7, 3-and-D swingman, Houston essentially told the league “this is who we are now.”
While many initially thought Houston would struggle with bigger teams and would have to adjust, it’s been opponents that have been unable to adjust to their swarming defense, brilliant spacing and fiery hot shooting. The Rockets’ versatility at all times has allowed them to thrive in team defense, but still, two defenders stand out from the pack.
P.J. Tucker has always been a defensive powerhouse capable of staying in front of smaller guards while also not allowing bigs to push him around inside. While Tucker has strength and toughness, Robert Covington has demonstrated amazing anticipation, speed and ability to recover on what seem like easy drives past him.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/02/24/0021900853/378/fb04da17-142c-6705-0eaf-7aaa58c1055d_1280x720.mp4
The two have skill sets that go together perfectly for a Rockets team that needs all hands on deck to stop quick guards like Ja Morant as well as big centers like Rudy Gobert. While they’ve only been able to play together for eight games, the promise they show as a duo tells me they could become one of the deadliest defensive duos in the NBA very soon.
Since ultimately basketball is still a team sport, I looked at the top five defensive teams in the NBA when sorted by defensive rating, which were the Clippers, Celtics, Lakers, Raptors and Bucks (sorted from fifth to first). From there, I wanted to get an idea of who the top duos were defensively for each of those teams when it came to their combined defensive rating.
To filter for outliers like Alex Caruso and JaVale McGee having an 82.9 defensive rating (they’ve only played 89 total minutes together), I made the requirement for these purposes that any given duo on these teams must have played at least 700 minutes together this season.
This is more of a statistical breakdown and not necessarily my opinion, however, I can’t argue much with what resulted from the research either way. Here’s how it all shook up:
Next: No. 5
5. LeBron James and Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)
Minutes played together: 1201 Team defensive rating: 106.1 (third in the NBA) Defensive rating together: 102.7
Right away, I had to call a bit of an audible on this one. Technically, Anthony Davis and Avery Bradley are allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions at 101.9 and they’ve played together for 764 minutes, so they fit the required criteria. So if we’re getting technical about it, they’re the best defensively rated duo on the Lakers.
Still, though, it’s quite clear that LeBron James and Davis are the defensive anchors for Los Angeles. With a defensive rating of 102.7, the superstar duo is second when it comes to defensive rating by a duo on the team.
In looking deeper into the numbers, Davis is sixth in the league in defensive box plus-minus at 2.7, which tells us how many defensive points per 100 possessions a given player contributes above the average player. Basically, the higher the number, the better. James is also in the top 25 in that category, coming in at 21st with 1.5.
Anthony Davis is undoubtedly the key to the Lakers having such an effective defense this season, averaging 2.5 blocks per game, which is second in the league to Portland’s Hassan Whiteside. What makes the Brow so deadly for opponents is not only his length but his hustle and athleticism.
In a recent game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Davis demonstrated all three in one play in the fourth quarter.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/02/25/0021900861/655/2db49792-1773-2172-485d-79e6649af54b_1280x720.mp4
In this play, Davis is way behind the action and is still behind the Pelicans’ 3-point line when Jrue Holiday releases a pass to Nicolo Melli, who is just ahead of the free-throw line. Still, Davis is able to crush the ball off the glass to send it the other way.
The ability of LeBron to turn it on defensively combined with Anthony’s superior presence inside makes them statistically a top-five defensive duo in the NBA, but realistically top three.
Next: No. 4
4. Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley (LA Clippers)
Minutes played together: 784 Team defensive rating: 107.1 (fifth in the NBA) Defensive rating together: 101.7
Last season, the LA Clippers were mediocre at best defensively, finishing 13th in defensive rating and tied for 20th in the league in points allowed per game with 111.5. Then came five-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection and two-time NBA champion Kawhi Leonard.
Last year’s NBA Finals MVP didn’t get the nickname The Claw for no reason. Leonard uses his huge wingspan and even bigger hands to wreak havoc defensively and is currently tied for fifth in the league in steals per game at 1.8. I’d go as far as to say if I had one choice of any current player to get one stop in a Game 7 to win the title, I’d go with Kawhi.
Much like Davis from our previous duo, Leonard can seem out of a play but has the length and precision to get right back in it for a steal or block.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/02/24/0021900856/40/37be04b0-eca0-d513-cdb8-b796357dbd2c_1280x720.mp4
Surprisingly, the Clippers are still outside of the top ten in points allowed per game at 109.8 (tied for 12th), however, their defensive rating of 107 has them at fifth in the league. With two All-NBA Defensive Team selections of his own, Pat Bev has established himself as Mr. 94 Feet because of his relentlessness in pursuing the basketball.
Patrick Beverley is a defensive beast of his own, as fans of the Houston Rockets know very well. I recently crowned Beverley as the most intense player in the NBA and 100 percent of that goes into his defensive efforts on the floor every night.
With Paul George also joining the Clippers this past offseason, they definitely have the best defensive trio on paper that the league has seen in years.
Next: No. 3
3. Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol (Toronto Raptors)
Minutes played together: 854 Team defensive rating: 104.7 (second in the NBA) Defensive rating together: 100.4
Usually, when a team that won it all one year loses two starters, they’re expected to struggle the next season. That’s even more likely when one of those players is one of the best players in the world and basically single-handedly won the title for the team.
Well, the Toronto Raptors apparently never received that memo. Despite losing an elite defender in Kawhi Leonard and another very solid defender in Danny Green, somehow the Toronto Raptors are still one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Thanks to the efforts of guys like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol, Toronto is the only team in the league that’s in the top five in 3-point defense, field goal defense and paint defense. That’s quite a testament to Nick Nurse’s system as well as how well the team as a whole operates on that end of the floor.
With a defensive rating of 100.4, the big man duo of Siakam and Gasol is the best on the Raptors, and they also boast the second-best net rating on the team of 11.2 (only beaten by Gasol and OG Anunoby at 11.9).
Siakam has been the anchor for Toronto on both ends of the floor, emerging from a good player last season to a great one in 2019-20. Last season, he had 52 total blocks in 80 games played. This year, he’s already at 44 with 24 games left for the Raptors. On top of that, he’s also 12th in the league in defensive win shares, currently tied with LeBron James.
Meanwhile, the 6-11 veteran center, Marc Gasol, continues to be a powerful force inside in his 12th year in the league. What the 35-year-old might be lacking in speed and agility, he makes up for in basketball IQ and positioning.
The Raptors have been one of the most surprising teams in the NBA all season, and they have tremendous defense from their big men to thank for that.
Next: No. 2
2. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)
Minutes played together: 783 Team defensive rating: 106.5 (fourth in the NBA) Defensive rating together: 99.3
In another surprising result, it’s Gordon Hayward that forms the best defensive duo with Marcus Smart for the Boston Celtics, at least when it comes to points allowed per 100 possessions. In reality, it’s likely Jayson Tatum and Smart that form the team’s best pair of defenders, and their rating is not far behind at 101.6.
Still, having a defensive rating below 100 as a pair this late in the season is impressive, so there has to be something there. Hayward is also involved in the duo with the best net rating on the team, as he and Tatum have a rating of 13.8.
While Gordon isn’t having a career year when it comes to steals or blocks, he’s clearly making his presence known on both ends of the floor for the C’s. For whatever reason, the 11-year forward is most effective when he shares the court with Marcus Smart, who’s establishing himself as one of the best defending guards in the NBA.
In his fifth season with the Celtics last season, Smart earned his first NBA All-Defensive Team selection, making the first team alongside frequent selections like Rudy Gobert. Marcus has been a solid defender since entering the league but has found another gear in recent years that makes him even more dangerous.
Marcus Smart is involved in the top three pairs of Celtics when it comes to defensive rating, and that’s not a coincidence. Look for Smart to make another appearance when the NBA All-Defensive Teams are announced again at the end of the season.
Next: No. 1
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe (Milwaukee Bucks)
Minutes played together: 947 Team defensive rating: 102.0 (first in the NBA) Defensive rating together: 94.8
While Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t exactly in the good graces of Rockets fans everywhere right now, there’s simply no denying the impact he has on the defensive end for the Milwaukee Bucks. Following my defensive rating criteria, the Greek Freak is involved in the top four defensive duos on the team, and all of them have a rating of 96.4 or lower.
The Bucks have easily been the best defensive team in the league all season, anchored by the duo of Giannis and Eric Bledsoe. One mindblowing statistic that shows just how dominant Milwaukee’s defense has been this season can be found when you look at the best rim defenders in the league.
When it comes to defensive field goal percentage allowed, the top three in the league are all members of the Bucks:
– Giannis Antetokounmpo – 41.9 percent – Brook Lopez – 46 percent – Robin Lopez – 46.4 percent
Zach Kram of The Ringer even published an article recently asking if Milwaukee is currently in the middle of the best defensive season in NBA history.
Eric Bledsoe is another vital cog in the Bucks’ defensive scheme. He and Giannis both were selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team last season, which was Bledsoe’s first such honor. At 6-1, Bledsoe can hold his own inside against bigger guards and plays position defense exceptionally well.
The playoffs have always been a different animal for the Bucks, but as a team that’s now on pace for 70 wins, this seems like the year they could be coming out of the Eastern Conference.
Next: How RoCo and P.J. Measure up
Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker
Minutes played together: 201 Team defensive rating: 109.8 (15th in the NBA) Defensive rating together: 102.8
Obviously, it’s way too early to be able to tell just how well the duo of P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington work together defensively on the court. They’ve only played 201 minutes together due to RoCo joining the team just weeks ago.
Still, the promise they’ve shown just judging from the eyeball test is hard to ignore. Tucker, as we’ve mentioned time and time again, brings a defensive toughness and grittiness that’s impossible to replicate. At 6-5, he falters to absolutely nobody in the paint while also pestering the smaller, quicker guards in the league.
Robert Covington, the guy Houston had on their radar for quite a while, has proven in just eight games that he’s belonged on the Rockets all along. The seventh-year swingman has been absolutely destroying on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 2.6 blocks per game in his appearances so far.
Covington has shown nearly perfect defensive instincts so far with the team, often getting his blocks off of help defense, which is crucial when it comes to the small-ball approach Houston is now going with.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/02/26/0021900870/69/33b09209-bbd1-ea2f-e785-580fed26adc2_1280x720.mp4
Together, the duo of Tucker and Covington currently have a defensive rating of 102.8, which is virtually the same as number five on this list, Lebron and Anthony Davis.
As the Rockets continue to work on their defensive schemes and any potential weak points, I fully expect Tucker and RoCo to be an underrated defensive pair that wreaks havoc once the playoffs come around.